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It takes a vertical village to raise the future

Abstract image of vertical villagesAround the turn of the 19th century, the first skyscraper was born. All ten storeys of Chicago’s iconic Home Insurance Building comprised a wondrous skeleton of iron and steel, wrapped in a facade of glass and pane. It wasn’t only the building’s breakthrough engineering that paved our future city skylines; it was the story that each storey told. In this case, the story was insurance – every facet of the building was designed to celebrate that singular purpose.

Ever since, we have been largely crafting our city skylines with the same kind of one-dimensional approach to building and design. Our experience has evolved between the tensions of professional and personal life, determined by the concrete divides that allocate our activities and interactions to either side of the urban equation. Traditionally, the city centre is the commercial hub to which people ebb and flow throughout the week, and all other living outside 9-to-5 happens in the suburbs or residential areas of the city.

But the world as we know it is changing. Among the many ‘stats to stop the bus‘ these days, is the one that tells us by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, with nearly 90% of the increase taking place in Asia and Africa. This great migration, coupled with the overall rise in global population, could mean our cities, within their current constraints, will need to accommodate another 2.5 billion people over the next few decades. We don’t have the luxury of space anymore.

If we want to build the kind of urban ecosystems that respond and thrive on growth, we will have to reassess the way we build. The solutions to our future cities may not be in front of us, but above us . Perhaps the suburbs should rather one day sit on top of our cities. Perhaps the notion of the ‘village’ isn’t that of an endangered species, but a concept waiting to be reinvented in the 21st century.

It takes a village to raise a city

Picture this: the colossal tower downtown, once reserved for commercial affairs in the day, is now a multipurpose space where business, family life, recreation and community living intersect and overlap into a new kind of blended living urban ecology. Call it a vertical village: a multi-levelled building that, across its stacked floors, can foster the kind of human collisions to breed social diversity and infuse new life into old infrastructures. Through this model, commercial and residential occupants benefit from shared infrastructure that services shared needs.

In such a blended design, an apartment could be located in the corner of an open plan office space. Residents come and go, and often mingle inside the local coffee shop with workers throughout the week. On the same floor, a crèche serves the people who work and live there, a library intersects the vertical floorplan as a shared community resource, a rooftop garden supplies fresh produce to the pop-up cafe on the first floor. The IT department serves the broader community within the ‘village’, ensuring the best in high-tech innovation, and smart health and safety design, for residents and employees.

Imagine further: this building is one of many ‘vertical suburbs’, connecting by way of skywalks and sidewalks with other tall ‘villages’, to enclose a central infrastructure where people can gather, connect and engage over a variety of activities. Singapore’s ‘vertical kampong‘ aspires to this, recreating elements of a traditional kampong with sky gardens and terraces, communal areas where residents can engage with each other, and centres for seniors and childcare placed adjacent to each other.

Jigsaw designs

Naturally, the building design itself would need to be ultra-nimble to capitalise on the organic nature of urban village living. Modularity would be key; layouts and floorplans would have to adapt and respond to needs and new ideas as they arise. So what if floorplans could easily change? Imagine an underfloor relocation system capable of moving lightweight, living pods around on interlinked grids located under the raised floor.

When a living unit is moved, it ‘reconnects’ with all services and requires nothing more than a building manager. This ‘structural mobility living’ could mean that an apartment moves around the floor plan or even changes floors, literally allowing occupants to take a new, fresh view on things.

But high mobility would not be at the expense of sophistication. In order to create that sense of openness and scale, for example, thin LED lights could envelop apartment facades and adapt to motion as people pass. The effect: workers would enjoy the same views and natural light as residents, and feel safely oriented when moving around. What’s more, construction wouldn’t even take place in the building. These modular designs could be prefabricated ‘plug and play’ units built, even 3D printed, elsewhere and then inserted on site.

Engineering community

More importantly, what could the vertical village usher into the new urban experience? How would these buildings and envisioned communities meet the new Gen Z ethos and impulse for creative community living? These designs speak to the fact that humans are social animals craving authentic connectivity and meaningful relationships. In the great paradox of this digital era where ‘always on’ equates to human disengagement, the vertical village could meet this generation’s need for restorative community and diverse living.

Says Gensler Architects in their 2014 report on Top Trends Shaping Design: “This is a time of profound change in how design supports work in all its varied forms. Old ways are being set aside as organisations look at work and its settings holistically. There’s a demand for new approaches and real estate products. It’s as much grassroots as top-down.”

Here, ‘grassroots’ could look rather like small theatres or dance studios, carpenter sheds or communal kitchens. The social culture of the streetscape would be self-regulated through a vibrant urban ecosystem that is sustainable and locally relevant. Small businesses at street level could also thrive because, unlike a monocultural commercial environment, their local clientele exists outside of work hours.

