Notopia and its generic anywhere-architecture must stop; we must strive to build social ecosystems
Notopia is not only how a city looks. It may be found even in an attractive metropolis, densely packed with fine buildings old and new, replete with coffee shops and bicycle lanes. Here, Notopia is a simulacrum of inhabitation, like a stage set for its players. Nothing is what it seems. The historic apartments that overlook the twisted pedestrianised lanes of Barcelona are in fact hotel rooms for weekend visitors. The towering sea-view condominiums of Vancouver are foreign investment properties bought in exchange for citizenship. Detroit’s streets of elegant gabled houses have no services, the municipal water systems long turned off.
A real city lives. It is a trading post, a natural meeting place where humans converge to exchange, not only goods, but ideas and culture. They set about marrying and employing each other.
It is a hub for adventuring and joint venturing, with homes, schools and places of work within touching distance. It renews itself, a city with neighbourhoods of all kinds of people, from grandchild to grandmother.
What might the post-digital city look like, and how can we design its neighbourhood economics to work for us?
We can design for diversity of pursuits and culture – for different social classes, ages and incomes on the same street, and public space for them to meet. But the missing link is as much economic, as spatial. The nicer homes are uninhabited – purchased from abroad, the owners pay few taxes and visit rarely, and invest only in their business overseas. They have no need of a housekeeper or the local convenience store, and their presence produces no job opportunities in the country, let alone the community. Similarly, Airbnbs create a small economic boost for the few, but the tenants do not need schools or nannies, and do not vote in local elections. In these scenarios, money takes up space, drives up property prices, and pushes people out.
Notopia is a disease that prevents, either by design or in a complete failure of housing policy, the creation of a self-sustaining socioeconomic human ecosystem.
On the internet, in our digital communities, we gather on social media where deals are done, love is found, food ordered, frustrations shared, gifts purchased, questions answered, capital raised and petitions signed. We have grown more cosmopolitan, appearing in each other’s homes via Skype, investing in each other’s businesses, even a world away. While the scourge of Notopia brings social segregation, delivered and delineated in neighbourhoods gentrified or sunk, online there are no borders other than barriers we erect selectively, friending or blocking.
The failed promise of the internet is how it has hurt the real world – the home, the local shop, the municipality, and ourselves. The digital world is one of sensory deprivation: there is nothing to touch, taste or smell, a realm bereft of delight and intimacy of the most human kind.
In the city, we can be surprised by the unexpected pleasure of a conversation with someone we would never have ‘swiped right’. It’s where an umbrella is held over your head by a stranger, the bike courier cuts you up and you curse loudly, and the market seller offers you the sharp taste of exotic fruit.
‘Notopia is a disease that prevents, either by design or in a complete failure of housing policy, the creation of a self-sustaining socioeconomic human ecosystem’
There is the half-remembered dream of a late evening in a public square in a vibrant quarter of a large city. Teenagers loiter in clusters, residents lean out of windows in conversation with the restaurateur, who serves coffee to the last customer, as the street cleaner begins the night shift. This natural, social symbiosis is nearing extinction – in some places, because nationalism and intolerance deny the migrant traffic that would fill population gaps. Cities need people to thrive.
We must stop the spread of Notopia and its generic anywhere-architecture, and build social ecosystems instead. Our buildings must not only respond to local conditions and climate, but also enable a shape-shifting range of incomes and inhabitants. We must seek balance, not too many Airbnbs, few vacant homes, enough young people, enough jobs, and productive, not just disruptive, economies. We need start-ups and large commercial spaces, subsidised and market rents, family and student housing, the more collocated, the better. We need policies such as rent control, freedom of movement and intelligent city planning to enshrine a self-renewing vitality.
The promise of this virtual world that we have built online – its freedoms of expression and connection – has failed us. What might the post-digital city look like, and how can we design its neighbourhood economics to work for us?
Lead Image: Photograph by Raj Lalwani