The emotional and economic impacts of cities are closely connected, but this is lost in a proliferation of meaningless phrases like "healthy placemaking" and "human-centric design", says Reinier de Graaf.
The built environment affects us all. It is the common opening line of every conference about architecture. Elitist in the 1970s, forgotten in the 80s, rediscovered in the 90s, idolised in the 00s, architecture today mostly registers as a cause for concern, a discipline insufficiently aware of its consequences, one to be scrutinised and kept in check.
Gone are the days of splendid isolation, privileged deliberations among peers and wallowing in each other's praise. Architecture has caught the eye of public authorities and the business world alike, and there is one thing the two wholeheartedly agree on: too much is at stake to leave architecture to architects.
Indeed, the built environment affects us all, emotionally and economically. To start with the latter, valued at 280 trillion US dollars, real estate represents the largest global asset class: triple the global GDP, worth twice the world's oil reserves and thirty times its gold stock.
Buildings (and the land they sit on) are the most important pillar of our financial system, and as our most recent global crisis demonstrated, an occasional source of its collapse. But while buildings generally make us richer, they don't seem to make us any happier. Never has the emotional evaluation of our built environment taken on more importance. Happiness, well-being and (mental) health are the predominant terms in which it is being discussed, their prolific use indicative of the scale of the perceived problem.
Buildings (and the land they sit on) are the most important pillar of our financial system
What explains this schizophrenic situation? On the one hand, our built environment is the source of stratospheric financial returns, on the other it appears to be the cause of permanent mental suffering. The two realities exist simultaneously and in complete parallel.
While it would be obvious to expect a discrepancy of this kind to spark a fierce debate between the private sector (the main beneficiary) and the public sector (the one picking up the bill), nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary: the greater the discrepancy, the greater the consensus seems to build. Both the public and the private sector have come to discuss the built environment in similarly positivist terms: liveability, community engagement, inclusivity… each concept carefully skirting any possibility of an ideological rift.
Benign as the rhetoric seems, some pressingly unresolved cases have been left in its wake: Vancouver, one of the world's most livable cities, is the first city to have introduced a vacancy tax; Portland (Maine), the largest city of one of America's least populous states, engages its largely absent community through art projects; and the UK's non-place Milton Keynes has come to champion the idea of placemaking.
Questions arise about the meaning of such concepts. What are we to conclude when cities are most livable when they are not being lived in, community engagement thrives on the absence of one and placemaking mostly manifests as wishful thinking?
"Healthy placemaking", "human-centric design", "immersive environments", "happiness-based interventions", "compassionate community consultation", "people-first spaces", "hedonistic sustainability"… The idiom multiplies in the form of endless combinations. Yet despite its ever-increasing volume, the glossary of contemporary planning remains curiously myopic, featuring no terminology to explain, or even register today's implausible chance encounter between the economic gains produced by, and apparent emotional strain attributed to our built environment. Most of its terms simply focus on the latter without ever questioning why the paradox exists in the first place.
What ails do panacea like healthy placemaking or happiness-based interventions even aim to cure?
Behind the paraphernalia of street furniture, imported vegetation and participatory artworks, policy leaflets and developer brochures invariably reveal a longing for architecture from the past: Victorian England, 18th century America, colonial Africa, etc.
Accompanying terms like "evidence-based design" or "tested solutions", notwithstanding their aura of objectivity, unequivocally indicate a bias towards tradition – not so much about problems to solve as about a political agenda to promote. Is it a coincidence that the Building Better, Building Beautiful campaign is the invention of a Conservative government?
In Western Europe – thanks to a century of progressive emancipatory struggle – we have never been healthier, we have never been happier, and let's assume our sense of belonging has survived relatively intact. One wonders: what ails do panacea like "healthy placemaking" or "happiness-based interventions" even aim to cure? And: what if the purpose of the discourse is not "the solution" but the discourse itself? What if the insistence to discuss the built environment in emotive terms is not at odds with its economic significance, but intimately related to… yes, even part of it?
If Orwell's Newspeak aimed to limit people's ability to think by reducing the amount of words at their disposal, the contemporary discourse seems to rely on the inversion of that principle: inebriating the brain with an infinite proliferation of meaningless terms, stifling anyone's capacity to argue.
Let's not forget that liveable, or happy cities are primarily that because they are rich cities
Defying any possibility of a dialectical argument, words like liveability, happiness and well-being feel like a giant tribute to the obvious: not a critique but an endorsement of our built reality, a covert way to ensure that the true interests at work are never discussed, let alone touched.
It is common knowledge that the top one percent of the world's population owns as much of global wealth as the poorest fifty percent. Yet rarely ever is this issue discussed in relation to the built environment. Basic questions about wealth and income distribution are routinely ignored. Is it a coincidence that studies preoccupied with the city's health and happiness dominate precisely when inequality in the Western world (where most of them are conducted) is beginning to reach ever-more extreme levels?
The more we focus on what the built environment should do for us in emotive terms, the more we fail to recognise what it does to us in economic terms. Inequality between people increases when the returns on capital start to exceed those on labour.
Outpacing the average wage increase by far, the appreciation of global real estate value plays a huge role in contributing to that process. Let's not forget that liveable, or happy cities are primarily that because they are rich cities. Still, more than rich cities, they are expensive cities, too expensive meanwhile for most of us to afford a decent home in. Yes, the built environment affects us all!
Photography is by Lukas Kloeppel.