Consequently, is the notion of the vertical village a pie in the sky idea, or a phenomenon unfolding? We would lean towards the latter. Generational change and social connectedness, via digital platforms, has recast the way individuals and communities interact. Urbanisation and climate change demand a new model and method to sustain unprecedented growth. The traditional notion of an office building is now an outmoded trope and a moribund use of space and energy. In fact, it may be a “2D philosophy” stuck in a disrupted, dynamic, 3D world.

Why would we want to hold onto old, outdated models when we could be ushering in the future? It’s time to consider a new strategy for our cities – one that infuses fresh value into our existing spaces and forges meaningful collaborations, starting from the ground up.

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13 replies »

  1. Urbanisation leads to climate change. Why not then regional areas or new/smaller towns are developed to reduce green house effect. Its a political manifesto to invest money in cities where there is population for vote bank, but investing money in cities draws more population from regional centres that are deprived of money.

    Smaller towns with natural habitat should be trialled.

    • Hi Anand,
      Thanks for your comment. What you say is absolutely true. There is of course a need to facilitate growth and sustainability for rural and regional communities and infrastructure. My provocation within this blog was to explore the notion of actually changing the way we view the socialisation of our existing cities and the built environment. Urbanisation, mega/large cities are a fact of life in the 21st century – but do they need to follow the historical model of how they function into the future? I wanted to explore how we might change the way we interact within the city environment and how we work or the ‘workplace works.’ Social isolation exists both in cities and in regions. I’m fascinated in how we breakdown barriers, change what we’ve come to expect and how we might redesign cities to better connect people, the build environment, places within cites and experiences people share.

  2. The idea that concentrating populations through verticality within already strained urban environments is probably exactly what Gensler Architects were arguing against. Building vertical cities is cheap and efficient for government because it doesn’t involve costly infrastructure or services for regional areas. Truly innovative thinking would look globally, rather than focussing on ‘densifying’ our own backyard. Singapore is adopting a vertical development plan because it has nowhere to go geographically. So too cities like Hong Kong. It seems strange to be thinking that the future is up, when we have not begun to explore the possibilities of subterranean farming (opening up farmland), floating cities, and making use of the millions of square kilometres of mining leases currently besmirching the planet. Engineering the future means thinking beyond the dark imagery of ‘Bladerunner’, which is hardly a world I’d wish on my children’s children.

    • Hi Scott,
      Thanks for your reply – I’m defiantly not a Bladerunner or a hunter of replicants! In fact, in my provocation, rather than ascribing to a dark vision of a future city, I wanted to explore how cities could become more socially connected and bring a deeper sense of community, not only to street or open spaces but within workplaces and accommodation. In my view, cities need to continue to evolve and nurture a ‘soul’ – not just physically grow. I wanted to explore how (say) and office building or a floor where people work might be enhanced if families and or small businesses shared the space? What might happen if team at work were became the daytime social support for the elderly living independently – within the work environment? What would happen if we softened hard spaces with small food bowls? How does closed become open? What if the children of the future could come to a city where free range chicken grazed on a green rooftop and vegetables grew nearby? Far from being a dark place, we might create places which linked our children to the essence of the village of old.

  3. Bottom line. You are trying to brainwash us and you persist with the “Just Imagine” drive. Soon you will make us (humankind) extinct with respect to your approaches. Nevertheless, you can enjoy living in your “up in the sky cave”. I am quite happy to live in Africa in a single storey house on my 1996 square metre (m2) property. Furthermore, my two (2) German Shepherds have plenty of space to charge around the house and get plenty of exercise. Secondly, when we get visitors, their children (and their friends) have plenty of space to play in the garden. As implied, do enjoy your cave which is hundreds and hundreds of metres above ground level.

    • Up is good… for those who want it. However, we should not limit our thinking in one direction 🙂

      While roof gardens have a role to play, they cannot substitute for the ‘great outdoors’ as a place to refresh the soul; where kids and adults play, or simply enjoy being alive.

      Yes, the trend is for megacities. But it need not be.

      Technology may yet allow us to reverse the upward trend, expanding our built form laterally, while reducing our impact on the land and nourishing the soul.

      As more and more of our goods and services become ‘virtualised’ and ‘automated’, the capital goods and labour required to produce our basic needs diminishes.

      Less equipment and fewer hours also mean less space to house the work, changing the requirements of the built form. This trend is evidenced by the ‘paperless office’, which (despite appearances) has been around for decades: when you get rid of the paper, you get rid of the job… without the job, you don’t need the office! It becomes invisible because it no longer exists.

