Posts filed under ‘cities’

Re-thinking our homes

by Pen Stuart

The home is the safe heart of many consumers’ lives, but this can make people overlook the changes that are reshaping the way people live, so it’s worth a closer look. The recent Grand Designs Live expo in London highlighted some of the most exciting things in homes. For me there were three highlights:

The future is sooner than you think: Changes in homes and housebuilding are assumed to be slow, incremental, and fairly dull, but Jaya Skandamoorthy, of the BRE, argued in a talk that when we look abroad this may be about to change. China for instance, needs to build 35 million more homes over five years to cope with urbanisation and falling household size. The sheer scale involved means the government can consider new approaches to building design, size of living space, materials used, and even urban planning itself.

Consumers in control: Closer to home, self-build housing has historically been only about 10% of new builds in the UK, compared to almost half on the continent, but now there seems to be an appetite to increase this proportion – among both governments and individuals. A raft of new policies has been launched in the past months, with the intention of doubling the amount of self-build. This could make housing more affordable, especially for young people who are currently squeezed out of the market. House building may become less constrained by the conservative expectations of developers and builders. This also mirrors the wider trends we’ve seen in other sectors.

Fit buildings to people, not people to buildings: The automated home has been talked about enthusiastically for a long time – where all devices will talk to each other seamlessly and resolve domestic problems invisibly. Grand Designs had a special Automated Home display section. But what struck me was how much this looked like a fairground – something you wander around, enjoy the spectacle, and get back to your real life.

As we say in our Technology 2020 report, people are often unwilling to fundamentally change their behaviours. On the subject of green homes, Hank Dittmar, Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, noted that new eco homes are often judged to be strange ‘teletubby homes’. Planners have declared in the past ‘the buildings work, but the people don’t’. But this is putting the problem round the wrong way. The Prince’s Foundation Natural House shows significant potential – embodying modern, eco-friendly efficient technology, but looking traditional – as a way to combine sustainability with mass market appeal.

The picture at the top of this post is of a street of ‘Natural Homes’ from the Learning from London blog, and it used with thanks.

22 May 2012 at 12:33 pm Leave a comment

Piercing the Shard

Andrew Curry writes: The Shard is inescapable from our London office. The city’s soon-to-be tallest building, a piece of concept architecture by Renzo Piano, can be seen from our office windows and most of the approaches to the office.

Obviously, size matters, at least to architects of a certain age and a certain gender. And it also seems to matter at a certain time. As the economist Andrew Lawrence has demonstrated with his Skyscraper Index, announcements of buildings billed as the tallest are an unerring leading indicator of the top of the market, that boom is about to go bust.

Behind the branding of ‘the Shard’, the building’s brochure promotes a “vertical city”, which seems not so much cutting edge as strange sixty-year old Corbuserian throwback. But in a sharp post over at the London Review of Books, Rosemary Hill points out what a modern city The Shard would be – a city with no public space:

A city without a centre, no school of course, or church, or art gallery, town hall or library, just a great glass millefeuille of individuals getting on. … Other, horizontal cities are going the same way: selling off town halls, letting high streets wither in the blast of supermarket competition and closing libraries.

Of course, the privatisation of public space has been one of the recurring themes of the last fifteen years, the darker underside of property-led regeneration. London’s City Hall, for example, eight hundred metres downriver from the Shard, sits on land which seems like public space but which is privately controlled (as protesting photographers pointed out recently). Le Corbusier had an honest ambition to build a city in the sky. For the Shard, it’s just marketing. But in a recession, you have to drum up some excitement about all that empty space.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by The Futures Company designer Gus Newsam. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

19 July 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Chrysler at the Superbowl

Leslie Koster writes:

In his ‘winners and sinners‘ post yesterday, Alex Steer mentioned that Chrysler’s Superbowl ad split opinions in our US offices. It’s worth pulling some of those different views – which have been circulating on email – out of the mix.

On the upside, Chrysler’s 2-minute spot for its new 200 sedan tugs at heartstrings. Its film-like quality captivates—as it started we sat up and took notice, and when it ended we wanted more. The piece oozed authenticity, mixing up older aesthetics and symbols (Diego Rivera mural, Joe Louis, and even the American flag that stands alone in the park that the great Tiger Stadium once stood) with the modern, luxury-oriented aesthetic.

