Cities, Ikigai, and Mr.Rogers

The growth of urban areas can help inhabitants commingle and find a collective purpose.

01/27/2017 By Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA

Urbanization—the movement of people from rural to urban areas—is nothing new. But we’ve been hearing more and more about urbanization recently because now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 two out of three people will be city dwellers. The United Nations also projects that “mega-cities”—those with more than 10 million residents—will grow in number too, from 28 today (Tokyo being the largest) to 41 by 2030.

Some people are quite concerned with declining air quality in our cities, and rightly so. A year ago, a performance artist walked the streets of Beijing holding up a portable vacuum; he extracted so many pollutants from the air in just 100 days that he made it into a brick. But with clean energy technology; auto and factory emission limits; newly planted treescapes and green roofs; and innovations such as particulate-sucking roof tiles, paints, and drones, there are many efforts underway to prevent the pollution-caused, never-ending rain of “Blade Runner” from becoming a reality.

Others fear overcrowding, envisioning the human beehives of the infamous Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, the favelas of Rio, or the townships in Johannesburg. These areas, though, are the result of political neglect, not urbanization per se; the impoverished people living in these areas cannot afford to leave, and no one is funding the building of proper housing and infrastructure for them. Densification itself is not a bad word, in my opinion, unlike NIMBYism and Malthusianism.

What if I suggested that smart urbanization—cities with plenty of parks, public transportation, social services, and cultural options—can actually improve health and wellness? That’s a provocative, but accurate, statement. Research has shown that connectedness to others and a purpose for living are the keys to longevity, even more so than modern medicine and fancy diets. The Japanese have a name for that reason to get up every morning, which keeps us going: ikigai.

A few years ago, a group of us at Gensler (the firm I worked for prior to Steinberg Architects) studied how design can improve longevity through ikigai. We concluded that smart city planning can be a huge contributor, by allowing people to continue to do what they love, be it taking care of grandchildren, going to watch their favorite sports teams, or teaching at a university. Multigenerational living is good for both young and old. Developing relationships with older people gives kids and teenagers a longer-range perspective to life that encourages them to stay in school, for example. Interacting with children keeps seniors mentally and socially engaged, a key component to active aging.

The Taube Koret Campus in Palo Alto, Calif., is a good example of a thriving urban nucleus for all ages. Designed by Steinberg and designated LEED Silver, it contains assisted living, a memory care unit, a preschool, a sports and fitness center, a cultural arts hall, offices and restaurants, and copious outdoor play and gathering areas. If you visit any day of the year, you’ll be greeted by a mix of people of many ages, incomes, and religions.

On the South Side of Chicago, the Rebuild Foundation created another urban mixing bowl by building a library, theater, performing arts center, job-training workshop, and housing collaborative in a cluster of formerly rundown city blocks. People of all backgrounds now come together throughout the day, joined by a love of music and art, and curious to learn from each other.

Creating these new mash-ups of project types requires large multidisciplinary teams, and interior designers are crucial participants. At ASID, we not only represent all sectors of interior design, we also celebrate their convergence and welcome all design professionals to the table. We recently made a public commitment to working together with AIA, the Urban Land Institute, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the International Code Council, the American Planning Association, and the American Society of Civil Engineers to rebuild the public spaces and buildings that tie our communities together.

Urbanization is upon us—there’s no escaping it. So, rather than denying or fearing the inevitable, let’s join forces and use design to address its challenges head on and become better neighbors to each other. After all, isn’t that what Mister Rogers taught us years ago when he said, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA, is the Chair of the Board of Directors and a principal and the firm-wide interior design practice leader at Steinberg Architects. Learn more about ASID at