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Sophia Boyd of AECOM says we are not only going to have to look at new ways of working, we will also need to consider new ways of living.

An estimated 25% of the world’s urban population live in informal settlements (1). This growing urban population relocates to the outskirts of cities for better opportunities and employment. 

What we see in developing countries are drives by international organisations to create shelters. The “T-Shelter” (transitional shelter (2)) is the icon of such responses – prefabricated, easy to deploy and quick to ‘shelter’ persons. The T-Shelter fulfils the paradigm of a shelter: a roof, walls, floors, door. A House – but not a home. 

Masterplanning aims to provide frameworks for development to take place (3). Designing structures and voids; giving purpose to spaces. They aid in addressing local and national requirements i.e. housing numbers. However, in some cases, addressing such requirements can make their uses ‘too rigid’’ (4). 

As a human race we are quick to deal with an immediate need, placing the power for decision making and creation with ‘experts’. But those experts may have no local understanding or have any consideration for a what makes a space more than just a shelter – but a personal, interpretable experience in the long term and for future uses and occupants. 

Gordon Douglas’ “DIY Urban Design” (5) explores how people make ‘unauthorized alterations to urban space’ through their motivation to improve their urban areas. These are interpreted as a challenge to current models regarding who is empowered to make decisions about how spaces are used. 

Post-COVID19 working practices are making us question what the future of the working environment looks like. This provides an opportunity to question our approach to Masterplanning and ask if we are currently empowering the right people at the stage to create flexible enough spaces which can adapt to changes in culture, economy and lifestyles.

How do we currently plan for future uses of space which may result from such unprecedented changes in behaviour as we have seen with COVID-19?

Nick Searl, Partner at Argent, discusses the successful flexible Masterplanning approach taken with the Kings Cross development looking towards the Brent Cross South masterplan (6). One key point Nick makes is understanding the ‘local audience’ and culture is a driver for flexible Masterplanning.

Nick notes that whilst these concepts of flexibility and adaptability are not new – changes in cultural attitude to modern ways of living and working can provide that opportunity rarely happen on such a fast and large scale as seen with the COVID-19 pandemic response. 

What would Masterplanning look like if we change the constraints and process of planning design by giving the opportunity and authority to interpret the use of space to future occupants?

Very loosely speaking: the current tools for planning involve the application of physical and descriptive constraints. Depending on their application: they take the power of decision away from the user and ultimately apply use classes to spaces which are then developed and defined within the constraints of that allocation. 

Consider the Johari Window: a technique that was originally developed by psychologists Luft and Ingham to help individuals better understand their relationship with themselves and others.

A subject individual and a group of peers take a list of adjectives and apply these to describe the subject under one of four quadrants:

  • Open - Adjectives that both the subject and peers select;
  • Blind - Adjectives not selected by subjects, but only by their peers;
  • Hidden - Adjectives selected by the subject, but not by any of their peers;
  • Unknown - Adjectives that neither subject nor peers selected;

We could apply a similar approach to understanding our relationship with space. 

No one individual will perceive the privacy of one space in equal measure to all others. Therefore, creating spaces which provide a variety of public, private and ‘mixed’ spaces along a transitional scale which can then be interpreted and adapted by a user/occupant gives users and occupants more decision-making power.

What makes a space a home, an office, a shop or a café? And what specifically differentiates the uses of each?

Think of an office: a lot of modern offices will have lights, computers, appropriate furniture (including sofas, individual tables and chairs) and kitchenettes. A lot have integrated shower facilities, gyms and cafes. Others have included onsite medical facilities with professionals on hand. 

It is highly likely you have ordered Christmas Gifts online and had them delivered to your office. Almost certainly some of those gifts were for you. 

If we are going to look at new ways of working, clearly, we need to consider new ways of living. ‘WeLive’ (in New York) and ‘Tipi’ (in Wembley) offer spaces you can live but share facilities such as kitchen areas - but always have your own private ‘space’. 

Considering the above, not to mention the huge rental market of flat sharing that is a reality for those living in dense urban areas: affordable and well-located spaces are a priority. What we are starting to see in urban areas is the overlap between activities once originally reserved for a private home that can now be carried out within a workplace or cafe. 

It is almost as though we are seeing the boundaries between our private living spaces blur with other public or semi-public spaces. This is where the ‘middle’ section of a transitional Public/Private scale becomes more tangible: areas where there is limited access, but not specifically for individual or public access. 

This proposed concept is not without flaws: the potential deregulation to allow informal responses to urban planning can lead to poorly co-located ‘spaces’: quiet areas with noisy or polluting activities within proximity. Ultimately, having some form of control can protect the wider population.

So why consider an alternative approach? Catering to an unlimited set of variables is impossible but giving people the means and choice to adapt spaces to create more personal approaches to their own work/life balances is essential for future planning and design.  

Informality exists despite planning, not thanks to it” - and, it always will.



WhenThisIsAllOver is the London Society's debate about what the post-virus, post-lockdown world will and should look like. Contributions so far include:

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