More and more new residential developments are being built. As architects and specialists, we analyze their architecture and how they blend into their surroundings. We think about functionality - both of settlements and individual apartments, as well as finishing materials. But are the buildings and the apartments offered in them inclusive? What must be fulfilled for them to be so? And where can you see inclusive housing? These and other questions are answered by Zuzanna Mielczarek, an architect and researcher whose interests include the topic of social justice in the context of inclusive housing.
Katarzyna Mikulska: Let's start with the basics. What are the characteristics of inclusive housing architecture?
Zuzanna Mielczarek: It is housing architecture that takes into account the needs of all social groups. This applies not only to the space itself, but also to housing policy and the way buildings are managed. When it comes to architecture, in the spatial field, accessibility is key, and that everyone in a building and its surroundings can feel comfortable and make full use of the place. This is to accommodate, among other things, wheelchair users, people with various disabilities, parents (especially mothers), children or seniors: no architectural barriers, adaptation of the surface of pedestrian routes, high greenery that allows you to breathe in the heat, comfortable benches, playgrounds, recreation areas. This seems like a cliché, and is often not implemented as part of cost-cutting. It's also to take into account disabilities other than motor disabilities, such as visually impaired and blind people. It's also a good idea to include in the design the needs of neuroatypical people prone to overstimulation, who are concerned with a legible, quiet space. It is important both to remove architectural barriers and not to create new ones when starting investments. This is partly determined by technical conditions, but currently in severely truncated terms.
Another issue is common spaces and the provision in them of both places of rest or tranquility, as well as neighborhood integration and activity. Since social inclusion will not happen on its own, the community must have the space to exist. In the concepts of social settlements by Barbara Brukalska or Helena Syrkus, it was important to provide not only basic social infrastructure, such as kindergartens or nurseries, but also places for neighborhood culture, integration. It does not have to be a full-fledged Community Center right away, as in the Żoliborz WSM. This function can be fulfilled by a well-designed hallway or a larger corridor, as well as a club or day care center provided for in a residential building. It is also necessary to provide housing for all, that is, for example, a larger number of units adapted to people with disabilities and seniors than the standard required.
Catherine: Currently, it's one apartment per development?
Susanna: Yes, one apartment per building regardless of the size of the development, so it could be a huge corridor building or a small townhouse. Considering the apartments themselves, due to market trends, small studios or M-2s are being produced on a tape because they sell and rent well. However, in a residential building, the needs of large families should also be taken into account, so larger units, even M-5, should be provided. Developers offer such large creations mainly in the form of "investment multipacks," designed by design for commercial subdivision.
GWL Terrein, a diagram showing the urban planning concept of the estate-semi-open, adapted to the existing development quarters, proj.: KCAP
pic: © KCAP
Catherine: So it can be divided into smaller units?
Susanna: Yes, they can be subdivided into "studios" for rent, but they are usually not full-fledged apartments - they don't meet the standards for light, square footage, and we won't check into them permanently. A much greater challenge of flexibility and adaptability, and a more important need than that of investment, would be to design the other way, that is, for example, providing the possibility of combining smaller apartments with each other in case of family growth. This would only be possible with rental housing, not fragmented private ownership. Estates that are dominated by stable, long-term rentals allow for better management and the creation of a diverse community. In contrast, for-sale housing developments often have families of roughly the same age who are aging generationally. These tend to be social groups that are similar in terms of economic circumstances, style and lifestyle. This phenomenon is also fostered by the lack of differentiation in the typology of apartments that are designed for a similar customer. If a building has smaller units, they are often bought for short-term rentals, and then there is no chance at all for neighborhood ties to form due to the temporary nature of the tenants.
Catherine: What is the importance of location in terms of inclusivity?
Susanna: It can exclude, first of all, by transportation, when settlements are built in bad locations, not connected by public transportation. People who don't have a car won't live in them, and even motorists will find life difficult. Location can also be spatially exclusionary. There are examples of social housing estates aimed at the most financially disadvantaged, located on the outskirts of cities, on difficult, inaccessible plots of land, such as the infamous Dudziarska estate in Warsaw, which no longer exists, located between railroad tracks. Such solutions, it turns out, are unfortunately not a picture from the past - last year, design portals circulated photographs of a Los Angeles social housing development consisting of colorful microdomes for people in crisis of homelessness, located on a narrow plot of land between a freeway and a parking lot. To make matters worse, the project was commented on rather positively. Fortunately, in Europe the housing market has managed to become more civilized and such experiments are now rare.
