This essay looks at how the way cities are built affects, on a fundamental level, which tools and services can be useful for people living in urban environments and thus successful for their creators. Demographic change and new ways of working play a large part.
Exploring how our cities are built and how they influence the way we live is the best way to understand how we can create appreciated, sustainable, ethical and successful products and services. Understanding cities, and everything they entail, are fast becoming a core skill for all types of designers.
The way many of us live our lives have changed, and the demographics of our cities are changing too. Both through proactive choices (where and when we choose to work or study) and forced decisions (from gentrification to fleeing war or persecution to name a few). Add to this any number of changes in personal circumstances and the elasticity of what a city needs to be is apparent. Yet cities are still being built in ways that made sense 20, 30 and even 40 years ago. And occasionally, they are built in ways that go against our very nature as humans.
Quick question: What percentage of homes in a fairly typical European city like Munich would you say are occupied by the traditional nuclear family unit of two adults plus offspring?
Most people guess around 30–50 percent. According to census data from the German Federal Statistical Office from a few years back these family units made up as little as 14 percent of all households in the Bavarian capital. The same report indicated the proportion of households with a maximum of two people would increase from 70+ percent to over 80 percent by 2030. Almost every other reliable report show similar numbers.
Writing for Harvard Design Magazine, Niklas Maak the architectural theoretician, writer and educator, noted the following.
This social transformation is hardly reflected in European housing policies. In addition to the economic interests of a building industry that has little regard for new forms and formats, there are political and legislative issues that stand in the way of novel residential architecture. State-funded building programs focus mostly on providing as many ‘units’ as possible. But what exactly is supposed to happen inside such a unit? How do shifts in social habits, demographic change, and the dissolution of the nuclear family affect buildings?
Before we get to what’s supposed to happen in the units, let’s look at what actually is being done to address changing demographics and ways of life.
On one hand we have the often (but not always justifiably) vilified real estate developers who leap at the chance to build more small units on the same foot print they would have in the past built fewer but more spacious homes on. At a glance this seems to make sense; a new demographic, a more mobile workforce that also stays single longer, needs less physical space.
This is a too simplified view. It equates a way of, and a time in, life purely with the square footage of living space.
On the other hand we have homes built by companies from other sectors. German budget grocery chain Aldi is building 2000 homes above their stores in Berlin (search for “Aldi homes Berlin”). This is of course a positive; there is a lack of affordable housing in the German capital. And it’s not only Aldi, luxury brands too are involved in property development. Different demographics, different needs. However in neither case are problems with the increase in demographic rigidity that these initiatives enable addressed. When we talk a bout demographic CHANGE we have to acknowledge that change does not reach a goal state and stop. Change is, as the saying goes, constant. Occasionally it pays to take a moment and reflect on impact, beyond the immediate solution.
Back to Maak’s question, what is supposed to happen in these units?
Not much. In part because the idea of people only existing in two distinct types of units – single (small unit) or a nuclear family (larger unit) – are hopelessly outdated. What about living with friends? Or single parents living with other single parents, or retirees, living in a community setting? Or anyone just wanting a home larger than a cupboard? The rush to build a new type of homes rarely stops to consider people and the lives to be lived by them.
There are of course solutions being proposed and built. In some cases we see cramped estates supplemented by generous and open public spaces. When done right they provide a place to gather, exercise, meet and play.
At the opposite end we have the drive to suppress people’s need – and right – to gather. In context of the latter, another quick question: Have any public spaces in your city been “enhanced” or “reimagined” with a large architectural structure by a big-name architect or artist? Any new builds “honoured” by a large monumental piece? If yes, did the re-working of the space make gatherings easier, were they done on a human scale? Does it relate well to the surrounding community?
It is increasingly common to create what equates to fortifications, areas of physical obstruction, in public spaces. Gatherings for fun, relaxation, artistic expression or, yes, even protest are made impossible. Public space is treated as a threat. And not only from a potential organised protest perspective. Need some shade and a bench for a quick rest as you go about your daily life? In newer areas of London and many other cities you won’t find any. What if someone sits on it, or heaven forbid, laid down on it? Our very natural ways of meeting and moving around are being vilified.
