The Transformation of Urban Living
Written by Anton Chernikov
As lockdown lifts it would be easy to make the assumption that things will just return back to normal with a few slight behavioural shifts like hybrid working and online shopping. The property market has an in-built confirmation bias that furiously protects and reinforces the status quo.
No one wants to hear a story of radical transformational change. It is far easier to assume a slight correction and continue on the well-trodden path. The reality is not quite so simple. The cultural, psychological and economic impact of a year of lockdowns, social distancing, face masks and over 128k deaths is not something that we can ignore. The trauma runs deep. The pain is real. Priorities have changed.
What has become increasingly clear is the importance of authentic community and connection to nature. These are the things that make us live longer and happier lives. This is not an opinion, it is a fact.
Just google the research done by Harvard and the countless papers and books that have been published about the Blue Zones where people live to 100 years and beyond. Community and nature are the things that make us feel safe and help us to let go of the stress and anxiety that modern life throws at us. These are things that matter most and yet they are rarely taken seriously by developers and operators.
Whether you are living in student accommodation, a BtR development, a townhouse or an extra care community, the fundamental needs are the same. We want to feel safe, we want to belong and we want to be close to the people we love and care for. Humans have evolved to be tribal beings. We are hardwired for connection and community, and yet the way we design our built environment today often has the opposite effect. It separates us. It isolates us. It disconnects us from the things that truly make us feel alive.
We have seen a massive exodus out of the city by those who can afford to do so, with families in particular selling their city homes and moving from the suburbs into the countryside. We have seen how vulnerable and isolated older generations in our society have become. We have felt the growing anxiety of young professionals and students who have been glued to their screens working from their tiny bedrooms or student dorms.
Parents have also felt the challenges of school closures and having to balance a full time job with child care and homeschooling. What the pandemic has shown us is how fragile our systems and institutions are, and how they struggle to cope and adapt to change.
For too long we have pursued a broken economic logic, where private space is considered to be the most valuable commodity. We increasingly build more and more studios and 1 bedroom apartments and then the agents tell us that is what the market wants and so the cycle repeats. It seems that every new BtR and coliving operator is designing for this fantasy ‘millennial’ generation of high paid single professionals.
There is of course a market for developments like MODA, The Collective and VERTUS. However, this is a very narrow market that we expect to become saturated very quickly. Somehow we always end up designing buildings for a young white male stereotype, making an assumption that what will attract these customers is lots of flashy amenities and services and then we brand it as ‘community living’. However, selling community and actually creating and living it every day are two very different things. Community is not a product you can sell or a service you can provide. It is a culture that you support and nurture. It has to be driven by the residents themselves. It is important to step back and really ask ourselves;
Do the majority of renters aspire to live in a flashy, high-rise hotel-style apartment complex that ultimately becomes a transient place filled with international students and corporate contractors?
Maybe for a while when you arrive into a city, but for the long term would you want to live like this? You can’t fix that transient culture by hiring a community manager or throwing a party every once in a while. In fact, the ‘hotelification’ or ‘commodification’ of housing will only accelerate the social isolation and anxiety that people are already feeling. People will move into these developments out of necessity or because of the slick marketing, but will they stay or start looking for an alternative once they have settled into the city? After all that we have been through during the pandemic, surely this is the right moment to stop, reflect and challenge our own industry assumptions?
Every property manager and developer is faced with the question of how best to allocate the limited time and capital that they have available. We all know that creating and designing for long-term residents and tenants is what drives renewals, reduces your operational overheads and ultimately increases the value of your property assets. It’s great to talk about future-proofing, flexible wellness, multi-functional coworking, integrated retail, concierge and smart oversized mailrooms. However, how much time do we really give ourselves to study, understand, observe and prototype these building functions? How much time do we spend mapping out the user experience of our buildings across multiple stakeholders groups? Do we take the time to actively listen to and empathise with the people we are designing and building for? Or do we rush the user research and design process, defaulting to the status quo of what everyone else is doing?
The role of property management today has become extremely transactional and risk averse. Once the contract is signed and the rent is being paid the goal is to automate communications, enforce contractual rules and minimise any risks that could lead to possible legal issues or conflicts. The priority is to drive down costs and the default answer is always no. It is easier to isolate residents and prevent any activities that could create noise or conflict. However, the consequence of such a strategy is that people disengage and move out. This creates more work and more cost for your management staff.
