Towards a livable future: design communities for people, not cars or corporations

One of the bibles of the permaculture philosophy and approach to designing more healthy and resilient social spaces, whether they be garden commons, or neighborhoods or communities, is the 1977 book, A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. Already a classic, it has long occupied an honored place on my coffee table. Here’s a post that talks about a number of the patterns in that book, all of them common-sensical, and due to return as we wake up from our addiction to consumerism, “growth,” rampant “individualism,” and the need to “get ahead.”

Thanks to and Doug for the pointer.

Changing the social logic through design

January 26, 2012
by Simeon Jackson

In Prosperity Without Growth, the seminal book by Tim Jackson, he concludes that our social logic must change:

The social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, but detrimental ecologically and psychologically. An essential pre-requisite for a lasting prosperity is to free people from this damaging dynamic and provide opportunities for sustainable and fulfilling lives.

He goes on to give some recommendations that focus on this task, which I will describe here, and then use patterns from A Pattern Language (which I blogged about in Monday’s post) to describe ways in which those can be “designed out” of our built environment.

Working Time Policy

This is not the first time I have talked about a shorter working week on this blog. In that article, I highlight the benefits that would come about due to reduced stress levels and more time to care for ourselves and family, but there’s another benefit that is more economic in nature, to quote Tim Jackson again:

In an economy in which labour productivity still increases but output is capped (for instance for ecological reasons), the only way to maintain macro-economic stability and protect people’s livelihoods is by sharing out the available work.

Although I believe that such policy will never really work until we have an economic system that does not rely on continual economic growth, there are a few patterns that will help:

  • Work Community (pattern 41) – “Build or encourage the formation of work communities — each one a collection of smaller clusters of workplaces which have their own courtyards, gathered round a common square or common courtyard which contains shops and lunch counters.” — This sense of community, I feel, would mean that working times could be much more flexible, would build potential for synergy between members, which would mean that more intense but highly productive work could be done whilst people are together in their work communities, at the same time as freeing them to be truly away from work when they are not there.
  • Self-governing Workshops and Offices (80) — “No one enjoys his work if he is a cog in a machine.” — When you step back and question why you turn up to work 35 hours or more a week, it can seem on the face of it absurd, but the real reason is that “the man” requires you to do so. You would work 20 hours if you could, because it would be so beneficial for you, your family, and for society in general, but it is not currently allowed for within our social structure. But when do we “design” self-governing workshops? When we start new enterprises, develop community projects, form teams within companies. And if we form them as self-governing entities, they will be much more satisfying places to work.
  • Also: Small work groups (148), Flexible Office Space (146), Local Sports (72), The Family (75)
Tackling Systemic Inequality
“Systemic income inequalities increase anxiety, undermine social capital and expose lower income households to higher morbidity and lower life satisfaction,” says Tim Jackson.

For this, I point back to the Self-governing Workshops and Offices above. Those who have a say in how their enterprise is run rarely make decisions that would reward those who do no work, whilst cutting pay and jobs for those who earn so little, and need the money so much more. But on top of that, I will also mention these patterns:

Having out-buildings that could be used to run an engineering business from was a factor in my father’s choice of home
  • Home Workshop (157) — “Change the zoning laws to encourage modest, quiet work operations to locate in neighbourhoods.” — Part of the reason for systemic inequality is the lack of power people have to make their own livings from home or in their local neighbourhoods. When looking for a job, I was expected (by the jobcentre) to consider travelling up to 90 miles to a workplace, but who knows what enterprise there is the potential for in our local community if there were just the resources available to do so. Why is it almost impossible to find houses which have workshops included, or where the front room could be converted into a local shop?
  • Also: Small Services without Red Tape (81), Office Connections (82)
Measuring Capabilities and Flourishing
Tim Jackson: “The suggestion that prosperity is not adequately captured by conventional measures of economic output or consumption leaves open the need to define an appropriate measurement framework for a lasting prosperity.”
At first I struggled to think which of these patterns really cover this, but then I realised that lots of them are appropriate! Since flourishing is subjective in nature, the patterns which measure our prosperity best are those which attract people to them, and form happy spaces, I therefore bring your attention to the following patterns:
  • Activity Pockets (124) – “Surround public gathering places with pockets of activity – small, partly enclosed areas at the edges, which jut forward into the open space between the paths, and contain activities which make it natural for people to pause and get involved.” — We sometimes don’t spend time in public spaces, not because we don’t want to be out and about, but because we don’t feel comfortable being exposed. The measure of good public space is how much it is used, but it will only be used if people feel comfortable using it, no matter whether its with a small group of select friends, or a city-wide Carnival (pattern 58). This pattern is also closely related to Courtyards which Live (pattern 115).
  • Sleeping in Public (94) — “It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep.” — Sounds like my kind of park, and my kind of success! On this note, perhaps any kind of doing less could be considered success?
  • Beer Hall (90) — “Where can people sing, and drink, and shout and drink, and let go of their sorrows?” — If a community has not got places like this, then it’s probably a failure, but they do exist. Many of our smaller villages’ last pubs have closed and many new housing estates are given no such provision. Norwich, I feel, is quite lucky in that there are so many such places, or at least in places to drink. But it would be nice if Norwich had more places to sing and shout, don’t you think?
Strengthening Social Capital

