Sharing our vertical commons

By Janette Corcoran

Common property is a defining feature of vertical villages – but how widely are we expected to share? 

At last month’s Melbourne Knowledge Week, a panel came together to discuss re-thinking high-density residential design. 

This panel was led by Dr Isun Kazerani and Dr Kirsten Day, experts from community planning, who were joined by Dr Marjan Hajjari, Abbie Freestone and Matt Strickland.

The focus was upon improving the physical and mental wellbeing of high-rise residents, with many of the usual-suspect issues raised, such as design deficiencies in natural light, ventilation and temperature. 

But one issue which grabbed my attention involved our communal spaces – and the apparent need to expand these.
We of the vertical villages are very familiar with the notion of shared spaces by virtue of our strata title form of ownership, which allows for individual ownership of part of a property (a lot) and shared ownership of the remainder (i.e. common property – our foyers, driveways, gardens, etc). Also sharing these spaces are the tenants of owners.
This means that we vertical villagers are very well versed in the pragmatic challenges which accompany operating shared amenities – maintenance costs, cleaning issues, behaviour and misuse, insurance, safety and security – issues which did not receive much attention from the panel.

Indeed, the panel appeared uniformly supportive of the notion of creating more communal spaces with the phrase “density with amenity” widely lauded.  

However, while each member was in favour, their reasons for advocating for these types of spaces differed, as did who was to benefit. 

I noted three different perspectives taken towards communal spaces in our high-rise buildings – areas within a building, spaces shared between buildings, and amenities open to the “broader community”.   

As regards the first perspective (within a building), this was raised in relation to addressing social isolation, with the panel highlighting the need for accessible places to nurture resident wellbeing by creating “moments for interaction”. Apparently shared laundry facilities fall under this category – but, I for one, am happy to relegate this communal feature to long-past student days. However, other shared facilities, such as a communal dog-wash, seem to have more merit as long as water usage and clean-up protocols can be managed. 

The second scenario (between buildings) is more about better resource utilisation and the economies of scale that come with greater usage. The example given was for a group of neighbouring residential buildings to enter into a reciprocal arrangement, whereby each building’s facilities (e.g. gym, theatre, equipment shed) was accessible to participating residents. The idea here is that this would allow a group of buildings to offer a greater range of facilities and also permit the addition of value-add services, such as health programs. The underpinning aim is that wider “sharing” will transform these lonely facilities into more active gathering spaces for neighbours. Of course, these types of arrangements are much easier to implement when designed from the outset. 

The third scenario (with the “broader community”) was raised by Dr Marjan Hajjari and is a more radical approach to “sharing”. Dr Marjan Hajjari proposes that spaces in our residential buildings be used for the delivery of services needed by the broader community.  This idea is not entirely new. Some vertical villages are already mixed use, having cafes and other commercial ventures which operate under established commercial arrangements.

But the devil is in the detail.

The suggestion put forward seemed more akin to our vertical villages fulfilling a social responsibility – and possibility, in the future, being obligated to do so. Think of those owners’ corporations that need to pay for the maintenance of public art installations, which often comes as a surprise to new owners!  Think also of those buildings that were required to provide public access to toilets and the horror stories around their maintenance costs and security issues. 

Into the future, we vertical villagers might have to get used to, and possibly enjoy, much greater levels of communality. And for new builds, this can be designed from the outset to ensure a good mix of private and social spaces – and possibly even public areas. However, care needs to be taken in shifting public-private boundaries and note needs to be taken by government decision-makers about transferring service delivery responsibility – and costs – to residents.

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