Student Research: Developers as Community Builders

In her MCP thesis, "The Commodification of Community in Residential Real Estate: The Developer as Community-Builder for Generation Y," April Ognibene (MCP 2016) explored the phenomenon of "community-oriented" development in Millennial-friendly NoMA and H Street neighborhoods of our nation's capital.

As the Millennial generation flocks to urban neighborhoods, large apartment developers are developing new residential models that offer "community-oriented" living, externalizing some the features traditionally limited to private homes (e.g., communal kitchens, group party spaces, even shared pets) while simultaneously internalizing functions traditionally provided by the surrounding neighborhood (e.g., work, fitness, and entertainment).  As a result, beyond merely offering another line of housing products for urban residents, these new approaches may be reshaping the social fabric of urban neighborhoods.

To explore the emergence of this phenomenon and the effects it may have on urban planning and community development efforts, I studied a sample of eleven apartments developments built in the last five years in the NoMA and H Street neighborhoods of Washington, DC.  Data was collected from interviews with developers, property managers, architects, and brokers, as well as property tours and property websites. 

Situating this analysis within a framework of common tensions described in the fields of urban sociology and community studies, as well as John Freie's critique of gated suburban communities, the study finds that developers frequently establish collective identity through strong branding; pursue social interaction through spaces modeled after retailers (e.g., Starbucks); and cater community to prospective rather than existing residents.

Externally, developers build limited connection to surrounding neighborhoods through sponsored events, and surrounding areas are often mentioned -- yet misrepresented – in marketing. While these new residential models may represent an evolution in the role of private developers as community-builders in urban neighborhoods, the analysis notes that many of these same tactics are already commonplace in suburban-gated communities, where they do not necessarily deliver the benefits associated with strong communities from a sociological perspective. Planners pursuing these community benefits should be aware of how developer efforts shape residents’ expectations for community and engagement with the surrounding area.

Ezra Haber Glenn served as April's advisor on this thesis.  To learn more about other DUSP student research, see