The right to roam and democratic design

The right to roam has a long history in Norwegian and Scandinavian outdoor life, yet it has also laid the foundations for urban development. At Vestre, it is a given that urban spaces belong to everyone, and this mindset is gaining increasing international attention.

The right to roam and democratic design are key principles in Vestre’s philosophy. Our goal is to create inclusive spaces for what we call ‘everyday democracy’. Spaces where people can come together despite their differences, share thoughts and experiences, and develop ideas. When we get to know each other, we suddenly discover that there is no us and them; we are all the same. At Vestre, we believe that creating meeting places dedicated to this is the best way of preventing the polarisation of society and avoiding hostility and conflict. And it is with these democratic meeting places that we hope to change the world – one neighbourhood at a time.

“In Scandinavia, the right to roam is so strong that the idea that our shared spaces belong to everyone is deeply engrained in us. Vestre believes that this should also apply to urban spaces and the meeting places there,” says Jan Christian Vestre, CEO of Vestre.

Good design shouldn’t be reserved for a small group of people who have the resources for it. By furnishing public places, we make good design accessible to everyone.

Turning down million-pound projects

Unfortunately, we see examples of urban development that challenge the right to roam and democracy through hostile architecture and design. This means designing to purposefully control or limit certain types of behaviour. This is often targeted at people who are dependent on the public space more than others, for example homeless people.

If you travel to major cities around the world, you can see examples of such design. For example, this could involve placing small spikes on furniture or adding more armrests than necessary in order to keep the most vulnerable members of society away.

Vestre regularly receives enquiries concerning such projects, which we consistently turn down – even though this has cost us million-pound projects. Outdoor spaces belong to everyone, and this kind of design is completely undemocratic.

“If we have created a society where people do not have a roof over their heads, we need to treat this as a political and social problem. It is not our job as outdoor furniture manufacturers to bring in urban furniture that aims to keep the most vulnerable people away from our streets,” says Jan Christian Vestre.

Bringing people together

Vestre does not believe that the solution is to create areas that exclude people, but rather the exact opposite: meeting places where everyone can come together despite their differences. And we can see that it works.

“Some may think it’s a little naive to believe that a bench can change the world, but we’ve seen it work – time and time again. This proves that everyone has the power to do something. As more and more companies realise this, a strong, global movement for change will be created,” says Jan Christian Vestre.

One example is the project Southwyck House in Brixton, London. This was originally an area characterised by social issues and crime, and it was a gathering place for unemployed young people. It was a neighbourhood where many people felt unsafe. As a temporary project in connection with London Design Week in 2016, the area was to be furnished with colourful Vestre furniture. The project was met with scepticism, and the police feared that creating such a place would exacerbate the problems and unrest in the area. The task was therefore to challenge the idea that placing furniture there would encourage antisocial behaviour, and show that, on the contrary, good design can increase the perception of safety and create well-being in the community.

After an upgrade of the area with both new furniture and plants, the area turned into a meeting place for people of all ages, passers-by and visitors to local businesses. The police’s concerns could be put to rest; there were no adverse incidents during the period that followed. The neighbourhood reported that the residents now felt prouder of their home. The furniture was later donated to the project and is still there as a permanent installation. The project is an example of how new social zones and good design can affect neighbourhoods and those who live there in a positive way.

Successful export of Scandinavian values

At Vestre, the principle that design must be democratic and accessible to everyone comes above all else. It controls our decisions and defines our culture and the way we do business. The story of the right to roam and inclusive design is gaining a stronger foothold beyond Scandinavia, and in recent years we have achieved an export share of nearly 65% – with deliveries to projects in more than 25 countries. And we are still growing. Through this, we are proving that doing good is also good for business.