Airbnb builds houses now, too

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

SINCE its in­cep­tion, Airbnb – the web­site that al­lows peo­ple to rent out their homes for hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion – has been a con­tentious is­sue in cities. It’s a cost-sav­ing con­ve­nience for trav­ellers and a money-mak­ing op­por­tu­nity for home­own­ers, yet a source of ire to scores of tra­di­tional ho­tels and guest-houses.

Some have ac­cused the global home-shar­ing ini­tia­tive – which op­er­ates in 34,000 cities – of play­ing a part in gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bour­hoods, as more Airbn­blisted prop­er­ties means fewer avail­able homes to live in, thus push­ing up prices.

Mark Tanzer, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Bri­tish Travel Agents, has also crit­i­cised Airbnb’s con­tri­bu­tion to grow­ing tourism num­bers as a threat to his­toric cities around the world. Mean­while, a num­ber of city gov­ern­ments have im­ple­mented re­stric­tive per­mits and reg­u­la­tions to curb the prac­tice and its neg­a­tive im­pacts.

But could Airbnb be find­ing another way to in­flu­ence cities? Ear­lier this Au­gust the multi-bil­lion-dol­lar com­pany launched a brand new ini­tia­tive called Sa­mara. It claims it is an in­no­va­tion and de­sign stu­dio that “gen­er­ates new ideas and build­ing prod­ucts that serve the Airbnb com­mu­nity” and “ex­plores new at­ti­tudes to shar­ing and trust”.

So far, so vague. Sa­mara will ap­par­ently fo­cus on ar­chi­tec­ture, prod­uct de­sign, soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing, and new eco­nomic mod­els – but the de­sign stu­dio has started with a house for a Ja­panese vil­lage.

The Yoshino Cedar House, cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tokyo-based architect Go Hasegawa, ex­plores “how ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures can en­gen­der a deeper re­la­tion­ship be­tween hosts and guests”. The house – made of cedar wood with a liv­ing room, kitchen, din­ing room and bed­rooms – will be per­ma­nently in­stalled in Yoshino, a ru­ral town in the Nara dis­trict of Ja­pan, where it will be a book­able Airbnb that is main­tained col­lec­tively by the com­mu­nity.

The house is cur­rently in­stalled at the House Vi­sion ex­hi­bi­tion in Tokyo un­til the end of Au­gust.

Sa­mara says the rental in­come from stays at the house will be used to “strengthen the cul­tural legacy and fu­ture of the town”, which has strug­gled as young peo­ple move away to cities – an is­sue that has af­fected many of Ja­pan’s ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties as the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion ages, shrinks and ur­banises. Aban­doned houses blight many of Ja­pan’s ru­ral towns; in 2013 there were 8.2 mil­lion va­cant houses across the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Land, In­fra­struc­ture, Trans­port and Tourism.

Sa­mara’s Yoshino pro­ject was ini­tially in­spired by an el­derly woman who started up an Airbnb prop­erty in the small Ja­panese city of Tsuyama Okayama. Ap­par­ently, her neigh­bours thought no one would visit – but many did. The tourist in­flux re­sulted in the woman en­list­ing her neigh­bours as hik­ing guides, trans­la­tors, and tour guides for the guests. The ven­ture ul­ti­mately boosted the lo­cal tourism econ­omy.

The Yoshino build­ing hopes to be both a com­mu­nity cen­tre and a form of com­mu­nal hous­ing: aside from the bed­rooms, all rooms in the house are de­signed to be shared by vis­i­tors and com­mu­nity mem­bers. The idea is that lo­cal res­i­dents act as tour guides for the Airbnb guests. “It’s a path­way to get the com­mu­nity to help each other, and it hap­pens to be in the form of ar­chi­tec­ture,” said Joe Geb­bia, Airbnb’s co-founder and chief prod­uct of­fi­cer, in Dig­i­tal Trends. The pro­ject, how­ever, has been crit­i­cised as just an al­ter­na­tive form of ho­tel, as Rob Price sug­gests in Busi­ness In­sider.

Sa­mara’s am­bi­tion is to take the Yoshino Cedar House model – a list­ing run by and for the ben­e­fit of a com­mu­nity, de­signed as a shared space – and roll it out to sim­i­lar strug­gling ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties around the world to boost lo­calised tourism and rein­vig­o­rate economies. Es­sen­tially, it seems Airbnb would build its own list­ings. “Given the size and scale of the Airbnb com­mu­nity, the ar­eas to ex­plore are lim­it­less,” says Geb­bia. So could they in­clude cities?

Many web­sites re­port­ing on Sa­mara – from Fast Co to Mash­able – have an­nounced that Airbnb is branch­ing out into ur­ban plan­ning.

As it stands though, Sa­mara’s work is firmly tar­get­ing a ru­ral con­text. Over email, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Sa­mara says they “aren’t con­tem­plat­ing” an ur­ban ver­sion of the Yoshino Cedar House right now, but as a stu­dio they are fo­cus­ing on how peo­ple will live in com­mu­ni­ties in the fu­ture.

“Ur­ban plan­ning is one of the many con­cepts we will think about, but it isn’t the only one and call­ing Sa­mara an ur­ban plan­ning out­post misses the mark.”

Other ex­perts seem to agree, judg­ing by their re­ac­tions to the sto­ries be­ing cir­cu­lated. “It’s a stretch to call this ur­ban plan­ning or ur­ban devel­op­ment,” tweeted The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Emily Badger; “It’s just not ur­ban­ism,” agreed ar­chi­tec­ture critic Alexan­dra Lange. If the model scales, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties will come across the same is­sues for lo­cal res­i­dents pre­sented by Airbnb in cities. This new ap­proach demon­strated in the Yoshino house, how­ever, seems to an­swer crit­ics by en­sur­ing the process di­rectly ben­e­fits the lo­cal com­mu­nity (in the­ory, at least).

Trans­lated to a city level, the con­cept would surely re­quire self-con­tained neigh­bour­hoods in or­der to work prop­erly: who ex­actly would look af­ter the houses, who would ben­e­fit, and how would the lo­cal bound­aries be drawn? The no­tion of a com­mu­nity cen­tre dou­bling as com­mu­nal hous­ing with rentable rooms, how­ever, seems po­ten­tially promis­ing as a new co-liv­ing model in cities.

So far, this is no ur­ban plan­ning; I some­how doubt we’ll see Airbnb-de­signed cities any time soon.

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