A vision for the 21st century city

Camia Young

You don’t need to spend a lot of time with Camia Young to realise she’s an innovator in every sense of the word. Bursting with passion and ideas, she’s relentless in the pursuit of challenging the status quo in order to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

As the founding partner of Office for Holistic Urbanism (Ohu), Camia roots herself in projects and people that are focused on developing the 21st Century city. It’s a lofty goal, and one that she doesn’t take lightly. “I’ve been thinking about this practice most of my life,” says Camia. “I’ve been moving towards it for a long time, this is my life’s work.”

Bumpy Road Ahead

As a former architect, Camia has transitioned into her current role thanks to a few hiccups along the way that turned out to be just what she needed all along. One such hiccup was an immigration barrier that wound up helping Camia find her footing in New Zealand.

Originally from America, Camia came to New Zealand to teach a course at the University of Auckland. Despite never seeing New Zealand before, nor teaching, Camia jumped into the role head-first, teaching a course called Future Christchurch. “Before I taught, I visited Christchurch in 2011 and walked the city for a month, and from that I started to pull together what I was going to research with the students,” says Camia. “Through teaching the course I developed an understanding about where the potential was for the future of Christchurch.”

“We need to start investing collectively in outcomes that are beneficial for many, rather than consolidating wealth to benefit a few individuals. We choose the future we want to live in by deciding where we spend our money every day.”

One semester turned into two and a half years, and because she was teaching part time, she still had time to fill. Camia sought out more opportunities to grow and learn, using her extra time to volunteer which exposed her to a whole lot of things she would have never done otherwise.

“I ended up designing the Pallet Pavilion, a temporary pavilion made out of 4000 pallets with a group called Gap Filler. It was built by volunteers and was a place to gather and bring people together, such places had largely been lost in the post-earthquake context. It was then that I realised that you can build community by building buildings,” says Camia. “It was there that I saw for the first time evidence of what I believe will define the 21st Century city, which is about creating places that foster connection and a sense of belonging through how our built fabric is designed.”

Ohu Origin

Camia took this passion and goal for creating the 21st Century city and formed Ohu. For her, the mission is clear. “Just imagine a future where all of our buildings were about building community in some way,” says Camia. “What would that look like and how would we get there?”

The 21st Century city isn’t all about high tech materials and space age equipment, rather, it’s an approach that makes us re-examine the cultural structures that influence our physical structures.

Camia centres the business objectives around four key pillars: legal structures, financial structures, social structures and basic property development. “Before the buildings are even built, it’s about examining how we would truly support communities to thrive. So, what I’ve been working on is developing the social, legal, and financial structures that can influence the changes that need to be made,” says Camia. “Property development doesn’t need to change that much. I think right now the real innovation is in the legal, financial and social structures. We need to put these together in a way that people can collectively own them.”

The idea of collective ownership is a radical move on Ohu and Camia’s part. The idea of collective ownership, much like how one would own stocks in company, is nothing new, but applying it to creating communities and buildings? That’s where the innovation is. It’s a way to bring people together to create the futures we know are possible. Camia believes this will result in creating greater social connection, which improves our sense of wellbeing and overall quality of life.

Ohu is driven by three key purposes: building community by building buildings, creating an equitable distribution of wealth and creating strong social structures. “Eight people own 50 percent of the world’s wealth, our financial systems are failing us, but we design these systems and we can re-design them.”

Current economic systems privilege extraction of resources at the expense of the environment and people’s wellbeing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. “I believe we can create economic models that are more caring if we consciously choose to spend money in places that replenish resources as opposed to deplete them. If we can do this, we’ll start to move out of an extractive age and into a regenerative age,” says Camia. “We need to start investing collectively in outcomes that are beneficial for many, rather than consolidating wealth to benefit a few individuals. We choose the future we want to live in by deciding where we spend our money every day.”

Collett’s Corner

Camia and her team are currently in the midst of the most ambitious project they’ve undertaken to date. Collett’s Corner in Lyttleton is Ohu’s attempt at building on the outpouring of community spirit in the post-earthquake context by putting the community itself at the centre of its plans. The project will be the first equity crowdfunded commercial development in New Zealand.

“We went through a long listening phase to figure out what locals would like to see built on their main street. We found that there were two trajectories,” says Camia. “One was to bring back some of the liveliness that was lost in the earthquake, and one was addressing the growing number of older people who live in the hills and have a hard time getting in and out of town.”

“In order for us to create financial systems that distribute wealth, we need to think about how we empower women to earn and invest money.”

After much deliberation and testing, the community and team decided to focus on the liveliness aspect of Lyttleton, while also coming to an agreement on a separate site that would address the issues around intergenerational housing.

The project is well underway, with the opportunity to invest opening this February. “Any New Zealand resident can invest, it’s $100 and you basically own a part of the building. You get a return just as you would in any company with shares,” says Camia. “It’s the first time we’re doing this in New Zealand for commercial development, and the whole idea is to work together to build the buildings that we want in our towns in a way that builds community and distributes wealth equitably.”

Collet’s Corner

Driving Diversity

Camia’s experiences both as a former architect and now as a leader in the social enterprise space have given her a unique perspective on the importance and impact of diversity in the workplace. “I try to run my company with diversity at the forefront. I’m keen to bring in mums, and single mums particularly who wouldn’t otherwise get work, so we do have a lot of women and flexible schedules to accommodate that,” says Camia. “I’ve found it’s a challenge to continue that balance of men and women when I go out to look for investors, because not only do we have a lack of diversity in the work world, but we have an even bigger lack diversity when it comes to who holds all the money.”

Seeking out ways to change this archaic dynamic between those who have the money and those who need it to impart change is something Camia works tirelessly towards. “In order for us to create financial systems that distribute wealth, we need to think about how we empower women to earn and invest money,” says Camia. “We need to create financial structures that are not privileging a few people but support many, I call this compassionate capitalism.”

Advice for the Future

As someone who’s worked extensively in a male-dominated profession, Camia knows all too well the feeling that comes with being the only woman in the room. To those who might be feeling that they don’t belong, Camia encourages an introspective reflection. “You have to ask yourself, is the environment you’re in, whether it’s your work world or your family, conducive to who you are? It’s okay to change,” says Camia. “Often people feel like there’s a fear or there’s shame because they need to climb some ladder or they need to prove themselves. Often, the heroic act is to stop and ask, is this the right environment for me to flourish in? If the answer is no, it is time to change what you are doing.”

For those who may be wanting to follow in Camia’s footsteps and pursue a career in social enterprise, she encourages them not to rule out a degree in architecture. “For me, it was the best education to then springboard into almost any field, because it’s essentially an education into creative thinking,” says Camia.  I wouldn’t put a box around it and say you have to draw buildings. Whether you become an architect or not is not the point, it’s actually the skills to think through complex problems that are beneficial.”

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