Housing developments are building us a hallway to doom. We have insufficient housing options for all except those in the proverbial (and literal) penthouses, with more and more of us forced to live further away from our jobs, the services we need, and our centers of civic dynamism.
For those with sufficient incomes, luxury towers and gated communities provide housing, but the gates create physical as well as psychological barriers, segregating society by income and social groups. These single-income, single-use developments also create a need to drive everywhere; with insufficient public transport, we are forced to drive farther and farther. At the end of the day, these trends create more alienation, more congestion, more pollution, more time spent in transit, and more resources wasted.
Mixed-income, mixed-use, and mixed-generation buildings and neighborhoods hold the key to a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy future. These kinds of areas combine commercial, residential, and office spaces under the same roof and are optimized to fluidly evolve for different purposes. The mixed nature of these developments will allow individuals and families to avoid the need for motorized transport, create community, and deepen citizenship; they’ll also help create a broader sense of community and citizenship, along with better mental and physical health.
We need a range of flavors of housing—stand-alone houses, rowhouses, complete apartments, individual rooms built around shared common spaces—and in various sizes and configurations. But our cities aren’t always prepared for this type of development. Zoning and building codes must adjust to allow these combined uses.
To see this in action, we can look around the world. Co-creation with communities can create different types of housing arrangements, such as Baan Mankong in Thailand. In this program, the government provides subsidies and soft loans to poor communities who collectively own their neighborhood and manage its upgrading process. Community land trusts, where land is owned by a non-profit organization that leases housing on it, are an increasingly popular example of this: There is Maria Auxiliadora in Bolivia and many in US. Shared housing (as in co-ops and co-housing) has a long history in Europe: Co-housing with shared public space is an emerging model that originated in Denmark and is now in the US.
Beyond that, we need to think about how to use both existing and new buildings more efficiently. Instead of leaving our homes empty for 12 hours a day and then leaving our offices empty for the other 12 hours, we need to retool how spaces are used, around the clock. We have examples of roads and parking lots being converted to recreation space after the workday ends: In India they’re converted to eating spaces at night in Ahmedabad and car-free recreation zones in Pondicherry, and on weekends throughout Latin America, roads are closed to celebrate ciclovias, where streets turn into street parties. Why not the same for buildings?
After all, people have been using space in buildings creatively for hundreds of years. Multi-use rooms that are converted from one use to other are normal parts of large conference buildings, hotels, and office buildings. Small homes throughout history forced families to use the same space for many purposes, such as sleeping at night and preparing and eating food during the day. Think of Japanese homes with sliding rice-paper room dividers and futons that get picked up and aired out during the day, freeing up space for other activities. Or Murphy beds in small apartments, where the bed folds into the wall to convert space for other uses. Such small spaces require creative, efficient, multi-use design.
What does this new reality look like? Picture waking up in your apartment on the 17th floor of your 35-floor building and getting ready for the day. This building‘s floors are a mix of commercial, residential, and office spaces, with separate banks of elevators for each use. You walk down the stairs, and in the lobby you run into one of your friends from the Eastern wing who just rode her bike to her office on the seventh floor. You agree to meet for drinks after work on the rooftop bar. Before you enter your workplace, you stop in the grocery store on the ground floor of the building to buy some fruit for your lunch.
From your window, you see the renovation of a former office building that is being converted into a similar multi-use space, with retail on the bottom three floors, offices on floors four to eight, “convertible” space on floors nine to 13, residences on floors 14 to 20, and restaurants on 21 to 24. There are different configurations of residences: some floors contain traditional apartments, while others are set up more like dorm rooms with common spaces like the kitchen and living room decked out with top-of-the-line appliances. Whole floors become neighborhoods, with their own distinct communities and vibes.
Flexibility is needed so that buildings can be shifted to different uses depending on changes in what different community members want, need, and can afford at different points in their lives. We must start by acknowledging that well-located, serviced land and buildings are scarce resources that must be managed well for social good.