A question of space or time
Why we should spend less time dreaming of more space, and more time living on less space — an urban planner’s reflections.
I was lucky to grow up in a big single-family house on a quiet, residential street, just a 40-minute drive north of Copenhagen. The back garden was large enough to fit a terrace, a sandbox, and a plum tree, while the front garden wrapped flowers and hedges around the open-air garage, wide enough to fit two cars — but only if Mum kept to her side. Everyone on our street had two cars. It wasn’t even a question.
I was lucky to have a room of my own, in addition to a play room that I shared with my brother. Mum had a sewing room, stacked with fabrics to make the walls nearly burst at the seams. The basement was my Dad’s. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the damp air and hear the gentle whirring of the electric heater. “Who’s there?” he’d call. “Only me.” “I’ll be up in a minute.” Everyone’s houses had multiple rooms. Personal space. Hobby space. Storage space. It wasn’t even a question.
I was lucky to grow up in the suburbs, where the sky is blue and open and the air is crisp and clear. Lucky to have a garden to enjoy on warm summer evenings, and my own sofa to curl up in on cold winter nights. Then, at the age of 18, I moved to the city. It was the easiest decision I ever had to make. It wasn’t even a question.
14 years on, I still live in a city. I share a one-bedroom apartment with my husband, on a lively residential street just a 15-minute bike ride from the buzz of Central London. The park around the corner is our garden. And our neighbour’s garden. And everyone’s garden. The living room is our dining room and — thank you lockdowns — our workspace too. There’s no car at our doorstep, but the bus departs ten times an hour. Everything is compressed. Overlapped. Multifunctional. It has to be. It’s a matter of space.
I also work with cities. By combining a degree in architecture with a long-held fascination for urban life, I became a city planner. In theory, this means that I get to organise buildings and open space to make functional neighbourhoods. In practice, my job is all about people. How can space be organised to help people live healthy, happy lives? That is the question.
In the early 1990s, my parents moved to the suburbs because they wanted to enjoy the gift of space — and they wanted me to have it too. They followed the dream of a lifestyle centred around the nucleus family ideal, just as many people did before them (and just as many people still do to this day). Now my husband and I have started to think about the shape our next home could take. Just imagine: Our own house. With a garden. Activity-based rooms. Lots of storage. Multiple bathrooms. Wouldn’t life be great, if only we had more space?
It’s an alluring vision, and yet… I’m no longer sure it’s the future we need.
For anyone who has ever had to rent or buy a place to call home, it is clear that space comes at a cost. In cities, that cost is higher, because there is less space to go around. In the suburbs, you get more space for your money, which is why people — like my parents and friends — move there to enjoy bigger homes. But in weighing up the pros and cons of this equation, there is a vital dimension that I think is too often overlooked: the cost — and value — of our time.
By surrounding ourselves with space we are also, inadvertently, creating distance between ourselves and others. A distance which leaves the nucleus family floating as a sole unit in a car-centric void. A distance which has to be crossed in order to engage with any other meaningful aspect of life.
My parents spent more than an hour every day on the road, commuting to work. My friends lived in places that I could only get to if my parents agreed to drop me off — and pick me up again. My school wasn’t too far away, but the roads weren’t exactly safe for children, so, again, our only reasonable option was to take the car. If we were out of milk or bread, the closest place to restock was at the petrol station. It would have been absurd not to drive. The car probably also needed refuelling.
Looking back, we always seemed to spend time on the road, travelling not for the journey, but for the destinations. And, with everyone around us enjoying at least as much private space as we did, the destinations were few and far between.
Space costs time. Time spent together. Time spent working and learning. Time spent exercising and relaxing. I look at my husband. Rephrase the question. Wouldn’t life be great, if only we had a bit more time?
Having worked with communities across the world to design better cities and neighbourhoods, I know that space is incredibly important to a lot of people. It might even be in our DNA to claim as much territory as we possibly can. But I have also learned that the spaces we hold most dear, are the ones we fill with meaning. It is a territory shared with other people, made rich by a variety of activities, and teeming with life. It’s our home. It’s the playground. Our school. The grocery shop. The public pool. The forest trail. Town square. Coffee shop. Park bench. Street corner. I have come to think: could it be that it is the matter, and not the space, we seek? And if that’s the case, perhaps we should all move a bit closer.
My Mum called me the other day. Her car was at the garage. “I hate being trapped in the house,” she said. “I know.” “I can’t go anywhere.” “I know.” She hung up the phone. I put on my jacket to run a few errands. Thirty minutes later, I returned with fresh groceries and a book from the local thrift shop. I offloaded my shopping and took the book to the park. My phone rang again.
“Hi Mum.” “Where are you?” “In the park. You?” “The garden.” “Any news about the car?” “I’ll have it back in a week. Any news about the house move?” “I think we’ve decided to stay in the city a little while longer.” She was surprised. “Really? I thought you wanted more space.” “So did we,” I admitted. I put the book to one side. This was going to be a long conversation. “It turns out you can’t have it all,” I began. “It’s a question of space or time.”