Invest in social capital

Invest in social capital

Oslo Opera House exterior with accessible roof. Credit: Ryan Biziorek

I think that as designers we should challenge our clients to include more civic amenities in projects. Why? Because I believe that investing in social capital creates a self-sustaining cycle of urban improvement.

Urban populations are becoming increasingly diverse and transitory. Our connection to our immediate surroundings is weakening as we evolve into citizens of our private virtual worlds, becoming only passive denizens of the places we live in.

The rich and the powerful, developers and investors can take advantage of the resulting civic voids, staking claims of ownership and privilege – think of gated communities, or the ‘anti-homeless’ spikes seen in London, for example. Many new developments do include spaces for socialising, but only in the form of cafes or shopping centres, where you’re not welcome unless you’re there to spend money. Everyone else feels less and less that the city is theirs to shape and take care of, and so they then see fewer reasons to engage with its upkeep or betterment.

But by including public spaces and amenities that are open to all in private projects, you can encourage a sense of shared civic agency. As more people feel they have a place in their city, they start to feel they have a say in their city. This self-sustaining cycle of civic pride and engagement can transform a city, once people start looking at urban development as something that happens for them rather than in spite of them.

As designers, I believe we can help to kick-start that cycle by reminding or convincing our clients when we see an opportunity for a civic-minded intervention in their project. It’s a win-win situation because the additional monetary costs are offset by the positive externalities of a better reputation, happier neighbours, and a sense of pride in the places we live. For the developer, there’s the opportunity to benefit from an enhanced reputation.

On a recent study tour to Copenhagen involving three of Arup’s European offices, I was surprised to see how a government initiative to turn the city into one of the world’s most liveable had morphed into a full-blown urban phenomenon with strong support from the private sector.

Copenhagen’s quality of life is famous all over the world, but we learned that it goes way beyond cycle lanes and public swimming baths in the harbour. We saw countless private projects that had integrated public amenities for the benefit of local communities – and entirely at their own cost: climbing walls on transformer stations; seating areas on the roofs of office buildings; and even a public ski slope on top of a power plant!

The pride Copenhageners have in their city felt tangible, and the way they treated these amenities was striking. It was clearly as much a result of the local government’s policies as of the mutual trust between the citizens and the private enterprise providing them; they treat these facilities well because they feel they are also theirs.

Their profusion seems to have begun a battle, as developers race to out-do each other to give more back to the community. I think this is a refreshing approach and one that we should persuade our clients is in their best interests too.

Mikal Ahmed