Beyond the economic impact of smaller spaces, our homes also serve an important role in communicating our values and goals, or what scientists call “identity claims.” We tend to feel happier and healthier when we can bring others to our space to telegraph who we are and what’s important to us.
“When we think about micro-living, we have a tendency to focus on functional things, like is there enough room for the fridge,” explained University of Texas psychology professor Samuel Gosling, who studies the connection between people and their possessions “But an apartment has to fill other psychological needs as well, such as self-expression and relaxation, that might not be as easily met in a highly cramped space.”
On the other hand, Eugenie L. Birch, professor of urban research and education and chair of the Graduate Group in City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, says this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve had this debate over micro-living. New York has grappled with the public health costs of crowded living conditions and minimum apartment standards throughout its history.
“Over time, New York City developers conceived of many ways to address the need for affordable housing,” said Birch. “They built slums in the 19th century that reformers fought against. Other solutions have been boarding houses, missions, shelters, and what came to be known as single room occupancy units or SROs.”
While it might be stressful to live in crowded conditions, consider the alternative.
Rolf Pendall, director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center asks: Where would all these people be doing business and living without the density? Would they be commuting longer distances or earning less, and is living farther from economic opportunities “better” for them? In that context, Pendall says he welcomes micro-apartments as long as they fit within the larger housing ecology of the city, and don’t ultimately displace other types of units for families.
The problem is, there’s often a discrepancy between housing standards and actual housing conditions. Countless New Yorkers illegally share apartments, and current zoning rules can create poor living environments—dilapidated kitchens or dark, dingy rooms with a window that opens onto a brick wall. A worst case scenario would yield hundreds of thousands of micro-apartments and poor conditions.
For this project, while New York may be taking a step backwards in terms of square footage, Eric Bunge, a principle at nArchitects, (the firm that created the winning micro-apartment design), is adamant that the city is taking a big step forward in terms of actual living conditions.
“The city sees this initiative as one mechanism in a set of complex issues,” Bunge says. “Nobody is claiming that micro-apartments will be a silver bullet.”
By his calculus, the East 27th street building does address concerns of mental and physical well-being. For example, residents might be losing physical space, but they’re gaining access to a series of amenities, like a gym with floor-to-ceiling park views, a lobby with a public garden, and yes, a Juliet balcony. And for that, many city dwellers might happily trade away 75 square feet and a freestanding bed.