What greater inequality can there be at this time than that between those who own a house with a garden or who have been able to gain a second home, and those who must spend their days alone within four walls? The current situation exacerbates to the extreme inequalities that have always existed, but that the time spent outside the walls no longer allows to temper.
The current crisis will necessarily lead us to rethink the way we organise our living spaces individually and collectively. While a minority of urban dwellers are likely to leave the cities at the end of the crisis in favour of larger areas, the vast majority of us will remain there and the attractiveness of urban centres will increase for students wishing to extend their studies and all those looking for work. The pressure on housing will continue to increase, even though the situation is unsustainable in the long term. Our spaces must be better adapted to the constraints of existing urbanism: better connect the countryside and rethink the good life in the city. But creative destruction is not possible in urban planning: the city and the world of tomorrow can only be rethought and rebuilt on today's city.
On March 17, millions of French people woke up as teleworkers, and with the announced gradual phasing out of telework, they will probably remain so for many more weeks. How many companies that were previously reluctant to telework will then have to admit that their employees are just as involved and efficient? How many will do the math and see significant potential savings in office space and transportation? How many workers will ask to keep this way of working, which relieves them of their daily commute and offers them a new balance between personal and professional life? But these changes are not neutral in terms of space. They imply the possibility to isolate oneself, to have a space dedicated to work, the generalization of dedicated tools as well as a foolproof internet connection.
This switch to teleworking is just one of the habits that the French have suddenly been forced to change. Confined to their homes, they had to reclaim them. They are now spending all their time at home, whereas they used to be there only occasionally. Their activities are also more varied. Work, sport, leisure, cooking, DIY, etc. are all mixed together, and they have to reorganise the place to create the right conditions for each. But they also painfully notice the limits of their housing: the problematic distance for those who have to go out, the promiscuity for some, the solitude for others, the violence sometimes...
Many are also rediscovering the burden of isolation and the pleasure, not to say the necessity, of exchanging with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Technology helps a great deal to maintain this social link - what would the confinement have been like just fifteen years ago, without broadband or smartphones? But it is clear that technology is not everything. Those who have settled down with family or friends perhaps more than ever before appreciate the value of real contact as well as the importance of having privacy as an escape from the inevitable stresses of communal life.
In reality, none of this is really revolutionary. We are simply rediscovering very natural needs that we may have been too inclined to sacrifice to the ideal of the individual home. If our housing is to be able to sustainably meet our essential needs in a world of uncertainty and rapid economic, societal and environmental change, we will have to move away from this single model and imagine, in parallel, other ways of living and conceiving space.
This would allow us to share more of the functional spaces that are too often left unoccupied, thus freeing up space elsewhere, saving money and creating opportunities for socialising. Single people, for example, waste a lot of space and material resources at the expense of their own comfort. We will undoubtedly have to live in more modular spaces, capable of adapting to everyday uses - a kitchen will also be an office, then a gym - but also, in the longer term, to changes in customs and lifestyles that are impossible to predict. It will also be necessary to ensure that personal spaces are protected to guarantee calm, privacy and security.
In line with these principles, questions will also arise about the size and organisation of our collective habitats. If it is not sustainable to be isolated, it is even less sustainable to be crowded. We need to consider units of a human scale, with a maximum of a dozen people, a family scale that is conducive to the development of links, solidarity and protection that are impossible in large anonymous complexes. This principle of small communities makes it possible to avoid anonymity and solitude, without the health risks associated with life in a larger community. It is a scale that also allows sharing without disempowering, and limits nuisances. Finally, it is a scale that can provide better support for vulnerable people - single women, elderly and dependent people, etc. - while bringing young workers and students closer to the city centre.
From urban planning to furniture, services and architecture, the entire housing ecosystem will have to work towards these changes: for users it is obvious, but decision-makers will also have to follow suit. Builders, investors and public authorities must realize that these transformations - of spaces, services and amenities - are indeed necessary to achieve the desired resilience of our urban complexes.
The Covid-19 crisis shows us that changes that we thought were only possible in several years can take hold very quickly if they respond to imperative needs and our essential aspirations. We need space, nature, human contact and security. In the early 1970s, the community was an ideal for those who dreamed of changing the world. What if, fifty years later, at a time when we need to move from dream to reality without further delay, it became the solution again?
François Roth is co-founder of Colonies
Column published in Les Echos.