In Poland, in terms of location, very interesting solutions are being implemented by Szczecin's TBS. STBS has been revitalizing downtown quarters from the very beginning of its activity, also densifying them and supplementing the frontages with new buildings and green areas. As a result, urban complexes are created from housing communities, social housing and communal housing. STBS develops housing for available rent, but also administers the communal segment, and organizes programs aimed at various social groups, such as young graduates or senior citizens. These socially diverse urban quarters are natural and historically proven. And it seems to me that it is probably best to live in a community consisting of the broadest possible cross-section of society.
Catherine: Why is diversity socially beneficial and good for the city?
Zuzanna: I would like to show this issue with examples of municipal or TBS activities, because due to the lack of regulation, developers rarely offer this type of solution. We have very interesting examples in Rybnik, where, in my opinion, housing innovations in Poland are just being born. In a partly revitalized and partly contemporary building (realized with steel prefabrication technology) there is a small, several-person, female senior co-housing. The upper floors also house women who have left the single mother's home and are on their way to full independence. Special training apartments are provided for them. A synergy of different generations works there: on the one hand, the young women help the seniors with shopping or cleaning, and in turn they can help with child care. This works quite well. That's why it's worth taking care of social diversity, because when we have different needs, in mutual help and support we can complement each other. In the center of Rybnik, great housing architecture is being built - a brand new TBS building, on Hallera Street, designed by SLAS, integrated into the existing fabric and completely adapted to the needs of people with disabilities. In Rybnik, too, a new single mother's house in a revitalized historic building was recently completed. It is worth mentioning that Rybnik also has an excellently designed urban information system.
Housing or social innovations are best tested on a small scale - both in terms of architecture and city size. That is why they often appear in medium-sized and smaller centers, they are easier to manage on a smaller scale. These pilot innovations can later be scaled up and applied in larger metropolises. In Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, on the other hand, the Lokator project was created - a program for seniors supported by MOPS. It is based on the fact that young people who have trouble finding their way in the housing market can live together with a senior citizen who has a spare room in an apartment to offer. This is a combination of the needs of a senior citizen who is lonely and often not fully independent, but who has a surplus of space in his apartment, and the needs of a person who is also in a sense excluded, because he can't afford to buy an apartment or a commercial lease, and also has no chance for public housing, or the available stock turns out to be insufficient. Such a stasis is free, but the tenant signs a contract to assist the senior citizen in specific, specified activities. This is a relatively young project, which was discussed at the Habitat for Humanity Housing Forum last year. I think it's a great example of synergy and using already existing resources to combat the housing crisis.
Catherine: You mentioned architectural and urban planning solutions that strengthen the inclusivity of specific developments. What other measures are helpful?
Susanna: These are often solutions that do not cost more than the standard ones. Sometimes it's enough to take a moment to think about a design decision, commission an accessibility audit or have an expert on board. According to the building law, an accessible apartment has a specified maximum threshold height for the front door - 2 centimeters. In contrast, this is no longer specified in balcony or terrace doors. And it happens that a standard balcony window with a high threshold is installed, making it impossible for a resident in a wheelchair to use the terrace or balcony independently. Also important are details that make it much more convenient to use the apartment, such as the height of placement of contacts, light switches or window handles.
In turn, in common spaces to ensure the comfort and safety of people with disabilities, but also children and seniors, it is worth taking care, for example, of benches with backs and armrests. And in stairwells - for more rounded handrails and intercoms or elevator panels with tactile buttons, since the flat, tactile ones are useless for the blind. For larger developments, wayfinding systems are important, and they should be legible and simple, even for a child who cannot read or a person speaking a different language or from a different cultural background. It is worth adding tiflographic plans, which are helpful not only for blind people.
Thinking about neuroatypical people, on the other hand, it is worth noting elements that affect a person's well-being. For example, an excessive amount of design can have a bad effect on neuroatypical people as well as visually impaired people and affect the well-being and perception of a space. In order to make an architectural, interior or urban design friendly and tailored to different social groups, it often doesn't take much money or work at all, but just the right choice of finishing materials and surfaces. It is not uncommon to encounter interiors overloaded with colors and patterns. This decorativeness is often dictated by the need to hide an uneven wall or cheap materials, but ultimately does more harm, as the interior becomes less legible.