It was made with Detroiters in mind, not just Americans, using phrasing like “That’s who we are”, “That’s our story” mixed with imagery and tone that is recognizable only to Detroit natives. It is poetic, using clever casting to mirror Detroit’s fall and hoped-for rise with Eminem’s recovery from near ruin.

But the ad triggered negative feelings too. Chrysler’s survival as a business is mainly down to taxpayer dollars, so is it irresponsible to use nearly $9 million to produce and air the longest Superbowl ad in history? Its CEO, Sergio Marchionne, is negotiating with the government for more loans, on better terms, which might make the ad simply an expensive sales presentation. Taxpayers could be forgiven for thinking, “Our money saved a car company from bankruptcy and all we got was this lousy Superbowl commercial.”

On top of that, there was a set of questions about whether the ad was better at promoting Detroit than Chrysler – which might make Ford and GM the beneficiaries of Chrysler’s investment merely by accident of geography.

Finally, there were strong feelings about the story the ad told in romanticizing Detroit and its history. Of course ads aren’t documentaries, but when they get too detached from the world the cracks start to show. Detroit fell because it refused to change, holding steadfast as it got passed by, feeling entitled to a way of life that was clearly being eroded. It built its economy and workforce on newspapers and automobiles but failed to innovate, tied up in hierarchy and tradition, as other companies lapped them by being nimble. These days, Detroit is a poster child for urban farming rather than the emblematic Motor City. It makes you wonder if Chrysler is  prepared for the future, or living in the past. Comments are open; your call.

Thanks to Sean Kernick and Chris Hloros.

8 February 2011 at 12:50 pm Leave a comment

Barefoot running

Allie Schnidman writes:

The media is buzzing with the “back to basics” theme. While this trend started with food – from the Slow Food Movement to Michael Pollan’s latest book – this “all-natural” trend seems to taking hold in the world of exercise as well.

While it is far from new, barefoot running has recently gained a considerable amount of media attention.  Runners are learning more about the advantages of running with minimal foot support and testing it with their bare feet, or for those less confident, with Vibram’s ‘Five Fingers‘  or Nike’s ‘Free’.  Runners have joined with scientists and podiatrists to debate the advantages of barefoot running: less impact on the ankles and knees leading to fewer injuries, slower strides with improved running postures and a closer connection to the environment. In fact, one of Vibram’s selling points is “a deepened connection to the earth” with a heightened sense of touch when jumping from one spot to the next.

As can be seen in the food industry, there is an ongoing shift in which the consumer seems, sometimes erratically, to reconnect with the natural environment. The shift in food consumption started with health concerns  but now extends to environmentalism: consumers want to eat for their own sustainability, and also for the environment’s sustainability.

The trend of barefoot running could follow the same pattern: we start by kicking off those shoes for health reasons, but continue for the pleasure of a heightened connection with the Earth. But perhaps this is where the comparison stops. For, sooner or later, the barefoot runner comes up hard (literally) against the experience of the paved city roads.

Certainly, as a runner, that’s the reason for my hesitation. I’m interested in testing this out with The Futures Company’s running team, but have concerns about exposing their fine feet to the streets of London. Perhaps it’s just a prejudice, but I wonder if barefoot running is meant for the countryside while pavement running is safer with a cushioned shoe; I find it hard to believe that running without shoes on paved roads is truly a natural experience. But perhaps readers have had a different experience; if so, I’d love to hear your comments.

The photo at the top of this post is from the Fitness Concepts blog, and is used with thanks.

20 April 2010 at 11:00 pm Leave a comment

How liveable are your streets?

mexico city - scott peterman

Anouk van den Eijnde writes:

The majority of the world’s 6.5 billion residents now live in cities – cities that are often overpopulated, congested and hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. Take Mexico City, for example, with a population of more than 20 million people: it suffers from pollution, traffic, water shortage and a high crime rate. The once attractive public spaces are now deemed by local residents to be too dangerous to spend time in. The mayor is slowly tackling these issues by revitalizing its historic centre, improving public transport and dealing with its acute water shortage. But what do residents really want from their cities?

