designing how we live

July 9, 2018 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ in other words,living la vida local!,stories

by Wendy Reid Fairhurst

If you look around, everything you see that has been “made” has been designed. Someone has chosen what shaped handle your coffee or tea cup will have. A decision has been made where a park bench sits and what it is made of, or where a building has been built, the materials and furniture around you … all of these things took thought (regardless of how fleeting or deep). Road placement, their speed limits, sign placement and even what they look like, design is all around us … and affecting us in similarly vast ways.

I reached out to the Guide to the Good to let them know of a few little “local” projects I have been working on with a great local collaboration of design professionals. We have been putting our heads together with a shared appreciation of the responsibility design decision-makers have in creating a built environment that impacts how people live in huge, but also in subtle, ways.

One of the ideas that came out of our chats has been around the lack of power people have in choosing how they live. Really … the more money we have the more choices we are given about neighbourhood, type of housing, how much space we take up … but in the best case it’s more or less a checklist of pre-designed rooms (kitchen, living, bedr

oom, bathroom). In the cases of those with little money, it is basically “take what you can get”. But the choice should really be: how do you want to feed yourself (and family if applicable)?; how do you like to sleep?; what do you 

do in your non-eating or sleeping times?

Maybe your chosen living will fit within the mold of traditional development, but likely not completely (us being different and all). This difference might even be more evident when you leave your shelter: where do you go?; who do you see?; how do you get around?

Often this neighbourhood level of the built environment is where the existing really under performs what many people would wish for in an ideal world. I, myself, loathe the time I spend in my car. I would love to get around more by active means (jealous of all you walkers out there!). A number of North American design theorists, early in the last century, designed the city and networks that flow efficiently and effortlessly across sprawling distances by means of private vehicles. There are some great things this engineering feat did for the modern world, but enabling walking and engaging with people is not one of them. In this model suburbia little niches for the personal vehicle were included in the form of driveways and garages. These have become a staple for any newly constructed home. And now we can pull right up to the house, pop quickly from car to house, and that seems like an important thing to do … pop in quickly.

But I wonder if the designers intended to eliminate the probability of a wave between neighbours or a spontaneous conversation about the weather? Nowadays we seem to take for granted that a driveway and house go hand-in-hand, but maybe, if we were to think about it in basic terms, what we really need is: I need a vehicle, and a spot to park that vehicle, and access to my house fairly efficiently BUT I also would like opportunities to get to know my neighbours, with a wave that turns into a chat that turns into a friendship. Maybe if those were the parameters, the configuration might look a little different, and better respond to how people want to live?!

Our little design collaborative has been using this simple shift in perspective to try and develop projects that are better able to respond to the people who are going to use the space, and how they want to live. We are locally based (in the St. John’s area). We believe that people here know, at least at some level, how they want to live, how they want to eat and sleep within a shelter, how they want to get around and what they want to do with their lives. One of our projects has been creating a co-housing community that empowers a group of residents to work together, pool resources, and determine what their neighbourhood looks like and how it supports their social needs. Another is an Arts and Innovation Hub in the downtown, which has welcomed anyone and everyone with an idea for how the spaces should evolve, again pooling resources to fill the void of big money or government dictate.

We’ve been applying to City of St. John’s Request for Proposals (RFPs) to try and prove the same point: local people (the ones affected by the services and designs resulting from the RFP) need to be empowered as true collaborators in the design process. We think that along with buying local, supporting, local, and staying local, we should also be designing how we live local. Thought I’d share a bit of what we are doing!


Wendy Reid Fairhurst is a registered interior designer, environmental designer, and changemaker based out of Portugal Cove – St. Philip’s and St. John’s. She works in a diverse collaborative group towards local solutions for local problems, with an emphasis on community engagement and empowering residents to determine what their built environment becomes.