Thursday, 11 April 2013

‘Villages evolve, don't they?’ The debate about urban design will surely always be with us. John Harris had a rather inconclusive piece in the Guardian on Saturday about some of those new squeaky-clean housing developments and the culture they represent – aspirational, artificial, organic…? ‘The pristine, faux-traditional houses are the same as those you see all over the country, offering the promise of "traditional living with modern comforts."’ And so he asks, ‘If you use the word "village" and learn from the planning mistakes of the past, can you quickly build a community from scratch?’ Although he doesn’t really get face to face with the question, there are several delightful insights, including this one from Terri Clarke, a resident of Fairford Leys: "It's referred to as a village, but it's an estate," Terri insists. "The fact that it was all built at the same time means it's an estate. Villages evolve, don't they?" Thank you Terri. I’ve been round a few such places (including Poundbury, which is hardly typical) and a few things have struck me. The architecture is invariably an improvement on what was left us by the architects and planners of the 1960s and 1970s. And there is more likely to be a mix of renovated and new build of different sizes with social and private housing. The developers’ contribution to local amenities almost always lags behind and the eventual level of provision is probably seldom adequate. The public realm matters everywhere. The article quotes architect John Simpson, emphasising in these new developments ‘a public realm, rather than just leftover space, which is what you get on housing estates.’ So who was responsible for designing housing estates without a public realm? Why? People reflect readily on their neighbourhood, but snobbery around words like ‘estate’ and ‘village’ surfaces quite easily. These snobberies can get institutionalised in the regulation of residents through terms and conditions, with some of the least rational forms emerging. Thus one of the residents quoted in the article says she’s ‘not allowed solar panels’. The version of ‘heritage’ espoused by her residents’ association presumably excludes the idea of future generations inheriting an inhabitable planet. These estates have often achieved a subtle, possibly unnoticed, control over vehicle traffic, so that kids can play in the street. If the residents’ association allows that sort of thing, of course. Some people are clearly suspicious of the ‘prissy’ over-prescribed environment, and readily contrast it to some notion of ‘community’ which entertains a degree of lively disorder. Others appear to have a fear of disorder (which itself can seem like a psychological disorder at times) and will invest heavily in the local politics of protection: for them, ‘community’ is characterised by peace and predictability. Maybe we can’t build for all sorts and shouldn't try. To return to the question posed: ‘can you quickly build a community from scratch?’ There's a superficial answer, which is that in some circumstances you can of course: it helps to have an identifiable shared adversity. But the question begs too...
Think mutuality and reciprocity… and interdependence ‘Jacques is 14 years old. When he comes from school, he is welcomed by his mother and Paul H, their co-resident in the home, a man 70 years old. They are living together in one of the two kangaroo homes operated by the Public Social Welfare Centre in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (Brussels). Each home accommodates four seniors with one single-parent family. Each resident has his/her own room, but the living areas are communal… ‘Paul, formerly a mail-sorter with the Post Office explains: "When I arrived here, I had lost my wife and was forced to leave my apartment. I felt cast loose, as if the world around me was collapsing. But since my arrival here I feel less lonely."’ This comes from a case study article on the European Urban Knowledge Network. It got me thinking about responses to the UK’s infamous so-called ‘bedroom tax’… Could co-housing offer an opportunity to emphasise mutuality and reciprocity over ‘traditional forms of support and care’ (to quote a recent UK Co-housing tweet)? I thought I might find a one or two references to welfare policy on the UK Cohousing Network site, but just drew blanks. I can understand that they might want to steer clear of the torrid current politics. Wouldn’t we all. But there’s an important theme here, and it’s reassuring to see how the movement promoting cohousing for older people is gathering momentum. Possibly, just possibly, it will give us all pointers for the future, for two reasons: First, just because it accepts a mixed economy to get things done, the cohousing movement doesn’t abandon the principle that many things are better for being collectively endeavoured, and that many things should be ‘public’; nor the principle that the existence of a public sphere is in everyone’s interests. And secondly, it seems to reassert the valuable notion of interdependence for older people (and I do mean ‘valuable’, in an economic as well as various other human senses). Some years ago when I was researching into neighbourliness and older people, there seemed to be some acceptance of this notion – pulling away from both a tiresome insistence on older people’s independence on the one hand and some inconsistent attitudes towards dependence on the other. As a society we should have been exploring ways of providing infrastructure that makes interdependence and collective responsibility possible. We could pay a heavy price for our sluggish response to the looming crisis of old age, unless co-operative movements like co-housing serve to stimulate a widespread understanding of the necessity of mutuality and reciprocity. (And I do hope you feel that this topic is a welcome antidote to the current desperate, morally bankrupt attempts to reify Thatcher).

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