You're gathered with a few of your neighbors on the front porch. You swap stories, share drinks, and enjoy the occasional sidewalk conversation as other neighbors walk by. These are the friendships formed through the magic of serendipity that arises from sharing space and welcoming openness in a community. What's described above, however, doesn't have to be confined to the front porch typically associated with single-family living. Rather, such social spaces can be designed to fill the hallways and breezeways of multifamily communities, as well.

Encouraging residents to take ownership of public spaces and personalize these areas is a new approach to the way we conceptualize a multifamily building. Just as keeping one's office door open can convey that staff are welcome, personalizing public spaces near one's unit can signal an invitation to be social.

A welcoming public space opens the door for neighbors to start a conversation as they walk by—which isn't how most apartment settings operate currently. Instead, most apartment hallways tend to be empty, sterile spaces used for nothing more than hurrying from the elevator to the unit, often with one's eyes down.

It's time to ask what more these spaces can offer. Can the simple gesture of allowing residents to personalize hallways and other public spaces in a building help foster community?

Loneliness and isolation have become chronic in our society, despite our attempts to be connected technologically. We're increasingly living alone and spending less time interacting with others. This has resulted in 40% of American adults admitting they're lonely, according to the study Loneliness in Adults, by AARP. And 25% of Americans say they have no one to discuss personal issues with, according to a Duke University paper.

Most importantly, The New York Times cites, numerous studies have found that loneliness erodes our health, leading to issues with our sleep, immune systems, inflammation, stress hormones, and even life expectancy. In fact, the newspaper notes, some studies place loneliness on the same tier as obesity and smoking when it comes to increasing the risk of premature death.

Knowing and creating a healthy relationship with neighbors creates a huge advantage in resiliency. During natural disasters and other hardships, neighbors can share supplies, resources, and emotional support, which helps keep everyone safer. Moreover, after Hurricane Sandy, neighborhoods with stronger community ties recovered more quickly than those that didn’t, according to a report from The Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Designing community spaces to encourage interactivity can help build relationships and help reverse a growing trend of reclusiveness.

Changing the design of shared building spaces can help foster new relationships, as well. The design of buildings can also go a step further and help break down residents’ self-imposed boundaries through innovative programming. For example, initiatives such as a shared private library, where residents can exchange books, or social events that encourage a front-porch, “outreach” mentality can inspire residents to become part of a larger community and be at home in shared spaces.

As AMLI and SOM design the Multifamily Executive Concept Community, Building Positive + Living Well, we’re considering how we can improve residents' connectivity and reduce social isolation through design in order to make a multifamily community a true community. Be sure to attend the MFE Conference later this month to see the project unveiled.