Hierarchy of Needs: Application in Urban Design and Community-Building

The concept of a hierarchy of basic human needs is discussed in any introductory psychology course.  Theories focus on the necessity for an individual to satisfy certain fundamental needs, not entirely but well-enough, before responding to more advanced needs.  Perhaps the most widely accepted theory belongs to humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, who developed his Hierarchy of Needs(1) in 1943.  His system of needs and corresponding pyramid of hierarchy display both the layers of basic human needs as well as their relationship to each other in scale.


image: alinabel/shutterstock.com

image: alinabel/shutterstock.com

At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid are Physiological needs including fresh air, food, water, shelter, sex, and sleep.  According to his theory, once those physical needs are met, a person can move on to Safety including security of body, employment, resources, health, and property.  Following safety, a person’s needs focus on Love/Belonging with expression in friendship, family, and sexual intimacy.  Esteem follows and incorporates a person’s self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others.  At the highest position in the pyramid, Self-Actualization comes in the form of realizing personal potential, creativity, spontaneity, and problem solving.  Although the strict requirement of a hierarchy has been questioned in more contemporary psychology research, there has remained a common acceptance of the system of needs Abraham Maslow identified and their applicability to the human condition, regardless of cultural differences.(2)

Adaptation of the needs hierarchy has found its way to a variety of disciplines beyond the field of psychology.  In business management, there is support for application specifically in the motivation of team members, with an emphasis on understanding the external concerns of employees in order to better respond to them within the work environment.  In education, consideration for the hierarchy of needs of students through classroom environment and management techniques, in addition to incorporating individual student needs into differentiation of instruction, is documented.  In nursing, needs hierarchy is used both in determining provision of care for patients as well as determining support for care-givers.

Given the central nature of humans in the the function of the urban form, it is reasonable to consider the adaptation of Maslow’s needs hierarchy to the field of urban design.  Understanding the innate motivations influencing the human inhabitants of the built realm can lead to more humane approaches to the design, development, and revitalization of our cities.

Advocacy for such a humanist approach to the design of cities is certainly not new.  As early as 15 BC, Roman architect Vitruvius described the ideal building as possessing firmness, commodity, and in particular, delight in his Ten Books on Architecture treatise, illustrating his opinion on the value of an emotional response to architecture.  More recently, many urbanists cite Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) when referencing the critical role of the average citizen in the living systems of our urbanism.  Architect and theoretician Christopher Alexander published A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977) as an encyclopedic reference for design that is safe, beautiful, and functional at any scale of built form, from the elements of a doorway to the organization of entire geographic regions.

In 1994, Jon Lang, Ph.D. published Urban Design: The American Experience, directly exploring the relationship between human behavior and urban design.  In his thorough examination, Lang anticipates the the study of user experience prevalent across design fields today.  Regarding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Lang concedes, “No design is able to meet all of everybody’s needs simultaneously,”(3) but he successfully documents the complexity and sometimes contradiction of concerns for user experience that urban designers should bring to their work.

While Jacobs, Alexander, and Lang each discuss fundamental needs of the individual and the role of urbanism in response to those needs, they do not focus on the entire community as a body corporate.  Yet it is arguable that if the individual holds certain basic needs, then a community of individuals would likewise hold certain corresponding needs.  With that premise, an alternative study involves a more direct analysis of urbanism through the lens of a needs hierarchy, with community collectively sharing Maslow’s basic human needs.  Examining the fundamental needs of a community then reveals a framework of design implications through which we can both evaluate existing urbanism as well as propose new urbanism that is responsive to the complete human condition.

For the purposes of the following examination, “community” should be considered as a geographical group of people along with their surrounding built condition, e.g. a city, town, neighborhood, village, hamlet.  Maslow’s original needs terminology has been altered to more accurately coincide with common urban design nomenclature; however, general themes for each stage have been maintained as has the order of each stage with respect to the original hierarchy.


image: author

image: author



Fundamental to communities are the physical conditions of their surrounding urbanism.  Successful urban form must show a clarity of structure that can be instinctively understood and navigated.  Included in consideration of form is the ability of the urbanism to meet the daily needs of the community.  Food, employment, shelter, services, recreation, places of worship, and spaces to gather must not only be present within the community but must also be accessible to everyone within the community.