      We are going to see many more ‘invisible offices’ in the coming years, accelerated by the shift to VR which is going to facilitate ‘in-person’ work meetings without the need to travel.

      These trends offer the opportunity to create distributed ‘self-sufficient’ communities spread across the land; with some broad-acre farms and nature reserves, and high-speed interconnects, between; reducing our ecological footprint and giving our souls breathing space. Instead of ‘dormitory suburbs’, these communities need to be built with their own power, water, vertical farms/food production, education and health services, and additive manufacturing capability – all based upon the principles of the ‘circular economy’; as well as gardens and cultural and entertainment facilities that give life to a community; with a range of housing, so no one in the community is subject to the threat of homelessness.

      VR gives us the opportunity to visualise and simulate these communities in detail. They can be built through professional competitions involving local communities. Of course, it will mean compensating anyone adversely impacted in order to achieve the net benefits.

      But it is not just about the ‘built form’.

      It will require the residents to have the right mix of technology, knowledge and skills to build and maintain their own infrastructure and services. AR and VR will reduce the ‘knowledge/education’ shortfall by giving people immediate access to the world’s information.

      The big questions are: what is the minimum population size, with what skills and capital, that can be largely ‘self-sufficient’ (excluding major manufacturing and electronics, but including repair). How do we attract and/or educate and retain the right mix of residents so that the community remains largely self-sufficient without a ‘major employer’?

      While many current jobs will be lost in the transition, there really is no end to work: to build, repair and beautify our homes and cities and educate/enculturate our young, and to care for and include our old and incapacitated, and to engage in all manner of hobbies and sports and cultural pursuits. But we need people with the skills and, unfortunately, ‘trades’ and ‘caring’ and ‘educating’ and ‘cleaning’ are regarded as ‘lower grade’ occupations, though they are the foundation of a ‘beautiful society’.

      We also need a new vision for how the remaining work is shared, so we don’t have a small minority working huge hours and the rest working few hours earning little money.

      And we need a shift in understanding about the role of money in valuing ‘work’, as already more than 50% of ‘work’ in the community, and in maintaining the home and caring for our young, old and incapacitated, is unpaid. Yet, it is perhaps some of the most valuable work we do.

      It means recognising that if money is tied to work, as paid work diminishes, or during the transition to a different work-value system, if you don’t have money (if you are young, old, incapacitated or their unpaid carer or unemployed) you are invisible to the market, which means the market cannot respond to deliver what you need.

      The only way over 50% of the population now gets money is via family, charity, welfare and crime. At best, this is uncertain for a large proportion who are dependent upon those without a regular job, or whose ‘breadwinner’ earns minimum wages. This dependence also creates second class citizens.

      Perhaps we need to be thinking about a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a ‘floor’ that allows people to work and earn as much as they can on top. The UBI is not a ‘silver bullet’. It is just the base.

      We also have to understand that though the internet has been a boon for communication and trade, it has also enabled us to retreat into our own echo chambers; making it much harder to share a common vision, around say, a shift to ‘distributed self-sufficient communities, underpinned by a UBI’.

      Case in point, very few people will even read this post!

      It has also made it harder to keep up physical relationships as working hours get spread across the day and the week. Once, it was a matter of a phone call, or just dropping around on the ‘weekend’, and you could be pretty sure of seeing your family and friends. Now you need an app just to find common free time, and even then people cannot make it at the last moment due to work or other demands. Distributed self-sufficient communities could perhaps help people strengthen and expand their personal relationships, even reviving the ‘small town’ feel of old?

      These are just some of the ‘functional issues’ we need to address in designing the built form.

      As the old saying goes: ‘form follows function’… though, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘the forms we build also determine how we function’ 🙂

      • Hi Michael,
        Thanks for your insightful reply to my blog post. When I was developing my idea, and writing this blog post, I was always keen to hear ideas that might arise from my provocation. You rightly point out that there are many complex, inter-related and evolving inputs that both shape and influence where we live, work and how that might look in the future.
        I’d have to say, my definition of vertical villages isn’t limited to simply constructing 50 – 80 storey towers and cramming people into these – with some tokenistic green spaces or places surrounding them. I’m interested in buildings that are (perhaps) 8 – 10 stories, incorporate non-traditional interiors that are perhaps connected by design elements like internal stairs (not fire stairs), indoor and outdoor areas and have the flexibility within their footprint to be reconfigured.
        At their heart is a design imperative to connect and nurture people. To break the traditional view that an office is for businesspeople only, 99% of whom are there only during business hours. If a building’s design has at its core a focus on creating communities and nurturing wellbeing, how much of a positive impact could this have on peoples’ lives? Our cities, their buildings and new concepts are not the panacea for the ills we face but I believe if we could find ways to better facilitate personal connections and create hundreds of strong communities within our cities/buildings. If we could do this, maybe the benefits could create significant, positive impacts for communities?