This becomes even more absurd when we remind ourselves that many forms of communal or even village living was until recently entirely normal all across the world. And not only that, but living in isolation was a punishment (“I hereby banish you from the village…”). Communes, working farms, large households (including but not only in the Downton Abbey context) were the norm. It existed in cities as well as in a rural context.
From here we need to make a sideways jump. To sleep. The historian Roger Ekirch is known for his research in to how the industrialisation literally disrupted our natural sleep patterns (search for Ekirch and “Sleep We Have Lost”). From previously accepted sets of “first sleep” and “second sleep” in a day to the idea that one uninterrupted block of sleep is ideal. What got disrupted at the same time was of course where time was spent.
Those tiny living units mentioned earlier, they are sleep pods. Separated from areas to cook, socialise, read, they become places of storage while recharging. Like those little smartphone charger stands. Great for a device, less so for a human.
Unless these small personal spaces are successfully combined with areas for all those other activities (cooking, socialising et al). Then they can fulfil more needs and even answer our very human call for community and participation, while adapting to changing demographics. In Japan contemporary communal living and architecture has been successfully explored and implemented for over 30 years. Homes where people live together, sharing kitchens, lounges, gardens, yet with private rooms for sleep and more. This is made possible thanks to a considered human centered approach.
The communal living concept is growing in Europe yet it seems to be lacking the needed insights and considerations. Recent ventures like London’s The Collective where a massive 500 small rooms are anchored via a set of communal spaces are not without controversy (search for “BBC co-living The collective” for a comparative piece of two such providers). Still, they are trying and for that they should be applauded.
Enter the library
If new build homes don’t quite get it right, from the perspective of people, where do we go, what do we do?
As a nation, Finland has a tremendous commitment to spaces built for humans. Their libraries are plentiful, inviting, democratic, decidedly human and resourceful. From the opening of Viipuri library in 1935 (one of the first places in Europe to offer free book lending) to the brand new Oodi central library in Helsinki (opening in December 2018).
The Oodi will be a friendly yet aspirational destination, with spaces for reading, individual contemplation, meetings and even a fully decked out recording studio. With a population of 5,5 million people, borrowing close to 68 million books a year, coupled with a belief in knowledge and sharing, it is no surprise Finland’s population was named the world’s most literate in 2016. And, one might add, a population with a deep understanding of what it means to be human.
We have a choice
When families, society, demographics change we must take better care to understand how and where life is lived. Finland has one type of head start. Other countries and cities have theirs. Singapore’s ambition to switch from “a garden city” to “a city in a garden” is another example. Oil-rich Norway switching to electric vehicles is a third. Any city with waterways investing in their use for mobility have yet another. In short, almost everywhere has a choice. If not with how people’s homes function, then with where their citizens meet, rest, think, and simply go about being human.
Cities need people, need flexibility, need attention, need diversity, discourse, options as well as opinions. Spaces only become places when they embrace humanity and understand what makes us more – not less – likely to live as opposed to merely exist.
My intent with this essay is to highlight how we as creators of services and products need to question the – literal – physical foundation on which we build our products; our cities and places. Changing demographics, changing cities, evolving needs, are as much a concern for us as for city planners, community organisations and public transport operators. By understanding the current states and goal states of cities we will become better creators. And by understanding the history of how cities came into being we will become even greater at what we do (“The Language of Cities” by Deyan Sudjic is a brilliant place to start).
I snapped the above photo at the LSE Urban Age Shaping Cities conference in Venice. Regardless of whether the words on the screen fill you with fear or hope, one things is irrevocable. Cities are for people. Our biases and decisions as creators of services, places, spaces, products and experiences either feed in to an outdated and occasionally negative narrative of how and where life is lived. Or they start a new conversation, with the courage to question why we need the things we choose, and how we can do our part in making life more liveable for everyone, through the things we create.
You have a choice. Which way will you go?
Now that we are aware of the context, get in touch to learn what we need to do differently as creators of tools and services. What comes to mind for you, what do you think we need to change?
Thank you to Johannes Stock, Principal Designer at Futurice Germany, for insights and reality checks on this text.