Caracas-based architects Brillembourg and Klumpner, founders of the Urban Think Tank, are consulting local residents and community groups in an attempt to find sustainable solutions to the city’s ever-exploding population. Their focus is on the growing ‘informal cities’ where four out of its six million inhabitants are squatting the hillsides in self-built constructions. One of their initiatives is a cable car system connecting the valley to Caracas’ public transport system. Their site has an engaging video about their work.

Taking a leaf out of the ‘livable streets’ initiative – which encourages people to re-imagine how their cities would be if they were healthier and more sustainable – the American magazine GOOD asked people to do just that, and redesign their streets to make them more ‘livable’. The task was to take a photo of a street or intersection you know and hate, then use Photoshop or other image software to make the changes you wanted to see. Green spaces, bike lanes, street art, playgrounds, exercise machines – it could be anything. The winners, though mostly North American, demonstrate the value of visions in making change, and there’s also a whole gallery of entries.

Another example of involving people in urban design is Fix My Street, a UK website from the team at mySociety that allows people to report local problems like vandalism, broken lights and litter. You can simply type in the postcode online (or on your i-phone), find the location on the map and type in the problem. Comments are then sent directly to the local council on the users’ behalf. Who better to influence the design and maintenance of neighbourhoods than its local residents?

27 May 2009 at 12:46 pm 1 comment

Some good things we’ve seen # 1


Compiled by Tom Ding

The first of an occasional column: Passed around the office lately were:

  • A brilliant presentation on the “past and future” of city magic by Matt Jones of Doppir
  • A map of the internet (or at least the 333 most important bits) modelled on the map of the Tokyo metro – not the first time, by the way, that we’ve blogged about maps based on tube networks.
  • Another less subterranean map of parliamentary expenses (thanks, Digital Urban) – MapTube, the mapping mash-up site which published this also has a map showing all of the London tube stations in their geographically correct positions.
  • A complete visual history of Lego’s ‘mini-figures’ from which the picture at the top of the post is taken. And news of a rather larger Lego figure, a sculpture of Jesus made from 30,000 bricks, unveiled at a church in Sweden just in time for Easter.


16 April 2009 at 12:20 pm Leave a comment

The world in your pocket


Tom Ding writes:

When I discovered last week that my brand new phone gives me unlimited Google Maps on-the-go, I had one of those ‘The Future Has Arrived’ moments, able to locate the nearest pubs and bus stops at a glance. Which got me to thinking about the different functions of a map, and how cleverly Google has partitioned them. You see, Google Maps is useful indeed: It can be a Sat Nav in your pocket or a route-finder on your PC and it has an interface perfectly suited for such quick tasks.

Perhaps though, we should regard it as the latest evolution of the 1920s ‘wrist-mounted, wind-up Sat-Nav’ shown in the picture at the top of this post. Google Maps gives you no context. It is great, so long as you know exactly where you want to go to. It is a road map, not an atlas, and definitely not a globe.

And this is where Google Earth comes in. Here, exactly the same data has been used for something completely different, and this time it is all about looking, rather than finding. Instead of the watch, I think of Google Earth as being a modern equivalent of the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican- somewhere that you go when you cannot see a place first-hand, somewhere that you could easily lose a few hours and somewhere that not enough people know about.

And Google Earth is getting better. We are now all free, in a Wikipedia-esque spirit of collaboration, to hack the program, at least a little bit, and create our own ‘layers’ dedicated to whatever topic we choose. Just this week, someone has published a layer called “Crisis in Darfur“. There is a layer of “Lighthouses in New Zealand” and another of Frank Gehry buildings. With all of this within a couple of clicks reach, I can’t help but feel like Google is biding their time here- waiting for their user-generated library to reach a critical mass before they tell the world about it.

By then, it will not just be an old fashioned globe, but an encyclopedia inside a globe. We will be able to visually explore almost any subject by geography, by topic and by time. And then, well, then the future really will have arrived.

5 November 2008 at 10:49 pm 1 comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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