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Home and Place Podcast: creating cross-discipline conversations about aging and the importance of place.


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In celebration of the 50th anniversary, Nichole (host) will be recording podcast episodes at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference this year! This is a way for researchers to share their work with a broader audience.

Social Score: How community design can foster social connection

Season 2, Episode 5

Jennifer Ierymenko is the founder of Social Score, a nonprofit organization that educates the general public about the importance of social connection and the role of the built environment in forming social ties. Social Score also supports building practices and policies that promote social connection.

Jennifer developed the Social Score guidelines and inventory tool while completing a Bachelor of Design Studies program from the Boston Architectural College and was honored to receive a Commendation of Excellence for this work.

She continues to engage with students, industry professionals, and the general public to facilitate putting these concepts into practice through speaking engagements, educational programs, and community development programs.

Social Score Introduction


About your host

Nichole Kain, OTR/L, MA, CAPS

About your host: Nichole Kain is an independent researcher and consultant focused on age-friendly community planning, residential universal design, and person-centered analysis of the built environment. Her work is based in solid research and guided by a deep appreciation for the power of place and importance of personal choice. 

Nichole is the founder of Home and Place Project. With an educational background in occupational therapy, environmental gerontology, community planning, and training as a certified aging in place specialist, she helps decision makers create homes and places that promote intergenerational wellness.

To connect, collaborate, or just learn more about Nichole and her work, please visit: www.homeandplaceproject.com 

Want to be social? You can also find Nichole on InstagramFacebook, and LinkedIn

Written Transcript

Suggested citation:

Kain, N. (Host) & Ierymenko, J. (Guest). (2019, April 29). Social Score: How community design can foster social connections [audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.homeandplaceproject.com/podcast/2019/4/29/social-score-how-community-design-can-foster-social-connection

[upbeat banjo music]

Intro by Nichole

Hi, I’m your host Nichole Kain and you’re listening to the Home and Place Podcast where I translate theory to practice and create cross-discipline conversations about aging and the importance of place.

I’m so glad you’re here.

Today I’m talking with Jennifer Ierymenko.

Jennifer is the founder of Social Score (www.socialscore.org), a nonprofit organization that educates the general public about the importance of social connection and the role of the built environment in forming social ties. Social Score also supports building practices and policies that promote social connection.

Jennifer developed the Social Score guidelines and inventory tool while completing a Bachelor of Design Studies program from the Boston Architectural College and was honored to receive a Commendation of Excellence for this work.

She continues to engage with students, industry professionals, and the general public to facilitate putting these concepts into practice through speaking engagements, educational programs, and community development programs. Visit socialscore.org to learn more….now, onto my interview with Jennifer Ierymenko.

[end music]

Nichole: Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast I am incredibly excited to be having this conversation with you!

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Nichole. I’m really happy to be here!

Nichole: I would love to start out with your journey. I'm very curious how you got interested in this topic.

Jennifer: I was attending the Boston Architectural College, and it was time for our degree project. The assignment was to ‘dig deep’ and find what's most important to you in life and what brings you the most joy and happiness in life and apply that to architecture in some way. So, I thought about it and thought about it. I realized the most important thing for me are the relationships in my life; my friends, my family. That's what really fuels me and brings me the most joy. My goodness, does that really have anything to do with architecture? How in the world could this possibly relate?

So I started digging into the literature and was so surprised to learn that we actually have over 60 years of research showing that how a place is built can impact how easily these social ties can form. One study in particular, that was really formative, blew my mind because it showed that people living near stairwells where people walked most frequently had the most friends and the people who were living farthest down the hall were the most spatially isolated had the least friends. It was a direct correlation between how much visible contact they had with other people and how those contacts formed into relationships. It is so incredibly simple, but so often just off the radar for a lot of people. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ve been in design school and working in the field or in all these years and I've never heard of this component, of how powerful the built environment can be.” None of my peers had heard of it, none of my professors. I felt like this was an important thing, to get the word out. So that's why I created Social Score; this is a critical and increasing risk to our physical health.

One of the other things that I saw when digging into the literature, everyone knows that your social ties are important for your happiness. But when I was looking at the literature, I was so surprised to see how powerful they are to your physical health as well.  Most people don't think that it would be better to call a friend and go out for a little while, than it would be to go to the gym. They think it would be much better for you to lose some weight, but the statistics are staggering. It is actually equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, if you are too socially isolated. If you are doing all of these things for your physical health, you can't ignore your social health because it's so powerful. It affects survival rates of breast cancer, it affects so many things to a huge degree. There are so many things that are affected by how isolated a person is. I saw this as a critical risk factor to our overall health and architecture plays a direct role, and most of us don’t know it. So I had to dig it out of literature on my own during my degree project, and I thought I should save people the trouble of having to do that every single time they’re working on a project. Let's make this simple! We've done this for things like environmental considerations about food and water systems. This is just as important of an issue, and so it's time that we have this clear and straightforward way of understanding how the built environment impacts our social ties so that designers, policy makers, and even the general public the (when they’re looking at selecting home) they can be aware of this. About what are the factors that are going to support their physical health and what's going to undermine it.

