Fewer, Older. Better? Together!

How designers can respond to changing perceptions of our life stages

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It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)


In many wealthy countries, people are having fewer babies and living longer. How can we embrace this opportunity to rethink the design and use of our domestic and public spaces?

First, let’s be clear: a lower birth rate needn’t be the “crisis” much of the media have decried. In this time when lives, livelihoods and places are already being destroyed by human-made climate destabilization and resource depletion, a gentle and voluntary reduction in our numbers, especially within those societies with the largest consumption footprints should be received with relief, not alarm. Research tells us that the choice to have one fewer child is one of the highest-impact actions that individuals in developed countries can take to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Other studies show that having fewer children doesn’t affect our happiness. I’m a proud parent, but can think of many friends who are blissfully child-free, and investing their extra time and resources in their communities and vocations, much to everyone’s benefit. Who will pay taxes and care for the elderly? An abundance of motivated, hard-working, talented people born in other parts of the world would be delighted by the opportunity to rebalance the population numbers of safer, wealthier countries, reducing absolute global poverty and reviving economies through migration.

Our views on aging are also overdue a rethink. As Lynda Gratton and Andrew J Scott describe in The 100 Year Life, longevity trends create unprecedented circumstances for us to reimagine our life stages. We have both the chance and the need to chart new paths that include multiple career reinventions, and to integrate extended periods of personal exploration and cultivation of new knowledge and skills. Increasing life span enables and rewards an outlook that envisages new possibilities unfolding at each new stage of our life path. And when the end of this journey finally approaches? In place of billionaires’ grasping at immortality by any means, intelligent public policy should focus on achieving health equity, extending health spans, and enabling purposeful aging.

As with many of our received narratives, changing our perspective can open a path to a more promising future. What does this entail for architecture and urbanism?

Already evident before the pandemic, the past months have intensified public discourse about the dangers of social inequality and isolation, and the value of accessible green spaces and other infrastructures for health and well-being. The pursuit of “private sufficiency” and “public luxury,” to borrow an exhortation from George Monbiot, is a clear lens through which we can rethink and remake our spaces for the common good. As I’ve previously written for this publication, designers have the extraordinary opportunity to help our fellow humans reimagine new ways of living lightly on the Earth, together. A future-ready response to design will foreground relationships, beyond those of the nuclear family and in addition to the human species.

Tapering  our numbers, would allow us to preserve, or renaturalize more land for the other species and systems upon whose thriving we are wholly interdependent. Longer lifespans mean we have more time to spend with the rest of nature, and reacquaint ourselves with it. When I had the opportunity several years ago to study Singapore’s community gardening movement, I learned, perhaps unsurprisingly, that many of the most dedicated gardeners were those past traditional retirement age. As we adapt to a “100-year life” trajectory, and relocalize our lifestyles within planetary limits, more of us will gain time to relearn the skills of observation and fruitful interaction with our landscapes and our fellow inhabitants.

I have been able to contemplate some of these themes as a member of the curatorial team for the Singapore Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. In response to Biennale Director Hashim Sarkis’ question “How will we live together?” our team assembled 16 projects that demonstrate or investigate how design can enable, provoke and strengthen relationships between human communities, and in some cases, between humans and other species.

One of the projects we exhibit, Kampung Admiralty designed by WOHA architects for Singapore’s Housing & Development Board, was conceived specifically to address the needs of an aging population. Opened in 2017, the 11-story “vertical kampung (village)” piloted interagency collaborations to create a unique intergenerational environment in which 100 apartments for elderly residents are integrated with health, childcare, retail and dining facilities. Spaces for interaction with nature in the form of green spaces and community gardens, are given pride of place, with ample visual and physical connections, at the heart of the building.

Public spaces where people can live well.
“Both Sides, Now, Closer” by DramaBox, ArtsWok Collaborative and Forest & Whale, Singapore. Photo © the artists

We need to rethink how we use our spaces as much as how we design them. Also featured within our Pavilion, Both Sides, Now is a multiyear initiative that seeks to “spark the creation of more communities where living well and leaving well become part of everyday life.” Presented by the Lien Foundation, Ang Chin Moh Foundation, Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative since 2013, with spatial design by Forest & Whale from 2017–2019, the project activates the common spaces of Singapore’s public housing estates for artist-facilitated community conversations that overcome cultural taboos about discussing death, and embrace more meaningful living.

As we encounter our own vulnerabilities, as individuals, households and ultimately as a species, we open to the beautiful truth of our interdependence with others and our embeddedness within the rest of nature.

Singapore Pavilion

NB: The opinions in this essay are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow curators, nor those of the exhibitors or commissioners of the Singapore Pavilion.


Main image: Kampung Admiralty by WOHA, Singapore. Photo © Patrick Bingham-Hall

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