Design Implications:
The basic principles of good urbanism provide the details by which urban design can support the need for community Form.  Communities should have a center and an edge, a balanced mix of activities (shopping, work, schooling, recreation, and all types of housing), a walkable scale either in total or in part, streets detailed to provide equally for all transit types, and priority for public spaces and civic buildings.(4)

The Form of a community should not place undue burden on particular members of a community, and all members of a community should find their most fundamental needs met by their surrounding urbanism.  The variety and availability of housing, and the variety and availability of employment opportunities, should be supportive of the needs of the the local community.  Access to transportation to, from, and within the community should serve all members of the community and all levels of mobility.  For example, urban design that necessitates car ownership to guarantee transportation not only imposes financial hardship but severely limits the mobility of the non-driving public (namely children and the elderly).  In all cases, the urban Form should be responsive to the community it contains.



Once the urban form is clear and identifiable, the Safety of that form must be ensured.  Safe urban conditions include safe spaces within which to live, work, and move, as well as a variety of options for such spaces available for a variety of users.   Urban safety incorporates the feeling of predictability and consistency of urbanism.  More personally, safety necessarily includes an absence of fear for well-being, as well as the sense of agency to protect ones self and ones community from harm.  In addition, the urban form must respond to the general health of the community, ensuring that the urbanism in effect, “does no harm.”

Design Implications:
Jane Jacobs described urban street design that supports the need for Safety in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, our of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do, must have three main qualities:
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”(5)

Along with providing clarity of public vs. private realm, eyes on the street, and a healthy level of street activity, effective urbanism can contribute to the Safety of a community in additional ways.

Urban design that provides safe routes to school help guarantee access and support active mobility for a community’s youngest members.  Infrastructure elements such as complete streets, greenways and pedestrian paths, and other recreational venues support Safety as well as the healthy lifestyles of community members, where they are not relegated solely to vehicular transport as their only transportation option.

More broadly, building types and uses that follow predictable patterns, potentially as a result of land use policy, support the Safety of the investment of property owners.  Predictable public process for urban design implementation further supports the Safety of investment in the community, and reinforces a confidence in place that encourages both those already members of the community as well as those observing the community from the outside.



Belonging develops through what Robert Putnam refers to as “bonding social capital.”(6)  Connections are created and reinforced, boding neighbor to neighbor, through the wealth of common community ownership.  In sharing experiences of contribution and responsibility that come from common neighborhood activities and events, community members connect as a byproduct of their shared urban realm.  Belonging creates confidence in a “support network,” a neighborhood culture where expertise and commitment to common interests are shared across the community.

Design Implications:
Belonging is nurtured through opportunities to commune as a group, and as a result, urban design that provides physical locations for such events is crucial to responsive urbanism.  

Design of “third places,” those social surroundings we frequent that create a sense of place separate from our first (home) and second (work) places,(7) directly contribute to the civic engagement that reinforces Belonging.  Places like cafes, pubs, beauty salons, farmers markets, and other versions of the “watering hole” play host to those chance conversations and serendipitous meetings that grease the wheels of community-building.  Shared amenities like parks or playgrounds, as well as the semi-public realm of stoops and front porches, can offer a similar urban function.

The creation of institutions that benefit segments of the community can serve the sense of Belonging of the entire community, when those institutions create local success worth rallying around.  Schools in particular tend to serve such a function, especially when the school engages the local community through practices like service learning and volunteer programs.  Cultural organizations and churches can offer similar opportunities for community engagement, and institutions like libraries and community centers provide not only resources but often spaces for gathering.  Locations of urban prominence for these civic institutions reinforces their contribution to the entire community.

Perhaps the most significant way urban design supports Belonging is in providing urbanism that a community can be proud of.  Buildings, streets, and spaces that are lovable are those that a community will gather at, work to maintain, and fight to save, boded by a sense of Belonging to each other and to their shared urban realm.