Nichole: I love this so much. I feel like I'm geeking out completely right now, I’m very excited!

I love, too, what you’ve done. You have this overhead view, seeing all of this literature and all of this work that's been done, and you're pulling it together.

We know that the connections are important to health, wellness, longevity, happiness; and we know that the built environment has a directive effect on our social ties. But how do we design, as built environment professionals, how do we actually designs for that.

And you have some incredible examples. If you wouldn't mind, just give me all the examples!

Jennifer: It is one of the things that drew me to this, because when I was looking through the literature (on most of these studies) authors are referencing the motivation of the study as things like increasing walkability or increasing safety and reducing crime.  all of these things are related to social ties, but the studies were not focusing specifically increasing the social ties in that neighborhood. So I thought someone needs to pull this all together. It's fascinating because so many of the examples that I saw from the literature are very specific things. For example, in order to create a social ties you first need to promote public interaction is basically to get people out of the common areas (of their homes and their cars) and get them to run into each other as frequently as possible. The second goal is to promote recognizability, and then set up the environment so they can have conversations; which is the last stage in creating a space that is hospitable to that.

But some of it so specific; for example, when you're creating seating in these areas make sure that the seating is 8 seat from person to person so there's a a distance of no more than 8 feet between people. Because when you have a distance of greater than 8 feet, subtle nonverbal communications begin to break down. Those are little design decisions that we wouldn’t necessarily recognize, but they do have a cumulative and and powerful impact. What I often see is that they have these big common areas and lobbies, but there is no seating. So people will often just walk straight through instead of lingering in these common areas. Another thing that is very common to see a beautiful common areas that have lawn or something like that, but have (what I call) triangulation. You need to have a magnet, basically you need to have a reason to go into that space in order for it to be compelling for people to go into this environment. So I see a lot of beautiful beautiful lawns, but they don't have a draw to go into that particular environment.

Nichole: You have some amazing pictures in your website (that I'm going to send people to) but paint us a word picture right now. What would be an example of something done really well?

Jennifer: Recently I did an evaluation of a senior living community here in Orange County called Freedom Village. It's a beautiful example because they have clustered so many of these elements in one central central location and it is on a required route as people are going from the main entrance to their individual units. There's a combination of seating, and beautiful lighting, and artwork, and restorative features; things like plants, and comfortable seating, and water features. Those are beautiful, also things like shared mailboxes are located there. So there's a requirement that they have to go to that particular place. There is a hair salon in the lobby as well, along with dining and a game room. So it is a hub of activity that can happen there. There is a great deal of visibility between the areas because of the windows (the internal windows), so it's a great way to start thinking about these factors and how you can combine them. When you do look at the website, instead of thinking of them in isolation think of them as clusters. Imagine how can we maximize these clusters and energize these particular common areas.

Nichole: Another part of your work that I really appreciate is a reimagining what's places can become. The ones that that are coming to mind from your work; and I should say I met Jennifer at EDRA this past year (the Environmental Design Research Association conference) where she had a fantastic presentation and I basically ran up to her after she was done and said, ‘Here’s my card, let’s talk more!’ But in that presentation, she blew my mind with that these reimagined spaces. They were primarily apartment complexes. Could you talk about that? Focusing on apartment complexes, which is going to have people of all generations, how can these spaces try to connect the generations?

Jennifer: That's an excellent question. You’re remembering Crystal Kay, which is a multifamily community (here in Orange County as well). It's a great community and one of the homeowners invited me to come and take a look at one of the areas there that was underutilized. It's just basically a big dirt patch, and they wanted to try and do something more compelling with. As I was walking through, an elderly resident came up to me (and I love that she stopped and chatted with me) and started asking, “What are you doing? You have a clipboard and are taking pictures. What are you doing.” And it was lovely because I was able to get some inside information about what her community is really like. It was fascinating that one of the first things that she said was she is one of the only older residents that goes out and walks every day. She started listing several different people that she knows who are in her age that won’t leave their actual apartment. She said, “I don't know why they don't but they just do, and they don't feel safe. I go out, I do [feel safe].”

I thought it so important because there are residents who really don't leave, and we might not know they're there because we're not knocking on their doors. But they're so profoundly isolated and what we're doing spatially is signaling to them how safe is this place is. Can we go out for a walk in the middle of the afternoon or should we stay behind locked doors?

Things like fences in this particular community there were tall iron fences with points facing out into the common areas; so it looked like prison fencing (is the way that I would have initially thought about). This fencing is just around the community pool, and I was asking my friend who lived there about crime and she said, “No! This is a really affluent neighborhood, I don’t know what’s going on.” Those are the things that (for the people who are making these decisions) don't necessarily notice the impact.

So another excellent example, in a different community where a friend of mine lives. She and her husband are both in their 70s and she was so frustrated with him because he wouldn’t go out. She was attending Zumba and other events, but he wouldn’t really go out. She said he used to leave the garage door open and go downstairs and sit in the driveway and give dog treats to all the dogs that would come around the neighborhood. That was thing that he did and it was great. But then the homeowners association notified him that the garage doors were supposed to be left closed, and so he went back upstairs and stayed indoors. Some people might have said, ‘Oh well, in that case I'll carry a chair downstairs and bring it back up with me’ but it was a barrier that he couldn’t do. I think it's so important to be aware of what we're asking residents to do and how that might impact somebody with limited mobility.  If they're not able to drive then they're less likely to go to these activities, such as Zumba or joining a league of some sort. These might be the most accessible opportunities for connection that some people have.

