The way we use real estate is inflexible and changing rapidly; we need to start with the question “who is this for”. By Michelle Beaman Chang
Did you build with LEGOs or blocks as child? Or create an entire SimCity as an adolescent (or yesterday)? While you were busy creating did you also consider the imaginary emotions and daily strains of the dolls and figures that would inhabit these spaces? It seems unlikely, just as unlikely as considering the imaginary market, financial, and regulatory pitfalls that could tank your dream development. More like a piece of art hung in a museum than a smaller version of large, commercial property, you could re-design at will without concern for other people, pocketbooks, and outside pressures and distractions.
Like a mass of toddlers following a soccer ball at their first game, real estate developers have traditionally focused on larger, dominating trends — like rapid 1950s suburbanization or small apartments for only a specific type of Millennial. This was before user profiles helped to personalize the world’s mobile phones, ideas weren’t wildly democratized, and individuals not hyper-connected like today. Now more than ever a personalized experience is expected and the question of where people live should be dominated less by “how” and more by “who”. This would easier if real estate weren’t so inflexible, though most people thought the same about their phone a generation ago and companies are building in that flexibility like WhyHotel whose strong hospitality roots can personalize inflexible structures and State of Place that uses data to help communities prioritize and developers to forecast which programs can succeed on people, planet, profit metrics.
Whatever our future looks like will be rooted in today and the way we think about who we share space with — or not — and those impacts. In her book Becoming Michelle Obama describes her experience commuting hours to and from her high school by bus through Chicago’s business district where she saw professionals going to work each day and the almost daily exposure of what else was “out there”. She was looking through a window wondering who this part of the city is for and how she could become part of it. Think about the places and spaces around you and how they reflect back who belongs here and who doesn’t.
Who lives within walking distance or a short trip to job opportunities, good education for their family, and fresh produce? Who wants to enjoy these benefits but can’t because they didn’t arrive first, or can’t afford this priceless proximity?
Where we live impacts our health and our happiness. What do our societal choices say about the resources or restrictions of places to our citizens? Societal and individual real estate decisions are physical manifestations reflect back who we are. Who we want to be. Next time you walk down the street ask is it a street accessible only for people who look like you. Who are these places around you for and how do your decisions play a part in whether they welcome others. What does our place in our communities say about who we are?
About: This article is one in a series describing the Why, What, and Where of Imby Community , founded to be a resource for information and engagement on real estate decisions that impact our daily lives. Imby reaches people where they already are — in person and online — to bridge early, nonconfrontational conversations between the community and real estate developers to create and support responsive, sustainable development that reflects local values.