The elongated buildings form the boundary of the GWL Terrein quarter and separate the residential space from the business space; they also protect the other buildings from wind and noise from the nearby road
Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode © KCAP
Catherine: What soft activities - social and political - are good for the inclusivity of settlements? Do grassroots activities like civic budgets work well?
Susanna: I think grassroots activities should not take responsibility away from local and state authorities. It often happens that infrastructure projects, like bicycle paths, are submitted to civic budgets and then implemented, which should be implemented systemically. Neighborhoods should be designed and managed to allow and support grassroots activities initiated by housing communities, but not those necessary for well-functioning public and neighborhood spaces. Community gardens or activating resident meetings are needed. However, this should be an add-on, it is much easier to implement such demands in public developments than in developer developments. There is more and more talk about pat-development. This phenomenon, which has a huge impact on the condition of the space of apartment buildings and settlements, and consequently their residents, did not happen on its own. Developers had permission to be "pato" along with the lack of adequate planning and building regulations. There are legislative plans to curb these activities, if only by specifying a minimum apartment area. It is necessary to strive to make specific people in a particular place live as well as possible and want to stay there as long as possible. So, provide social infrastructure - create kindergartens, nurseries, schools, or build apartments in places where this infrastructure is efficient and can serve more residents. But also take care of the apartments themselves - so that they are actually used for housing, not just for investment.
Catherine: Should only the authorities, municipal or state, care about inclusiveness? Maybe also the investor or residents?
Susanna: Of course, there are investors with a vision, despite their focus on profit realizing something beyond the minimum. As for the residents, I think that in a friendly environment, where one lives well, there is not so much need to educate on issues of tolerance or rules of neighborly coexistence. If a housing development is not socially diverse, but offers friendly common spaces where one can talk in good conditions, I wouldn't put the responsibility for inclusivity on the residents. Of course, housing communities can make and implement decisions that will promote inclusivity, for example, by making changes in landscaping, common spaces. This is certainly the responsibility of the developer, but as long as their actions are mainly regulated by the market, the spaces are primarily intended to bring profit. Therefore, it is the legislator who has a major influence on the quality of spaces. Regulations in local plans or a more clarified building law could affect the quality of life: sunshine in apartments, friendly common spaces in which to meet, and the implementation of services where they are intended. Much of the frustration often stems from poor living conditions in a developer monoculture, without social services or access. But housing itself has also become a luxury and an unobtainable commodity. Mortgage subsidy programs as early as the 2000s caused prices to rise in the market, and now this mistake is being repeated. The solution, which I repeat like a mantra, is to build housing for stable rent - this can be public segment housing or built in the institutional rental model by developers, although he needs better regulation. On the other hand, the responsibility for housing care for those most in need, i.e., those in crisis of homelessness, the lonely, the elderly, the financially distressed, rests with local governments. A positive trend is the deinstitutionalization of such assistance and an attempt to create as homely, communal living conditions as possible.
The terraced mass of Wohnpark Alterlaa, a modernist housing development in Vienna, drowns in greenery and is an example of successful communal housing from the 1970s
photo by Nick Night © unsplash
Catherine: A good example of a diverse housing development was supposed to be the Warsaw Social District. What is happening with this project?
Zuzanna: I participated in the development of WDS, its concept was fully inclusive. It assumed all possible forms of ownership, diverse housing typologies. It was refined in terms of urban planning. The subject stopped at the stage of the master plan developed by BBGK Architekci. Unfortunately, as is common in Warsaw, the projects crashed over land ownership claims. The topic is on hold. It's a shame that large-scale, grand-scale housing is not a political priority in Warsaw. There are, of course, interesting examples that Warsaw TBSes are implementing, such as the multi-generational tenement at 29 Stalowa Street in Praga, which has a multi-generational café, a facility for young people, and apartments for seniors are available.
Katarzyna: What other examples can you cite?
Zuzanna: If you want to see good realizations on a larger scale, that is, not just individual buildings, but entire urban assumptions, it is worth going to Vienna. There are pre-war workers' housing estates, which initiated the tradition of social housing in this city (Red Vienna), but also post-war assumptions (for example, the green modernist housing estate Wohnpark Alterlaa, consisting of monumental terraced communal blocks, with pools on the roofs) and completely contemporary realizations. There is an interesting sizable neighborhood on post-railroad land at the Hauptbahnhof with a huge park and an establishment that is largely made up of housing cooperatives (Baugruppen) like Gleis21 or the Nordbahnhof neighborhood, where I visited the Wohnprojekt Wien cooperative.
