The Secret to Successful Urban Housing 

by Sheena Mayfield, AIA, NCARB

Urban life extends far beyond the physical boundaries of a city; it’s shaped by the intangible occurrences that make a place one-of-a-kind. Inside these urban scenes, housing is not just a physical necessity; it also contributes significantly to a community’s identity. 

Successful urban housing requires a holistic, inclusive approach to redesigning neighborhoods to be vibrant communities that provide a sense of belonging for all residents. Too often, urban planning concepts are superimposed onto existing neighborhoods without the involvement of community members or consideration for necessary social and economic infrastructure. A community’s unique sense of place is threatened when those essential resources are forgotten. Sometimes, existing residents are forced to make a difficult choice: stay in a neighborhood that doesn’t suit their needs or leave. 

So, what’s the secret to designing housing developments that foster a sense of place and contribute to the larger social fabric? Easy. Craft vibrant communities, not just buildings.

Here’s how.

Jackson Place Conceptual Rendering

Invest in Social Capital & Infrastructure

One of the major appeals of city life is that the concept of “home” extends to encompass the surrounding streets and the neighborhood as a whole. The spaces and places that surround urban homes are all part of its distinctive community. Just think: how might your lifestyle change if your living room was in Miami, Florida vs. Portland, Oregon? Presumably, it would alter the way you interacted with that space.

However, it’s difficult to identify exactly what makes a community distinctive, which is why they’re often best described, as the saying goes, “you know it when you see it.” But there’s no doubt that the symbiotic relationship between the built environment and inhabitants contributes to that certain je ne sais quoi.

Social infrastructure includes publicly owned amenities such as libraries, parks, transit centers, and schools, ideally accessible to all, regardless of their financial means. Effective urban planning prioritizes a vibrant public realm centered around those public spaces and the pedestrian experience that connects them.

Organizations and businesses, such as markets, coffee shops, pharmacies, churches, barber shops, and gyms, also play a role in creating a sense of place. These spaces, both public and private, are known as “third places” and foster a sense of community outside of home (“first places”) and work (“second places”). These spaces are where people come together, building critical connections and reducing social divisions and isolation. 

Navy Hill Public Art Rendering

The design of a community should encourage the development of such social infrastructure. These elements are not always easy to quantify, but they are crucial for creating a strong sense of place and belonging and encouraging residents to stay and develop meaningful relationships. 

Promoting Community Health

While the immediate physical safety of residents must be a crucial consideration of any successful urban housing development, providing an environment that safeguards their long-term health and wellbeing is equally important. Engaging the community early to help identify specific situational safety or wellbeing concerns not only sets a collaborative tone but centers the neighborhood’s unique fabric as a foundational aspect of the design. In a world where studies have shown a correlation between high-poverty communities and an increase in violent crimes, how does design help to solve for access to healthcare and basic services, healthy food, and economic opportunity?

With development comes change, and the potential for existing residents to feel unsettled and displaced. Beyond mental health and physical safety, the emotional safety of residents is also paramount. The act of replacing existing conditions with a new environment has the potential to make people feel less secure than they would in a more familiar setting. 

The Planet Apartments alongside the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, built 1887

To mitigate this concern, identifying and incorporating recognizable neighborhood architectural characteristics into the housing design can help create a reassuring sense of familiarity.

Increase Thoughtful Accessibility

New urban housing developments aren’t successful in isolation; they must be located to allow access to the critical social infrastructure noted above, as well as employment options, healthcare services, child-care, and other social facilities. Accessibility goes beyond mere connectivity; it embodies the concept of being easily understandable, obtainable, and usable. To achieve this, design teams must consider the principles of both connectivity and universal design. They must ask: how does the design reinforce people-centric patterns of movement, including how pedestrian traffic intersects with existing structures, bicycles, vehicular traffic, and the streetscape as a whole? Does the concept consider varying physical, mental, and emotional abilities and needs, over time?

Oak Grove Rendering

An Urban Renaissance

Even with thoughtful planning and intentional design that embraces the tangible elements of placemaking, a new development may not be successful. That’s because successful housing is fundamentally about successful communities, and successful communities are born of many intangible qualities. To design better communities, architects and urban planners must prioritize the wellbeing of residents, promote social capital and infrastructure, and implement accessible design practices. By embracing these principles, we can help to transform distressed urban landscapes into vibrant, inclusive, and resilient places. Places that not only contribute positively to the larger urban fabric, but neighborhoods people choose to call home. 


With a practical and creative approach to design, Sheena’s ideology seeks to marry a project’s surrounding historic context with progressive techniques and materials. She has 10+ years of experience in design education from mentoring high school students to adjunct teaching at VCU. Her multifaceted skill set extends far beyond architecture, encompassing construction, furniture design, photography (both analog and digital), graphic design, finish carpentry, and welding. Her mantra is clear: if it can be crafted by hand, she can conceptualize it and master its creation.


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