Eventually the culture becomes so toxic that it becomes harder and harder to attract and retain new residents. Resentment and distrust grows on both sides and there is little energy left to create positive engagement. Residents bond over complaints and take pride in making life difficult for the property managers as a form of protest. Sadly, this is the experience that most people have when living in the city. I live in such a building today. The building itself looks great but the way it is managed creates a toxic culture between the landlord and the tenants.
There is a mindset within our industry of prioritising the numbers over the living experience. Anything that could potentially add additional cost to the management of a building is designed out, leaving a place devoid of any life or character.
Just take our outdoor green spaces (and our courtyard as an example). In most cases the developer goes with plastic grass that hypothetically reduces the need for maintenance. However, it is not a desirable experience to sit on artificial grass. It might look fine from a distance but no one will use or care for the space. Residents will be happy to drop rubbish and cigarette buds. This will require even more cleaning and then the landlord puts a big sign saying no smoking or we will fine you. This creates more distrust and disengagement. This is just one of countless examples of how dehumanising, risk averse and soulless property management has become.
Imagine if instead there was real grass and an edible garden that residents co-create, manage and invest in together. The residents themselves will be so emotionally connected to this outdoor space that they would self-police and call people out who do not respect it. There is huge value to residents forming an emotional connection to the place in which they live. We seem to have forgotten this in the pursuit of cost cutting and perceived operational efficiencies. In my opinion, the best architecture and interior design is always left intentionally unfinished so that the people who use the spaces we design can leave their mark and feel a greater sense of ownership and belonging to place. I also believe in the value of exploring the relationship between the built environment and the natural world. Buildings are ecosystems and our role as architects and designers is to create environments that make people and places feel alive.
The pandemic has shaken up the rental and housing market. People will no longer be so attached to a central location. To stay competitive, operators need to step out of the broken and stale mindset of a transactional, numbers led, risk averse approach to property management. Instead they need to become culture-led, relationship focussed and open to new ideas and co-creation with residents and neighbours.
The design of spaces and services alone is not enough. We have to be willing to invest in establishing an authentic culture, which is something that is so hard to build and so easy to break. Rather than asking how do we minimise costs in every possible detail of a building’s design, let’s ask ourselves how do we make people feel welcome when they move in? How do we make residents feel included in decision making? How do we enable and encourage the co-creation of events and spaces? How do nudge people into social interaction? How do we enhance the wellbeing and quality of life of our residents? This might sound obvious, but let’s be honest with ourselves, how much time do senior leaders in property businesses really dedicate to such questions? Is this just something that is talked about generally in some marketing meeting everyone has forgotten about or are these questions something that we choose to honor and dedicate ourselves to as a team on a frequent and ongoing basis?
What if rather than thinking about all the things that could go wrong and greeting new residents with a list of rules to follow, operators started to think of themselves as wellness coaches, content curators and community catalysts. Their job description wouldn’t be based on managing a building but rather on inspiring, connecting and transforming people’s lives for the better. The most important KPI for a property manager to think about would be the emotional wellbeing of the resident’s living in their buildings. The most important task would be meeting and listening to the needs, feedback and ideas of your residents. Instead of a culture of no, there is a culture of Yes. This is how the magic happens. When you listen, and trust and care for people, they will reciprocate, they will volunteer, they will help you accomplish so much more than you could ever do on your own. This is not just about having a friendly hotel style concierge dressed in uniform that greets guests with a smile, although that does help. It is about building a culture where your staff have the time to focus on deepening human relationships between residents. That’s what matters most. Having people around who you can turn to for support when you are facing your lowest moments. When you get this culture right you create an aliveness within your buildings, an incredible energy and feeling that becomes contagious.
