Over the last few years, time seemed to have operated in an elastic fashion for many of us. During Covid, it moved incredibly slowly and fast all at once. And, now that the pandemic is basically in our rear view mirror; sometimes it seems like Covid was a long time ago or only yesterday depending on how we are feeling.
In the midst of that experience, Scott Higgins – President of HIP Developments and I wrote a book about the changing nature of cities called The JOY Experiments. In the book we discussed how the pandemic accelerated many existing tends and we speculated about a few new ones such as “work flexibility”. Now that the recovery is well underway, we need not speculate any more. It is clear that for many, the structure of work is being renegotiated into various forms of hybrid models. When you add in the pressures of climate change, a chronically divided society and social isolation caused by digital technology, it is not an overstatement to suggest that we could call this moment of time “The Renegotiation of Everything” as we strive to improve the environment and our social and economic prosperity.
All these changes are being sharply felt within the context of the cities in which we live, work and run businesses. For example, the work flexibility issues carry big implications for the structure of cities in several ways:
- Commuting time to work will play less of a factor in where people choose to live.
- People will place more quality of life demands on upon the neighbourhoods they inhabit primarily because they will be spending significantly more time there.
- There is a shift in the demand for commercial space – both retail and office.
These issues turn a lot of status quo city planning rules upside down. Not that long ago some people – feeling pushed out of the Toronto real estate market – might have considered Milton or Kitchener for an alternative commuter home. This approach was based on an efficiency model of “Drive Until You Can Afford”. Now, with more people feeling far less tethered to where they work, some might think of Collingwood, with all its play infrastructure, as home base. This human spirit model could be referred to as “Drive Until You Fall In Love”.
Current return to office numbers are less than half of what they were pre Covid and as a hybrid working model becomes the new normal, many businesses are experimenting with the role of the office. Some companies see it as a unique setting for collaboration and culture building rather than floors of cubicles designed for repetitive tasks.
An interesting challenge faces citizens who want more public activity within the neighbourhoods in which they are spending more time. In North America, doing things in public traditionally meant shopping on busy main streets or shopping malls. However, digital technology, in the form of ecommerce, Uber Eats and Skip The Dishes, is quickly stripping that away – leaving sparsely populated strip malls and quiet downtowns. Creating vibrant communities is not going to be as easy as it once was.
With all this in mind, the growing question for the construction sector, city planners, politicians and real estate developers becomes “what new approaches will drive this new era of city building?” Scott and I would audaciously say that city builders need to make some room in their planning processes for a new kind of infrastructure – Infrastructure for the Human Spirit. It is time to think of JOY as a practical goal for building cities.
Historically, cities have been built, and funded, according to a Live, Work, Play model. With an emphasis on Live and Work, there were few funds left over for Play, which is the key ingredient to creating vibrant environments that attract and retain a healthy, creative, and stable workforce, including the critical talent found within our youth. We need to reshuffle the deck and our priorities to PLAY+LIVE+WORK = JOY.
Play: When you play you feel joy. You are connected to your surroundings and people. You are not isolated. Your body and mind are working the way they were meant to work.
Live: When people are around places with infrastructure for play, they are engaged, growing, and truly living. They have energy and they do amazing things. They take pride in what they create and where they live.
Work: Where talent goes, businesses and investment flows. The talent our economy depends upon gravitates to vibrant environments.
This new formula calls for a fundamental shift in how we choose to organize, prioritize, and build the places where we live. It requires all of us to invest in a new type of infrastructure, that nurtures our human spirit, at the same level as we invest in conventional civil infrastructure.
Infrastructure for the Human Spirit can include:
- Inclusive community identity building
- Redefining the purpose of public space to become engaging places of cultural celebration
- Office and retail spaces designed to elevate human contact experiences that simply cannot be replicated by the click of a laptop or the beep of a smartphone
- Engaging public art that expresses and encourages community storytelling
- Breaking down social siloes by providing FREE spaces for the act of joyfully playing with strangers
- Well-choreographed urban density with a focus on the diversity of the space and its inhabitants
- Public mobility that is viewed as a source of social engagement
Joy is so important to our economic and social prosperity that it’s practical. We are in an age where our relationship to work, our cities and our planet is being renegotiated. To ignore that is most certainly not practical and even dangerous in the long run. If joy is prioritized as a city building objective, it can become the key to creating a future where our human spirit does more than just survive – it thrives within inclusive, vibrant, and prosperous living where all citizens are mentally and physically healthier, more united, and more productive.
Changing cities changes the world.
The JOY Experiments was written to start a new conversation on city building. I invite you to join that conversation by purchasing your copy at www.thejoyexperiments.com .
May – June 2023
By Paul Kalbfleisch