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The varieties of everyday life


Pieter Bruegel, Children’s Games, 1560. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Major changes in the societal structure are coming to be recognized as critical to mitigating climate change, to countering social inequality and economic injustice

Since about the last part of the nineteenth century, Western society has had one particular set of ideals concerning everyday life. This has varied slightly over time and from country to country, but these ideals have mostly been at the center of popular culture, of law, of business organization, of how we view professions, of housing policy, and of architecture and planning. Some of that is now undergoing change, in fits and starts, but it seems important to be explicit about what those ideals have been:

Since it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic was bringing these ideals into question, there has been much written about which way things seem to be moving. Some write that most people will go back to “the office” when the pandemic subsides; some write that most people will remain working at home; some see half-and-half; some emphasize the movement to suburbs and/or smaller cities and towns; some emphasize the physical decentralization of large companies; some emphasize productivity increases and decreases; and on and on. In addition to different interpretations of what is happening, there is also writing about what SHOULD happen, and why: being in the same physical place is important to the culture of the office, or Zoom is a great equalizer, or working at home is good for family life, or working at home is bad for family life, or something else.

To the extent that we are at a point of inflection, a time of change, I want to offer an alternative view –not of whether or not we should work at home, but an alternative way of thinking about the question. There may be a sea change happening, but the point is not to support one or the other—going back to the office OR continuing to work at home. As our group pointed out in our Davidson Prize competition entry, One size does not fit all.

Saying that is not enough. We need to recognize that the values that have guided and controlled us for the last century and a half are no longer appropriate. The major changes in societal structure that are coming to be recognized as critical to mitigating climate change, to countering social inequality and economic injustice, in providing freedom of opportunity, are also implicated in the seemingly simple question of where people work and what is the nature of the home and of the neighbourhood. But it is not a matter of “either-or;” instead it is a matter of people and businesses having the freedom to do what is most appropriate for their own situations and their own lives. Policies, laws and development practice—and ultimately the ideals we maintain about the shape of our cities and the built environment in general—need to change from a particular image of the world to a way –ways—of living together that is one of respect—for people and their circumstances, for ways of working, for different varieties of family life, for different ways of starting a business, for people who want to “go to work” and others who want to work at home.

The city that results from this change of attitudes will be more varied, more “messy,” and more representative of human and economic variety than our cities are today. It will much better exhibit individual and community agency than cities do today, and it will allow life to proceed in ways that allow people and families the opportunity to live and work in ways that are most natural to them.

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