Beyond internal social bonds of Belonging, communities need external bonds of Recognition.  These are built, at least in part, on what Putnam describes as “bridging social capital,”(8) those ties which give a community an identity beyond their borders.  Recognition supports a feeling of importance within the larger urban context, invested in (not bypassed by) fellow citizens and civic resources coming from outside the community.  Recognition prompts a willingness to work through challenges together; they advocate for their community’s interests and share their community’s know-how with a larger audience.

Design Implications:
Recognition is reinforced through urbanism that provides tangible celebration of the value of community, where inclusivity and an openness to visitors is on display.

In many communities, a first step toward Recognition is the creation of a neighborhood identity: a name (if one is not commonly agreed upon), symbolism in the form of a logo or other iconography, and social and/or cultural markers that reference or describe the community.  Signage representing community identity might be installed, conventional branding strategies might be implemented, and an association supporting neighborhood activities and events might be created.  Whatever the specific methodology, steps to promote the character of the community work as a response to a community’s need for Recognition.

Not all efforts to support Recognition rely strictly on intangibles.  The development of activities, facilities, and institutions that have an impact beyond their immediate surroundings can help to advertise the community and its contributions well beyond its physical confines, representing the contribution of the community to the greater urban context.  Particularly in the case of neighborhoods undergoing revitalization, advocating for their own tactical urban design successes through participation in the broad urban dialogue can play a large role in receiving earned respect and sharing respect for fellow communities that Recognition thrives on.



A community can seek common Vision in their collective future once their more fundamental needs have been satisfied.  Establishing a Vision provides a community with a shared goal of self-fulfillment, responding to what the community values in its urbanism and in itself.  Vision helps guarantee that the community’s more fundamental needs will continue to be met with a creative approach toward both known and unknown future challenges.  A willingness to work together toward implementation, with a sense of ethics and lack of prejudices, is necessary for community Vision to become built reality.

Design Implications:
Urban design successfully represents the Vision of a community when it includes both a masterplan that designs what is envisioned as well as a process, with policies and/or regulations, that define how the vision should be implemented.

To support the need for Vision, a community masterplan must propose urban design to both a level of detail as well as a degree of flexibility that reinforces the current values of the community while still allowing for the ongoing evolution of its individual members.  More than shallow mission statements and broad ideas, a proper Vision masterplan requires a community to find consensus on difficult decisions and specific proposals for their urban form.  Consideration of both current and future physical, social, economic, environmental, and cultural requirements must all be incorporated, ensuring a plan of action that can sustain the community well into its future.  Relevant administrative policies and regulatory conditions must be developed in concert, providing a structural foundation to the Vision the community creates.

In the design of responsive urbanism, the process used is as important as, and vitally contributes to, the product rendered.  While participatory design is not a new concept, the practice too often relies on obligatory public meetings and too rarely provides meaningful empowerment of the community.  Development of community engagement through an authentic participatory process, one that gives agency to all parties while demanding that the collective well-being override personal preference and benefit, is critical to a shared investment in the outcomes of the Vision process.


A Hierarchy of Needs of urbanism, and the humanist paradigms within, provide a unique approach to urban design and community-building.  This examination only introduces a translation of needs, from the individual human to the collective community, and the urban design implications that result.  A more thorough exploration of both would be valuable, and an urbanism evaluation rubric or set of standing principles is a possible outcome of further study.  Nonetheless there is opportunity in this approach to urbanism, not just to see urban design from a different vantage, but to see community from a different vantage as well, and to better design to all of our basic human needs as a result.


(1) Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50 (1943): 370-396.
(2) Louis Tay & Ed Diener, “Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 101 No. 2 (2011), 354-365, Accessed January 17, 2016, doi: 10.1037/a0023779.
(3) Jon Lang, Urban Design: The American Experience (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994), 167.
(4) Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, “Neighborhood, District, and Corridor: Chapter 11,” in Charter of the New Urbanism, ed. Michael Leccese and Kathleen McCormick (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000).
(5) Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), 35.
(6) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 22-23.
(7) Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (New York: Parragon Books, 1989).
(8) Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 22-23.