January 12, 2017
by Elsa Lam
In a project completed last year, Toronto’s Ja Architecture Studio divided up a down-town single-family dwelling into two Airbnb units that can be rented out nightly. Photo: Sam Javanrouh, courtesy of Ja Architecture Studio.
I’m not a millennial, but I’m a full-fledged member of generation share. I’ve never owned a car; instead I belong to a car-sharing group. When I travel, I stay at Airbnbs rather than hotels. I’ll usually choose an Uber over a taxi. Lately, I’ve been addicted to swapping, where instead of buying things, you trade with objects you’re no longer using. Much to my husband’s apprehension, I’ve purged tchotchkes from our closets and replaced them with new-for-me clothes, garden tools and holiday gifts.
This loose attitude towards possessions has certain roots in architecture, and has intriguing implications for its future. An impetus for the sharing economy is based on the smaller spaces that urbanites, particularly young professionals, find themselves living in. Who has space in their shoebox-sized condo for the cordless drill, popcorn machine, and eight-foot-high ladder you might use once a year? Better to join a tool and kitchen library, where such things can be borrowed for a few days, then returned when no longer needed.
Likewise, in larger cities, many have decided that paying for a parking space isn’t worth the tradeoff of getting to showboat your vehicle. In certain circles, it’s become a status symbol to not own a car—a choice that signals a healthy lifestyle, and a luxury only those living near transit and cycling routes can afford.
The move towards shared transportation could shift the way we build cities. Take the move towards communal cars, which make a dent in the total number of vehicles that occupy road and parking space. Some day soon, these may be upgraded to self-driving models that are endlessly on the road, and don’t need a parking space at all.
In Toronto, surface parking takes up some 20 percent of net land use. Freeing up even a small proportion of existing surface lots could make a big difference in the city’s ability to accommodate newcomers in transit-friendly locations. As the need for private cars is reduced, there may even be opportunities to convert parking structures to other uses. With this in mind, Waterfront Toronto requires that any above-ground parking structure in its territory is designed for its floors to be levelled, with a clear 2.4 metre slab-to-slab height afterwards.
New types of architectural programs are also emerging from the sharing economy. Flexible workspaces bring small companies and freelancers together, and allow them to share resources (I wrote my doctoral dissertation at a shared desk at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto). Some residential properties are now being designed with Airbnb in mind as an income source. Maker spaces are emerging in many cities, offering DIY resources for 3D printing and CNC cutting, in addition to traditional woodworking areas. Libraries—an early locus for sharing—are now being revisited as community hubs where a wide variety of resources can be accessed, from digital information to live concerts.
The one possession that has become requisite, of course, is the smartphone. Much of the convenience of on-demand sharing, especially for transport, depends on a speedy internet connection. And even if you’re no longer judged by your car, pull out an outdated phone and you may get eye-rolls from the younger set (unless, of course, the phone is really old, in which case it acquires cachet for being retro).
The shift to sharing is far from simple—as evidenced by the ongoing battles between taxi drivers and Uber, or between hotel groups and Airbnb. But in the big picture, the more things are shared, the less stuff we need overall—and the more resources we can devote, as a society, to investing in public buildings and infrastructure. Better libraries, affordable housing, public transit, and roads with room for non-automotive means of transportation: these are all areas that stand to gain as we move towards sharing more. Individually choosing to live with less could ultimately mean living more richly as a society.