Nichole: Absolutely! That story makes my blood boil with the HOA; No, HOA, Don’t do that!

So, when designers are thinking about Designers I thinking about spaces, how can they design? What how should they be thinking about and how can they design to increase socialization?

Jennifer: Designers, please go to my website and download the free design guidelines that you can use. It has a few things that you can be aware of, but the big overview is that you need you need to promote public interaction, you need to promote recognizability, and you need to promote conversations. Each of these (I call these the three pillars of Social Score) and so each of these three categories have spatial factors that support a particular goal. So under promoting public interaction you have to provide common areas, and this is basically any area that is not a part of the city or a private residence. It's a place where people can go to get out of their homes and out of their cars where they could meet. We need to prioritize pedestrians, and you need to provide visible boundaries between what is public and what is within the community. As well as what's within the community and what is a private residence. Having those gradients of privacy is very important in promoting a sense of safety. This evidence came from crime prevention studies.

I have to say that this element of recognizability is the weak link. In much of what we're seeing, there is a lot of wonderful public parks but they serve populations that are far too large to promote unintentional meetings that you need an order for a friendships begin to form.

Nichole: I see, so it's not recognizability as a in ‘I recognize this park and this space’ but actually being able to recognize the people we see frequently in the spaces. Is that right?

Jennifer: What an important distinction, thank you for mentioning that. In order for a social tie to move from becoming a stranger to becoming an acquaintance, to becoming in a casual friend -- one study showed that it takes 200 hours of interaction in order to get to a good friend. So this is a tremendous time investment. You need to be able to see these people on a regular basis. Because if you have a great interaction with someone but you never see them again, there's a stranger you had a great conversation with. That's the important thing about promoting recognizability.

In an architectural setting, you promote recognizability by encouraging repeated contact and there are several specific ways you can do that. One example is the common areas should be visible when you're in a residence. For example, when you're within your home you can look out onto the common area but the views to that common area need to be filtered in some way; so it's avoiding a fishbowl effect. There was an excellent examples of this; there was an internal Atrium and the windows face into it but they had these beautiful plantation shutters inside each residence. Residents were using these plantation shutters to indicate how much they were interested in having a friend over. If the shutters were completely closed it meant please don't even knock on the door I’m busy, if the the blinds were just cracked a little bit it meant they were open to having visitors, and if the blinds were completely open it meant we're having a party right now come on inside anybody.  and so that was something that just organically developed as a way to communicate (in a very subtle way) with their neighbors. Those things are brilliant because it gives people control over how much they want to engage. Which is very important thing to do, but it still allows for the possibility that they could when they do want to engage.

Nichole: That’s so fascinating. I feel like that’s something that will develop with time and with that intimacy that the rest of the space has also provided. To have that unspoken language to be understood.

Jennifer: Absolutely.

Nichole: We have just a couple minutes left, I’d love for you to talk about how people can use Social Score. Maybe on their own homes or communities or neighborhoods. I know you mentioned that students are using this.

How they can find you, how they can access social score, and any sort of call to action that you'd like to give for the listeners.

Jennifer: The Social Score Inventory is designed to be able to evaluate a space, and it creates a single numerical score. It really clearly illustrates how likely you are to form social connections in a particular setting. It distills all of this literature into something so approachable that the general public could understand it without needing to have architectural training. When you go to socialscore.org there's a place where you can download the sample inventory and the guidelines. So you can use this inventory as a checklist in pre-design. I'm also using this as a post occupancy evaluation tool. So if you are interested in that, please shoot me an email. I think it's important to collaborate as much as we can and get the word out to the architectural community as well as the general public. I truly believe this is the next wave of preventative healthcare and it's something that we really need to be aware of and focusing on in the future; focusing on as an industry.

Nichole: I completely agree. Thank you, thank you so much for your time today.

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Nichole. It’s been a joy.

[upbeat banjo music]

Exit by Nichole

Thank you for listening to Home and Place Podcast, you can find links to the items we discussed on the website: homeandplacepodcast.com

Subscribe on iTunes so you never miss an episode, while you’re there please rate and review the show. This really does help more people find the podcast.

If you have show ideas, I’d love to hear them! Reach out on my website or social media. I’m on Facebook and Instagram @homeandplace

I’m your host, Nichole Kain, founder of Home and Place Project -- I’m an independent researcher and consultant, focused on age-friendly community planning, residential universal design, and person-centered analysis of the built environment.

To connect, collaborate, or just find out more about me and my work, visit my website: homeandplaceproject.com

Special thanks to the Audio Information Network of Colorado for broadcasting this episode to their radio listeners. Learn more about them at aincolorado.org

And finally, thank you to Delia of Northfield, MN for composing and performing this original music. Take us home, Delia!

Nichole Kain