Have We Reached LiveabilityMAX?

by | 26. Mar 2017

Article | The Column

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By In-Between Economies

Nothing has given more fuel to the pace of urban regeneration than the quest for liveability. As old industrial neighbourhoods were abandoned, bought up and built over, we asked ourselves – What do we want of our cities? Jan Gehl, the Danish architect affectionately known as the ‘Godfather of Liveability’, emerged in the 1970’s as the rallying force against the car-centric, functionalist planning of the time. The ‘new wave’ Danish architects of today owe their genealogy to Gehl’s work, and have since turned Copenhagen (the Danish capital) into their petri dish.

Liveability, and its promotion as a conceptual framework for city development, seeks to outline our collective aspirations for a better place to live; a more humane, more sociable, more equitable place to call home. If we think of Siena’s Piazza del Campo as liveability’s inception, then Copenhagen is its factory; and is now synonymous with the laid-back, human-centred  ease of its public life.

This endeavour to cast humanism as the mantra of Danish architecture is a worthy cause, and liveability is its current marching banner. Copenhagen alone is testament to a design culture that’s stretching the limits of architecture’s ability to create buildings and spaces that speak to the most basic form of human satisfaction – pleasure. Who doesn’t want a city that make us feel happy?

Yet there’s an economics to liveability that we don’t talk about. Urban housing prices in Copenhagen have gone up by more than 600% in the last two decades, far outstripping wages and pushing mortgage debt through the roof. If food had gone up the same amount then your morning coffee would cost you just shy of 120 DKK (around $17 USD).

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Comparative graph to show changes in house building, house prices & mortgage debt in Copenhagen 1973-2013

From Stockholm to Sydney, a similar story can be told in cities worldwide, with varying degrees of success. Yet what’s peculiar is how pervasive the language of the liveability has become. As cities of the global north ape each other’s attempt to house growing populations, neighbourhoods multiply with a strangely familiar vocabulary. Project after project bland, brick-slipped apartment blocks are thrown up in prime urban locations and marketed with familiar taglines set against the weightless images of a car-free, urban utopia – the ‘vibrant’, ‘ambient’, ‘cultural’, ‘urban playground’ of the aspirational middle class. While the tone and imagery are distinctly inclusive, the price tags are often far beyond affordable. Those that squeeze their way onto the housing ladder find the rewards are short lived; with house prices outpacing wage rises, your next place is either twice as small, or twice as far away. This is neither sustainable or desirable, and actively undermines the principles of the liveable city. So you have to ask, how did we get here? And more importantly, is it inevitable?

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Image courtesy of Luci Picardi, ‘Familiar’ project

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Image courtesy of Luci Picardi, ‘Familiar’ project

At the same time urbanites started demanding more from their cities, national and local governments stepped away from the hazards of direct housing provision and towards creating the fertile ground for the liveable city to flourish, swapping house building for demand side stimulus via infrastructure & public space investment, planning incentives, tax breaks and subsidies. In doing so they leveraged the value generated by the liveable city and piled massive risk into the housing system, creating extremely overvalued urban land. A risk that, via a more flexible financial sector, was then underwritten by all of our mortgages, our taxes and our jobs. This type of modern city housing development entangled public good with private speculation. Public risk with private reward.

A strange bi-product of this artificially inflated (and inherently captive) market is that competition for attracting house buyers is done less through choice or quality, and more by manufacturing demand for a lifestyle – in our case, liveability. Revenue is much easier to generate by assimilating aspiration with what the market can provide, rather than the other way around. Adverts are a lot cheaper than better bricks.

“It is essential to create the right state of mind for living in mass produced housing”
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture.

When viewed through this paradigm, liveability was only made possible by making a bedfellow with speculation & debt, under the false promise of providing a city for all. This simple truth undermines the effortless link drawn between the liveable city and a sustainable humanist one, firstly by perpetuating the impossibility of eternal growth and secondly by exacerbating a system that relies on rising inequality.

When we mistake economics for fundamental law rather than something man made, it’s easier to rationalise the stupidity of an established logic – and make it a hell of lot harder to change. An attitude that perhaps offers some explanation to the cycle of apathy-by-consumption generation Y finds itself in.

So the question we must ask ourselves is whether the dream of a humanist city is possible in this economic framing? When, under its current quise of liveability, it actively undermines it.  LiveabilityMAX represents the peak in this model of urbanism, and perhaps a turning point in how we view it. Our quest for a humanist city is done so only in material terms, and fails to acknowledge the ignorance of how & who has financed the developed world’s urban renaissance.

So what do we do? There are two options that lay ahead. The first is that we uphold the current economic logic of relying on a diminishing number of large developers to maintain a speculative housing model in the hope they will build the homes for our growing urban population, and generate the liveable city along the way (something we know they have no incentive to do).

The alternative is to cultivate the next stage of the humanist city – a Liveability 2.0. We need a vision that acknowledges our economic reality and seeks to subvert it. For this to happen, design must facilitate and encourage a much lower threshold for the creation of the city. It is no surprise that the ideas of urban theorist & activist Jane Jacobs are currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Her timeless advice that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”  is a call to arms for today’s networked, socially conscious generation of young designers. They look back on mainstream architecture’s recent history with as much cynicism as admiration. One that has always focused its energy on the centralised, top down models of urban production; from mid-18th century philanthropy, through communism, the welfare state, and finally the speculative real estate boom. Each phase was built on the wreckage of the last, yet unwittingly seeded its own downfall. This era is no different and an alternative is within sight, but only if we are bold enough to guard the founding principles of the humanist city and commit to evolving them; fundamentally assessing the structural imbalances of the status quo while drawing from a different architectural family tree.

Alternative models are all around us, but it will require a more holistic approach to shift them into the mainstream. We need the cultural essence of co-operative housing models, first pioneered in rural Denmark, the financial and legislative designs of community land trusts from the US, and the technological innovation of a project like Wiki-house (an online, open source, housing parts dictionary that lets anyone turn a simple computer model into a kit of parts for the frame of a house which you can put up in 24 hours). These examples are challenging our preconceptions of how housing is made and who it’s made for. In doing so they are not only building affordable places to live, but inventing components of scaleable, sustainable, community-led solutions to one of the biggest design challenges of our time.

The architecture of our cities will always represent the alchemy of economic reality with our collective moral and cultural aspiration, and in order to truly shape tomorrow’s humanist city, we must adapt the logic of design from one based on consumption to one that facilitates production and collaboration. A city for all is possible, and striving for it is the only way we will move beyond the apex of LiveabilityMAX.

Based between Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London & Oslo, In-Between Economies is an interdisciplinary research platform situated at the intersection between economies and the built environment. Supported by a website, publications, and a series of conversations, In-Between Economies aims to establish a dialogue with both experts and the public to examine how both local economies and global markets impact and shape our built environment.

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