Working on ‘care-neutral’ neighbourhoods

  • Spatial Development

Social participation is no longer a new concept. But there is still no answer to the question of how to create more space for informal care in the home environment. Or, more specifically, how to create a care-neutral neighbourhood where people care for one another instead of relying (solely) on professional care. Open Kaart developed a living concept which creates space for residents who want to live together in the same community, but whose wishes and financial means aren’t the same: ‘Living for Each Other’. This idea took shape in the Carnisse district in Rotterdam. What lessons can we take from that case to apply to the challenges facing the architecture and construction industry presently?

This article is published by de Architect (NL)

To be independent from professional caregiving; that is the dream of both residents and administrations. Citizens, neighbours, and people who can care for one another for as long as possible in their own living environment. It is not only a question of financial savings, but also a potential answer to the ever-present problem of loneliness. People note that they are happy when they can live in connection with their neighbourhood and form meaningful relationships. With understanding for the deeper meaning behind the words ‘as long as possible,’ there seems to be little reason not to deploy this strategy.

But informal care and mutual aid are, by definition, difficult to formally manage. Informal care is not a technical job, but a social task, largely dependent on the drive of individuals. It is broader and more reciprocal than just caring for vulnerable elderly people. A grandparent living next to their child’s family, care of a handicapped child, co-parenting by divorced parents who remain in the same neighbourhood or a group of partially sighted with a shared passion. Young and old, rich, and poor. You can’t define them all, but you can provide help through their environment.

‘Wonen voor Elkaar’ door Open Kaart

Relevant But Still Elusive

The question of integrating care into the neighbourhood is of great importance at this moment. As a follow-up to earlier programs about self-organized care and dementia-friendly neighbourhoods, the Creative Industries Fund NL has announced an open call entitled ‘designing a community of care’. The earlier competition ‘Who Cares’ – held by the Rijksbouwmeester (Chief Government Architect of the Netherlands) among others – successfully brought together many interdisciplinary teams. The winners of Who Cares are now exploring behind the scenes how their vision can be put into practice. For the Carnisse neighbourhood (in Rotterdam-South), this is in part a search for business cases that make strategic demolition and new construction of private property possible.  

Before Carnisse was designated as one of the cases for Who Cares, Woonbron corporation asked Open Kaart to develop a strategy for their property in the neighbourhood. Although there was a very different question at play with the development, it did offer a chance to examine how a caring neighbourhood is formed – a question rarely considered.


The Carnisse neighbourhood is comprised of small, cheap apartments without lifts and with deep backyards. Sixty percent of residents move within four years. Although only fourteen percent of the residences, the Woonbron corporation has a significant role. They give residents with lower incomes the opportunity to buy an apartment through a buy-back guarantee who otherwise would not have the means to do so. Woonbron plays a facilitating role by leasing the parcel of land and participates actively in the owner’s association. They contribute their knowledge to guide the social and physical management of the neighbourhood.

The corporation can decide per unit if they want to sell it or rent it, either in the private sector or as affordable housing. This freedom of choice does present a challenging question: what kind of residents does the neighbourhood need? Despite this flexibility, there are a significant number of vacant buildings in a number of streets. A new living arrangement was needed to bring a target group which would help the neighbourhood socially and societally move forward. A need for people who see more in a small home than just a place to sleep and who would stay living there for a longer period.

‘Wonen voor Elkaar’ door Open Kaart

Combined housing needs

The result of this study shows that there is a niche market for people with “combined housing needs.” The neutral, simply arranged apartments, with a variety of financing methods, offer a chance for people who are not only concerned with their own living situation, but also with that of someone else. Where else can you, for example, live next to your aging mother with her affordable rent apartment while you have a mortgage on your own? Or the other way around. Put this way, Carnisse is no longer a disadvantaged neighbourhood, but a counter to spatial segregation. A haven for people in search of a mixed neighbourhood where they can build and maintain meaningful relationships.

This idea appears to have support. An enthusiastic group of residents, under the name ‘Stadsklooster’ (city cloister), took up the project. They buy or rent their own homes and share a former office building on the street, where activities, collective meals and improvement projects for the community take place.

Clearly, as designers, we can contribute to the fostering of these types of initiatives through formulating and visualising (spatial) options. And in so doing, also contribute to increase social cohesion and informal gathering in a vulnerable neighbourhood. Combined housing comes out of this process as a major priority. Living conditions are improved when the environment can be moulded to fit existing needs by combining, renovating, or expanding apartments.

Living care-neutral

What does this mean for the neighbourhoods and housing yet to be built? We examined the meaning of a care-neutral neighbourhood with Jos Huizinga.  He coined the term after twenty years’ experience as a lawmaker because he missed something in the (development) plans: the people they were about. An energy-neutral neighbourhood removes non-committal “energy savings “and simultaneously invokes a feeling of freedom and cooperation; the same is true of a care-neutral neighbourhood. In a care-neutral neighbourhood, residents organise the necessary care, whatever that may be.

Such a neighbourhood can only be fashioned through co-creation: together with the (future) residents from the very beginning. You build up existing or expected care networks, collective or special housing forms, alternating with (in the Netherlands) commonplace row-houses and apartments based on the situations and preferences of the people. It should be expected of a designer that they know these combinations of housing needs – from duo’s to entire neighbourhoods – and can translate them into a vibrant living environments which invite gathering and resilience for generations to come. How this takes shape will vary per location. From “wonen voor elkaar” (living for each other) we have learned that rows and rows of resale houses may be successful financially, but they don’t necessarily answer the question of care in the neighbourhood.

‘Wonen voor Elkaar’ door Open Kaart


While new zoning takes effect and reassesses its vision for living and decentralised responsibility, care- and housing corporations are getting their feet in the mud more and more. The question is if, under the pressure of the significant physical housing shortage, this social challenge can remain urgent and important for urban planning.

It has been calculated that the Netherlands would go bankrupt if all the informal caregivers and volunteers were to be counted. It is normal for governments to give large companies and organisations the reigns in the planning of our cities. That should be a reason in-and-of itself to also put people who maintain the informal-care network at the helm of urban planning. In short, we must work together on care-neutral neighbourhoods. Who’s with us?  


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