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Picnic Design: [Co]mmon Ground

Can co-living be an option for reducing loneliness during a lockdown?

Words beginning with “co” were getting quite a bit of attention even before the pandemic struck. Words such as co-working, co-living and co-ownership, the latter two of which were of great interest to Toronto-based Picnic Design, led by Joanne Lam and Eric Martin, who explored their utility and potential through an installation at IDS20 called Do You Dare to Share?, which included an analog survey of what rooms or things people see themselves sharing with others in a co-living setting.

“Generally, people’s responses aligned with our expectations,” says Lam. “We knew the bathroom would not be popular and it is obvious in the amount of black “No” stickers around it. Most “Yes” went to the garden, the rec room and books. We were a bit surprised by the differences between sharing meals and the kitchen. We thought both would have had more “Yes” and would be more aligned. 68 per cent would share meals but less than half would share the kitchen.”

Photo by Bob Gundu

However, when that other “co” word – COVID-19 – struck, the title of their installation seemed to take on a whole new meaning. “At first glance, co-living seems to be the antithesis to social distance, yet the pandemic lockdown has brought into focus our need to be around other people and revealed the inadequacies of everyone living in their own castle. At present, isolation is felt across demographic lines, whether it is seniors, single adults, or families with young children. To have a diversity of ideas and people would be welcomed relief and would make a household bubble that much more resilient, not to mention the much-needed built-in help in a co-living house.”

The installation drew a lot of attention at the show for Picnic Design (even winning a Best Booth Design Award Silver), so they were asked by IDS to do a larger follow-up installation for 2021 that will incorporate one of their main lounges. “We are planning [that] installation to be an experience. Based on our survey, we plan to build out the most popular spaces at 1:1 for people to get a taste for sharing. Instead of a walk-through installation, it will invite you to sit down and linger. Each space will have a different feel, and visitors can decide where to go based on their needs at the time, or simply try out all of them. Hopefully, it will also lead to spontaneous networking and generate rigorous debates about co-living.”

Q&A with Joanne Lam

Your interactive exhibit at IDS20 was designed as an informal survey to investigate people’s feelings towards Co-Living. What were you expecting people’s responses to be, and were there any surprises in what their actual responses were?

Responses to our informal survey at our “Dare to Share” installation at IDS20 were very enthusiastic. Generally, people’s responses aligned with our expectations. We knew the bathroom would not be popular and it is obvious in the amount of black “No” stickers around it. Most “Yes” went to the garden, the rec room and books. No doubt those are easy translation in scale from our day to day sharing of parks, community centres and libraries.  We were a bit surprised by the differences between sharing meals and the kitchen. We thought both would have had more “Yes” and would be more aligned.  68% would share meals but less than half would share the kitchen. While the workspace is one of the top spaces that people are willing to share, actual number is 71%.  Perhaps it is the desire for privacy having spent the day in an open concept office and the need to separate home and work life.  Regardless, it was illuminating to see the results build over the course of four days and to overhear debates amongst participants.  It definitely ignited interest in Co-living.

Do you think anything has or will change in people’s feelings towards Co-Living now that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives?

COVID-19 has changed our perceptions of our built world and our immediate reaction is to move as far away from others as possible. At first glance, Co-living seems to be the antithesis to social distance.  However, the pandemic lock-down has brought into focus our need to be around other people and revealed the inadequacies of everyone living in their own castle.  At present, isolation is felt across demographic lines, whether it is seniors, single adults, or families with young children.  To have a diversity of ideas and people would be welcomed relief and would make a household bubble that much more resilient, not to mention the much needed built-in help in a Co-living house. Whereas we tend to think of community to be at the scale of a neighbourhood, Co-living would bring it down to the scale of a household.  It is a way of living that has positive impacts on our physical and mental health, during and post COVID.

What can you tell me about the follow-up installation you are working on for IDS21?

Whereas our “Dare to Share” installation is an exploration and to some, an introduction, to Co-living, we are planning an installation for IDS21 to be an experience.  Based on our survey, we plan to build out the most popular spaces at 1:1 for people to get a taste for sharing.  Instead of a walk-through installation, it will invite you to sit down and linger.  Each space will have a different feel, and visitors can decide where to go based on their needs at the time, or simply try out all of them. Hopefully, it will also lead to spontaneous networking and generate rigorous debates about Co-living.

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