The vertical commons

By Janette Corcoran

Communal infrastructure brings people together and, by promoting a culture of reciprocity, can reduce waste – but what model might suit our vertical neighbourhoods? 

Australians are well used to portrayals of our remote outback towns being self-sufficient. With a stereotypical hands-on approach, we have become used to seeing these communities ban together to create their own facilities – like sporting fields, community halls – and sometimes even grading the road that leads there!

Referred to as communal or community infrastructure, these types of facilities are well recognised as essential for the health, social wellbeing and economic prosperity of communities. This fact is noted by both our state and local governments which explicitly acknowledging community infrastructure as a cornerstone of wellbeing.  

And this need for community infrastructure is also apparent in our new high-rise high-density precincts.

Unsurprisingly – and in direct contrast to our rural cousins – one of our key needs and challenges involves space.

We vertical villagers are well aware that high-rise, high-density living is synonymous with limited space and we are well versed in topics such as down-scaling, decluttering and multi-functional furniture. 

However, viewed in terms of community infrastructure, our space restrictions have a more insidious side which impact on our ability to partake in the circular economy (i.e. minimise our waste). 

Consider this.

The space restrictions of vertical living typically require us to give up our infrequently used equipment – like specialty tools and appliances. However, in so doing, we reduce our own ability to repair or repurpose – because if a task needs a drill or an overlocker, then there are few substitutes (contrary to my neighbour’s view of hammers!).  This means we need to either pay someone else to do the repair (if there is a service available) or throw it away, thereby contributing to our growing waste levels.

Encouragingly, however, entities such as the Libraries of Things (LoT) and also specialty tool libraries are emerging. 

Similar to our traditional libraries, tool libraries allow members to borrow items for gardening, sewing, cooking or carpentry. Borrowing might incur a small cost, or there may be a membership fee, or, in some cases, there may be no cost at all – and this is an example of the real sharing economy.  

However, our high-density precincts share with us of the vertical villages the issue of a lack of space.  As services and facilities like Tool Libraries require space (these tools aren’t virtual!) as well as some degree of certainty about where and when they can be accessed, has led to these services either not being set up or operating on an ad hoc basis. Add to this the wasted effort of repeatedly setting up and then dismantling operations.

What is needed is a more creative approach to exploring options – and to start, here are two thought bubbles: 

First, co-working for community groups – rather than introduce yet another co-working space for start-ups, perhaps these areas can be reoriented towards community groups.

Secondly, businesses, universities and government (all who occupy our precinct) often have underutilised facilities (and equipment!). A focused look at what arrangements might be possible could lead to more than just helping people reuse and repair, it could lead to actual inter-sector engagement and a stronger community.

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