Catherine: How do cooperatives work?
Susanna: They are grassroots communities that invest together and can get land from the city on preferential terms. The residents jointly oversee the design and construction of the building. So they can propose unusual apartment layouts dictated by specific needs, the form of common spaces, and influence other design decisions. This, of course, requires a great deal of work and commitment on the part of the members - often involving hours-long meetings where decisions are made democratically. If residents have decision-making power in the investment process, then apartments, common spaces, buildings meet the demands of accessibility and inclusiveness. However, I think that cooperatives are not completely inclusive, because not everyone is able to devote time to such an arduous, complex decision-making process. On the other hand, the municipality, by supporting cooperatives, can show support for specific social groups that it believes need this support. These could be single mothers, young families, senior citizens, people with disabilities or queer families. Such decisions can also be made collectively by the members of the cooperative themselves, for example by making some of the premises available to those in need.
Another interesting Viennese example of a Baugruppe is Queerbau in the Aspern Seestadt district, which is often cited as a model residential neighborhood with a variety of forms of housing and financing (admittedly, it is rightly criticized for its excessive concretization, or rather asphaltization, of public spaces, which also has its good points - a complete lack of architectural barriers). Queerbau is a housing cooperative that jointly realized a building inhabited by non-heteronormative people, taking into account different family and lifestyle models. The building itself from the outside is quite ordinary, looking like a decent, undersized development, which interestingly contradicts the stereotypical idea of queer space. At the end of last year, too, a law came into force in Poland on cooperatives, which now have legal standing and can have access to preferential land or loans. Until now, this has been a marginal phenomenon, with the most popular precooperative being the Pomerania Housing Cooperative.
Stadstuinen (Dutch for urban gardens) in Rotterdam is a housing development that was built on the site of the former harbor docks - the development consists of 15 buildings housing about 600 apartments, commercial space, an elementary school, common spaces and underground parking lots
Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode © KCAP
Catherine: What other activities can inspire inclusivity?
Susanna: An often-cited solution that works, for example, in the Netherlands with any commercial development, is to set aside a certain percentage of apartments for accessible, social rentals. The standard of these apartments is usually no different from commercial ones. The lack of stigma allows you to build a supportive community that respects each other's diversity. Such a solution in Poland would certainly allow the housing hunger to be satisfied more quickly, since it is mainly developers who build. However, I have concerns that private investors would find some legal workarounds and allocate the worst unsaleable housing to this resource.
Catherine: How does the inclusivity of housing spaces relate to the divisions evident in our society? The choice of a kindergarten or school for a child, as well as a residential neighborhood, are determined by income, social group membership or aspirations, among other factors.
Susanna: Certainly, social divisions are exacerbated by the increasing privatization of public services, such as housing, education and health care. I think it's important to meet the needs of all social groups, because the expansion of private school services or private medicine is due to underfunding and shortcomings in public services. Take child psychiatry, which is inefficient, forcing patients, or basically their parents, to seek private treatment. This is true in many segments, including housing. The fact that scores of people choose to live on credit is not because their biggest dream is to pay it off over thirty years and add significantly to the value of the apartment. It is often due to a lack of alternatives. Creating a system of social services and housing infrastructure that takes into account the needs of everyone will prevent such stratification.
The differentiated typology of buildings in the Stadstuinen project in Rotterdam (proj.: KCAP)
pic: © KCAP
Katarzyna: Is there a chance for inclusive housing on a larger scale in Poland? And if so, what are the most important issues that should be provided?
Zuzanna: I believe that inclusive housing in Poland is possible. Certainly, more funding is needed for all forms of social housing - TBS or SIMs, which have recently been established - as well as municipal housing. It is important to ensure preferential conditions for the creation of such investments, preferential lending and the allocation of large funds from the state budget. There is a need for regulations in the construction law to make buildings user-friendly for all users and users, including in the details I mentioned earlier. Perhaps a good solution would be to require private investors to designate some of the units as accessible rental housing. However, this cannot be the only option, all segments should develop in parallel: not only the market segment, which is not doing too badly even in a crisis, but first of all the social and social segments. So that a person in any situation of life, financial or family, can find a roof over his head. And so that she has a choice.
Catherine: Thank you for the interview.