'We Grow Together'
This is what we experienced when we launched a 55 person collective house in the centre of Stockholm called K9 Coliving (previously known as Tech Farm). We managed to create a truly self-led self managing community around the shared purpose of ‘We Grow Together’. We had a shared house budget and self-organising teams of residents that took on different responsibilities within the community. There was a long waiting list of hundreds of people wanting to move in, whilst other operators in the city struggled to fill their rooms. The common spaces were cosy and constantly changing and evolving. We had a wealth of plants, tables, candles, cushions and fabrics that we could use to create a themed event, party or dinner. We were inspired and encouraged to bring new ideas and experiences to our shared home and community. Our residents were not our customers or clients but our volunteers and evangelists. When you get the culture right you unlock such a wealth of human potential and energy that will in turn drive down marketing and operational costs. The building will sell itself and you will stop relying on agents and your staff will have more time to innovate and deliver an even better living experience.
We have applied this principle of co-created places, neighbourhoods and buildings to larger mixed use developments across Europe and the UK. In Stockholm I worked on the master planning of Nobelberget. In Riga, I worked on the community design of a new neighbourhood called Sporta 2. In London, I am leading the placemaking strategy and design for Astir and Alive Places. We have also opened our own experimental design studio and event space called House of Transformation where we run our own experimental events and workshops. We created House of Transformation during lockdown last year to help startups and SME's to re-imagine the way they work. Our space is specifically designed for workshops and collaborative meetings. We also host a programme of wellness events, community dinners and personal development courses.
Another motivation for opening House of Transformation was to help us to test our own assumptions around how to build authentic communities and design user-friendly, flexible, multi-use and nature inspired buildings and spaces.
There are so many important details and moments that architects and designers miss because they are disconnected from the day to day realities of hosting events, building community and curating a multi-use space. Every week we make new connections and discover new learnings and ideas. I am constantly reminded at how important it is to define an inspiring and consistent story that is embodied in the design of the space. The story of why your space exists and the values and vision that you have for your community makes such a powerful impact on people. Our space is a fusion of an office, a meeting room, a yoga studio, a restaurant, a dance floor, a living room, a theatre, a gallery and most importantly a home. It continues to surprise me how effective it is to offer tea after a dance or wellness event. So many incredible business connections have already emerged as a result. You don’t just do the class, but you have time to connect, talk and build community.
We defined our purpose as re-imagining space to enhance wellbeing, showcase the arts, unleash circular economies and ignite lasting change. We focus on hosting and curating transformation events and learning experiences. Our vision is to build an ecosystem of regenerative places and projects that enable people of all ages and cultures to live and work with greater wellbeing, purpose and connection to nature.
We encourage everyone who uses our space and engages with our community to honour these three values;
Treat our space as if it were an extension of your home.
Do more with less by sharing, re-using and recycling.
The more you give to others, the more you will get in return.
We host a wide range of co-created cultural, educational and community events. We keep our costs low so that we can offer very affordable prices and discounts to make it possible for more people and organisations to host their own experiences. We publish whitepapers and thought leadership. We foster a culture of partnership and collaboration. We are developing and testing our regenerative leadership and entrepreneurship programmes. We are launching our own conferences and Hackathons. We don’t try to sell desks but rather promote our vision for the world we wish to create.
If a developer or property owner is serious about community and placemaking, the most critical piece of the puzzle is for the senior management team to establish a culture that prioritises wellbeing, diversity, inclusion, co-creation and sustainability.
These might sound like HR buzzwords but when it comes to building authentic community and places it really does make all the difference. It all starts from a place of listening. Listening to your team members. Listening to your neighbours. Listening to your stakeholders. Gathering qualitative and quantitative data and stories around which you can test your assumptions is critical. This provides the foundation for building an authentic, embodied and resilient culture. How you facilitate this process and create compelling internal and external communications is critical. This isn’t a box that you tick and put into an annual report. This requires time, dedication, vulnerability and a willingness to engage emotionally and dive beneath the surface.
Work With Us
We have a deep understanding of how to design for coliving, BtR, and multi-generational single family and multi-family communities. We also have experience in designing for hybrid workplaces and working with clients to co-create placemaking, wellbeing and sustainability strategies for their developments and organisations.
We are a small specialist placemaking and community architecture studio with a wide network of interdisciplinary freelancers and advisors. We use our studio space called House of Transformation to host immersive workshops and test experimental projects and events that enable us to bring unique perspectives and creative solutions to our clients.
Designer, Entrepreneur & Placemaking Consultant