Innovation and Reinventing Public Housing

Innosite, a Danish construction industry open innovation platform, recently launched a challenge to help reinvent traditional public housing outside of major towns in Denmark. Apparently, fueled by scarcity of jobs, commuting distance, and rock bottom housing prices, fewer are choosing to live in such areas.

While many of the proposed solutions seemed based on architecture or design, I submitted a concept that focused on the people instead of the housing stock. It unexpectedly won third prize.

In trying to approach the problem, I thought about the common traits among those living in public housing communities around the globe. The one obvious unifying thread is economic difficulty.  In thriving communities, there are other common threads. People who love boating live near the beach together and rally around that passion. Those who love plants live along well manicured streets. Those who prefer urban hustle and bustle live in highrises in the center of the action.

The unspoken truth about more traditional housing searches is that residents choose where to live based in part on the traits of other residents. When people live among like-minded neighbors, they accept a set of community standards and rules that will come to define their community identity. They act as gatekeepers for the destiny of their own neighborhood and generally, these standards will determine whether or not communities flourish. As an added bonus, this kind of common bond makes initiating social interaction far easier.

Borrowing an idea that’s been in play at my alma mater, Oberlin College, for decades, I suggested deploying a concept of Themed Communities across public housing.

My Submission:

Allow groups of people to request a cluster of flats, buildings or households to create a community around a specific interest, discipline, trade, social interest or nationality. Some potential examples of people who might want to live and socialize with others of similar background include expats or migrants; artists, craftsmen, or musicians; widows or single parent households, or even those pursuing training or interested in a specific trade.

This helps foster a sense of community since residents will already share a common bond. Residents can support each other and learn from/work with each other as they all rally around their common interest.

The idea is not that a specific list of available communities is created and then opened up for application. Instead, a process should be created to allow potential residents to apply for creation of a community that they think has a need and enough interest to be viable.

In such an application, residents could discuss potential goals, activities, events, programs or needs such a community might have. They could specify which area among available public housing would be ideal for such a community and why. They could also estimate how many occupants they anticipate, listing any that are already committed to moving into such a community should it be approved. And most importantly, they could direct what modifications, upgrades or amenities their community might need. This would be a more effective use of resources than a broader, generic “modernizing or updating” of existing units.

A requirement could also be that this Themed Community to provide programs or events the larger surrounding community. This would guarantee interaction among these different Themed Communities so that none become an island in the middle of a sea of other public housing occupants. A process like this would likely fill units more quickly for two reasons: 1) whatever group has applied for the Themed Community will likely be very motivated to recruit potential residents for it; and 2) among individual potential residents, a sense of urgency to move into the community before it is full or no more units are available will prompt quicker occupancy.

Even people from neighboring towns or cities could be engaged with specific Themed Communities that are interesting to them, lessening the negative stigma of living in public housing.

Another advantage to having public housing centered around a specific, similar group of people is that it becomes easier for social programs that would be beneficial to those residents to address them directly.

More information on the contest, Innosite, and the other winners can be found here.