  4. What a fascinating conversation you have sparked John! So interesting. The need to increase human connectedness is critical and as we will always have urban density, your ideas to “foster the kind of human collisions to breed social diversity and infuse new life into old infrastructures” certainly made me (and clearly others!) think! I always think of new parents (particularly mothers) in this context – our autonomous households and mobility meaning family and friend networks are often too far away – mean isolation and loneliness is very real. Also for our older people.

    Your blog has also encouraged the sharing of others’ ideas. Exactly what the Just Imagine blog is for. Thank you.

    • Hi Penny,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I certainly agree with you… connectedness and inclusion across ages, stages of life (e.g. for parents with young children) and how we might better blend social/business groups is an area that fascinates me too.
      We know that personal wellbeing is the disease of the 21st century. Things like stress, isolation (individual and cultural) and the good old ‘generation gap’ are impacting greater numbers of people. With people working longer hours, travelling further and changing careers more frequently, it’s harder to maintain connections and build communities. Rapid development of new city districts, both for business and residential, often result in street-level areas that have to play catch-up or never quite create the buzz of older communities and neighbourhoods. I don’t believe we need to accept that density creates division, I think we need to focus on and explore why we should explore new ways to foster diversify of design ideas, bring people together and create richer experiences within buildings and the urban environment.
      People who own pets live longer. I have a dog that I walk regularly and apart from the exercise I get, I always end up talking to strangers while I’m walking my dog. Double benefit. Imagine being able to share lunch at a workplace kitchen with (say) a young mother who lives in an apartment on your floor at work, or supporting an elderly couple who lived in an apartment on your floor at your workplace, perhaps visiting small business that operated next to a printer room and eating at a tiny café that grew food on a balcony at your work? Sharing a building which had two commercial floors then two residential floors. Designing in diversity and inclusion to the built environment. The potential is only limited by what we fail to imagine. Now that would be a vertical village where people connect!

  5. Great inciteful article John. We are starting to see population decline in advanced western countries like Germany and France, if that trend spreads across the developed world, could we see reverse in the vertical trend demand?

    • Hi Nial,
      Thanks for posting your comment/question. You’re correct, the impact of population decline will definitely have an impact on population density. This could certainly reduce the need for greater numbers of residential or commercial properties within cities, thus reducing the potential demand for vertical village solutions.
      Interestingly, I wonder if such a decline could also create an opportunity for redefining the use of our current city high-rise building stocks? What I mean by this is that declining population numbers drives the aging population demographic which in turn has an impact on economies, GDP, budget surpluses, etc. Perhaps if all levels of government are faced with resultant fiscal challenges, their view of supporting/creating unabated urban sprawl, along with the necessary infrastructure, might begin to adapt over time?
      If this did occur, could this be the opportunity for the vertical village approach to be further debated and explored? Maybe existing and new buildings could be re-lifed or designed to be multifunctional to create a blend of occupant groups? These buildings might then draw people from suburbs and could cost-effectively alleviate some of the economic/social impacts created when new suburbs are developed without the proper infrastructure – e.g. schools, public transport networks, social support, strip shopping, health/child/aged-care, community spaces, etc., etc.
      If blended, vertical communities took off as populations declined, they could positively impact aging members of the community – if they were drawn to this style of living. The blended vertical village could positively impact social isolation within young families where the primary caregiver spends long periods home alone. If a declining population felt there was a benefit in moving to cities, this could free up time for people who are currently travelling for long periods to their jobs. But the ultimate challenge is to facilitate discussions which drive policy relating to the interconnected nature of how people live, how we deliver urban planning, what changing population demographics mean for cities and suburbs, placemaking and alternative ways of fostering new communities.

  6. Hi John,

    Thanks for this interesting article which I first found in the latest e-Construction World. You quoted some ‘stats to stop the bus’ which prompted me to find this article on “Just Imagine” where I followed your link to the “UN 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects” report.

    I subsequently downloaded this report and have come to the conclusion that you have miss-interpreted the report when you state that “90% of Africa’s and Asia’s population will be urban” by 2050. This is not correct and should be rectified since it can be highly misleading.

    The report is actually saying that the “growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa”. There are actually a number of countries or areas where the urban population percentages are above 90% but these are places like Hong Kong, Singapore, desert bound countries, snow bound countries etc. This definitely does not apply to the whole of Asia and Africa.

    • Hi Johan, thank you for bringing this to our attention. We are happy to let you know that we have updated the sentence referring to the report.

      Thank you for reading our Just Imagine blog!

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