Tim Jackson: “Understanding that prosperity consists in part in our capabilities to participate in the life of society demands that attention is paid to the underlying human and social resources required for this task.”
Immediately, two patterns come to mind:
Norwich City Hall, which is too centralised and closed to be the basis for truly participatory local democracy
  • Local Town Hall (44) – “To make the political control of local functions real, establish a small town hall for each community of 7000, and even for each neighbourhood; locate it near the busiest intersection in the community. Give the building three parts: an arena for public discussion, public services around the arena, and space to rent out to ad hoc community projects.” – Sounds idealistic, right? But when you look at what we do have, you do start to wonder why government is so centralised. Occupy Norwich have agreed by consensus that “The House of Commons does not represent the will or interests of the common people, rather the wealthy”. Isn’t an important part of claiming back our participation in the life of society to ensure that our government is at the appropriate scale for the activities that they undertake. And that society as a whole (rather than just the wealthy) has a representative say in how things are done? Simply building places to represent this would help. I hope that Beyond Green (who I mention in yesterday’s post) design into their plans provision for local democracy, because without the provisions, such “democracy” will just end up as plutocracy, thinly veiled.
  • Necklace of Community Projects (45) — “The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves.” – I love this image, and it follows on naturally from the previous pattern. Being involved in society is not just about democratic participation, but also in trial services, research, public consultation and community activities.
Further patterns which are also relevant: Common Land (67), Local Sports (72), Dancing in the Street (63), Self-Governing Workshops and Offices (80), Master and Apprentices (83), Shopfront Schools (85), University as a Marketplace (43) and many more.
Dismantling the Culture of Consumerism
This is the biggie, when it comes to Transition, I feel, because even with all the other social logic changed, if we continue to speak to each other primarily through the language of consumer goods, then there will be no hope of ecological balance. Tim Jackson says this:

Consumerism has developed partly as a means of protecting consumption-driven economic growth. But it promotes unproductive status competition and has damaging psychological and social impacts on people’s lives.

The idea of patterns to combat consumerism, then, are those that give us an alternative, non-material language to express our identity and culture:

  • Connected Play (68) — “Lay out common land, paths, gardens, and bridges so that groups of at least 65 households are connected by a swath of land that does not cross traffic. Establish this land as the connected play spaces for the children in these households.” — It seems to me that a huge amount of our economic consumption is demanded by kids who have been confined to their cramped homes by the child-unfriendly nature of the public space outside their homes. But I have seen other places where, by providing rear gardens that link up with each other and even open out into countryside, children can freely be children without demanding the kind of material entertainment that they have been accustomed to in recent years.
Lower Goat Lane, Norwich
  • Street Cafe (88) — “The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by.” — Who suggested to the world at large that “retail therapy” could ever be a legitimate and truly lasting aide to human well-being? Certainly not me. Unless the “retail” is a warming drink and a slice of homemade cake, and one can sit, perhaps with a friend, contemplating life, love, or whatever it is that makes you feel at peace with the world…
  • …which for many people may be religion or spiritual nourishment, requiring their Sacred Sites (24) — “People cannot maintain their spiritual roots and their connections to the past if the physical world they live in does not also sustain these roots.” — One worrying thing about consumerism is that, for the generation that has grown up within the last twenty to thirty years, it is the only world we know. It is the only model of society that is presented to us by TV, glossy mags and even by our schools (arts subjects have been consistently under-supported for many many years now). Consumerism has become akin to a religion, but one that is damaging to society, the environment and even, often to our own psychological well-being. Therefore churches, meditation centres, parks, memorials, graveyards… these are all essential sites in providing spaces where other values are put higher than individualistic materialism.
  • And further to these, we could also call upon the patterns Identifiable Neighbourhood (14), Dancing on the Street (63), A Room of One’s Own (141), Network of Learning (18) and various others to back up the idea of places challenging the sovereignty of materialism, but, if you’ve got this far, you’ve probably got the gist by now!
This last recommendation of Tim’s could, I know, form the basis for many more thoughts and posts, but this post is becoming long enough as it is!
Images: 21 hours publication by nef; all others are scenes of Norfolk and Norwich by Simeon Jackson.
This entry was posted in local action, new economy, permaculture principles, unity consciousness, Uranus square Pluto, visions of the future, waking up, zone zero. Bookmark the permalink.

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