The idea of a single building where you live, work and play may seem very much of the moment, driven by advances in communications technology. But mixed-use developments have been around for as long as mankind. Research has revealed that complex cave systems hosted multiple uses hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Romans built large multi-use complexes across their empire. And during medieval times, people used to manufacture, sell and live in the same building.
It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that industry and trade were separated from homes. Advances in mechanical and agricultural technologies brought on board processes that were highly toxic and dirty, while instances of plague and infestation grew, as larger volumes of food were stored to feed a growing urban population. Large-scale industrial automation also required special access and ample spaces to accommodate large and noisy machinery and production systems.
Times are changing
Much has changed since industrial times. The gradual move from a “manufacturing” to a “services” era, the growth of specialised fields of expertise and advances in communication have all meant that organisations could operate at a smaller scale, giving more people the opportunity to work from home.
What’s more, sustainability has become an increasingly important consideration over the past few decades. As a growing body of research shows that flexible spaces can be more economically viable and land efficient, mixed use schemes are gaining popularity once more. In some countries,legislation and financial incentives embrace the view that all different aspects of life can successfully be performed at a local level, in a shared place.
But making the switch back to mixed use isn’t quite so simple. Growing population densities in cities, intricate property ownership models and the need to share limited land resources all present a challenge to changing the way people live and work.
Urban designers must relearn how to allocate different activities and various levels of privacy within one space, while resolving all the increasingly complex technicalities of contemporary city life.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for architects and designers is having to learn to work in parallel with other fields of expertise. Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue, with new communication tools and software solutions that allow everyone involved to work simultaneously on one shared design model. While still in the transition phase, architects are acknowledging and embracing the changes required.
But there are other reasons why the changes in building patterns have been slow. There is still a public perception that living in a purely residential area is desirable.
For one thing, there’s a widespread misconception that residential suburbia, with trees and front gardens, but segregated from the main city and its services, equates to the garden city, historically regarded as a healthier living option. In fact, the garden city was initially designed so that residents could have easy access to local jobs and essential services through a highly connected “urban economy” system. This misunderstanding prevents many from appreciating the benefits of healthier and more flexible ways to inhabit our planet.
People don’t like the idea of sharing their residential spaces with industrial and commercial uses. Issues such as noise, smells and loss of privacy prevent some buyers from investing in mixed use schemes. But this tendency is gradually changing. Examples across the globe are showing that living, working, socialising and entertaining locally has multiple benefits such as shorter commuting times and a more active and engaged social life. This is true in both large cities and lower density areas.
What’s more, mixed use developments can help residents to establish frequent contact and long term relationships with others. Virtual reality and global communication systems are connecting people around the world. But they also detach people from those they are closest to. A built environment that keeps people together and offers more opportunities to meet could mitigate this problem.
Lives are becoming more fused, and the boundaries between family life, social life and work, are gradually disintegrating. In response, the built environment must adapt, offering greater flexibility and efficiency, while helping citizens to reach for a richer, healthier, happier future.
Laura Alvarez works for Lathams (architects and urbanists) and is a Director at alkiki CIC. She is the UDG regional convenor.