To settle or not to settle?

A PHILOSOPHICAL GUEST BLOG ABOUT ‘FEELING AT HOME’ By Rick Schols, Sander Willems & Khaya Ludidi, founders of SoWeBuild


Creating places and the settling of communities on the earth’s surface is an ancient, primordial activity that reinvents itself constantly. Ever since people started to build permanent settlements for habitation, they (re)arrange the physical structure of communities around the numerous activities that make up their daily lives.

This occurs on a surficial space that we call place. It is something that we refer to as settling down, which is intimately tied with one’s sense of place, somewhere where you feel well, at rest, safe, comfortable. In different languages, the sanctity of being ‘at home’ or in dutch ‘thuis’ or german ‘zu Hause’ is somehow related to a specific kind of place: our house, our neighbourhood, our town or city: our perceptual centre of the universe.

It is important to be aware of the global discourse on distinguishing space and place first. The interrelation of space and place is difficult to grasp in a few words and discussed over centuries by philosophers, sociologists and geographers. Place was first associated strongly with territory (locus), where abstract space turns into a meaningful place by the addition of values like local culture, climate, geology of the landscape and social interaction, so one could say that place is the moment when space is tied together by local human experience. But in a globalising world where modern technology changes the entity of communication and social networking into a more placeless (big questionmark?) space of long-distance sociality, the boundaries between place and space seem to vanish slowly.

The idea of future cities expanding onto the waters can potentially evoke emotions of both excitement and fear in us. Excitement, because of our imagination to inhabit a seemingly endless space. Fear, because when we move from a land-based habitology to one that is much more hybrid and movable, then what will remain of our sense of place? Settling down physically helps us to settle down mentally, but what happens if we are suddenly able to move our houses? Note: we shouldn’t forget that there already are and always have been nomadic, traveling communities that are not grounded to a certain place and still feel happy.

Let us not condemn change. German philosopher Hannah Arendt once spoke about the ‘natality’ (natalität) of human beings. A term she introduced as people’s ability to initiate ideas, to intervene the current status quo and repeatedly make new choices in life. Our power to think, to invent, to re-place, is what brings us towards a higher level of consciousness and separates us from other species. Blue21’s ambition to live on the water is perhaps precisely the kind of natality that Hannah Arendt put forth.

Utopian ideas about new environments to live did not always result in successful places. Especially large urban development projects in recent history have shown that one of the most challenging quests in urban planning and architecture is how to plan and design places properly. If we want to bring a blue revolution into practise, we have to stay open-minded and not confine ourselves to ‘blue-prints’ from the past.

How can placemaking help us to take into account all the important actors for happy living environments? And consequently what is the role of technological and social development in this placemaking process? Do we still feel the need to settle down land-based or are we ready for a hybrid life at sea and spread out our consciousness over a plurality of places? All interesting questions on the verge of colonizing the waters.

SoWeBuild is a digital environment for communities and professionals that facilitates co-creation and demand-driven development for new social and spatial infrastructures.