Utopia? Can we plan future cities for tomorrow’s families?

Over the past twelve weeks, I’ve written about many aspects of the sometimes tense fusion between families, cities and communities in late modern times. I’ve discussed some of the history of cities and suburban families. I’ve pointed out how families are changing in intimacy and structure and how the balance of work and family remains precarious and inequitable. I’ve discussed the need to better plan cities, to stop the unplanned, poorly connected, urban sprawl, and the unsustainable spread of aesthetically poor McMansions. And I’ve discussed the consequences of gentrified cosmopolitanism (and the fight to create and retain the Creative Class), and the struggle to enact any kind of control over the flow of resources within globalised capitalism.

I’d like to finish off this series of blogs with a list of my tips for planning the houses and cities of the future:

  1. Orient cities to changing families – build the housing and transport that changing families need.
  2. Integrate work, care, and family needs – into the design of houses (smaller, more easily adjusted/changed), cities (social, green spaces), and transport (to end the family-hostile commuting nightmare that our cities have become).
  3. Infill – revitalise old areas around existing transport options, particularly along existing transport corridors (light and heavy rail).
  4. Social centres – If building new areas, build a social centre with shops, facilities, and green spaces within walking distance for people to come and gather and socialise.
  5. Effective public transport – connect each social centre by non-road public transport – trains and light rail (not buses), and embrace the idea of high speed rail to connect regional centres and satellite cities, funded with public/private ‘value capture’ strategies.
  6. Mixed use and flexible use – design streets and areas with many functions that balance ‘place’ and ‘movement’ requirements, use spaces for different purposes at different times (parking lots) instead of having dead space, adapt houses to actual needs (apartments and townhouses to suit smaller families, not McMansions)
  7. Housing affordabilitya range of options, part of which should include ending the race to build, buy, and then only partially occupy the biggest and ugliest McMansion (filled with rooms we never use)!
  8. Attract and retain the Creative Class – encourage diversity, mixing, AND affordability, so as not to drive out poorer workers
  9. Globalised Capitalism – Space of Flows, needs to be better steered, managed, and regulated democratically, rather than through under-regulated market mechanisms. This is of even greater concern in the post-GFC era of political populism. Slogans and transparently flimsy promises are not only impractical and insufficient, they risk eroding trust in intelligent interventions that might actually work …

Whilst not intended as a prescription for Utopia – and borrowing heavily from the excellent ideas of Jean-Frances Kelly at the Grattan Institute, and Professor Peter Newman  in general – I hope these ideas together can present a sense of what we need, what might help, how we might get there, and the biggest challenges we face: globalized rather than democratic control over the resources needed to create future, sociable cities for tomorrows families.

Global Cities, Post GFC – Space or Flow?

In the 2015 Catalyst program ‘Future of Australian Cities, Julian Bolleter claims that Australia will need to build a new Sydney every ten years for the next ninety years, to keep up with the expected growth in population. This raises several questions, but perhaps foremost amongst them are: where are all these people coming from, and how will we cope? To immediately rule out several misconceptions, the concern here is not about an explosion in the birth rate or the number of refugees we are taking in, nor is it about dealing with the widespread settlement of people in poorly serviced, remote, non-arable spaces.

It is primarily about big cities taking in large numbers of external (mostly highly skilled) migrants from overseas, as well as young, educated, professional internal migrants from rural and suburban areas, moving to the inner cities in pursuit of jobs and lifestyle. Whether from without or within, people are moving to where the employment and lifestyle opportunities are concentrated, in the biggest and richest global cities around the world. And the concentration of these people, as I mentioned last week in referring to Richard Floridas’ ‘creative class’, attracts money, capital, business, and economic growth. The money follows the people, who follow the money, who follow the people, etc …

Saskia Sassen notes that cities have changed from natural sites of trade (near harbours, plantations, mines, etc) into sites of finance, communications, and specialized services. Foremost amongst these are the Global Cities, the hubs of investment activity that serve as critical, strategic, infrastructure nodes providing specialized, complex skills and resources – legal, technical, and particularly financial – to the global economy. This is similar to what Manuel Castells calls the Space of Flows. His basic premise is that place has become less important relative to the flow of capital, information and people, and that power now diffuses through a global network of people and capital, rather than residing in one institution, such as a corporation, government, or state. He does note though, in keeping with Sassen, that ‘nodal’ centres appear in the global network. These are concentrations of specialised, sub-contracting services in leading cities around the world, which control the flow of activity and workers as needed (flexibly) to suit demand. In either theory, the urban form is shaped by the flow of capital and demands for mobility and profit, not the living requirements of urban residents.

The flow of such capital and human resources into global cities, and away from other cities and spaces, reduces the capacity for citizens in either location to democratically construct cities they way they would like. Global cities attract and distribute finance and services, but are subject to the distortionary pressures of dealing with the great influx of the world’s workers and their consumption practices. Sassen notes that:

the Global City generates a sharp rise in the demand for both high-level talent and masses of low-wage workers. What it needs least are the traditional modest middle classes so central to the era when mass consumption was the dominant logic; larger cities with more routinized economies do continue to need them” (p98).

This transformation of a city into a space for the rich that drives out the middle classes can be glimpsed in the intense escalation in housing prices in places like Sydney. Whilst driven in part by the Australian national hobby of real estate speculation and permissive taxation, the feverish rise in prices is also due in part to the continuing interest of foreign investors (particularly Chinese investors) in buying up new housing stock. Now, as Jason Twill notes, we are not only facing a situation where the older, urban poor are being priced out of gentrified inner city communities, but young, educated people are being priced out as well. In other countries, this has led to a rejuvenation of ‘second-tier’ cities that accept the ‘refugees’ from the Global Cities (e.g. Portland, Philadelphia in the US), but as Twill notes, Australia only has a few cities for such people to move to. Australia’s future ‘Creative Class’ is in danger of fragmenting.

Meanwhile, cities in developing countries away from the metropole are forced into increasing levels of competition over lowering taxes, to attract finance, services, and knowledge workers; and many fail to attract the resources that they need. Trevor Hogan notes that there are now over 25 cities in the world with more than 10 million people each, and that a number of such large cities in the Asian region are experiencing what he calls ‘informal hyper growth’, with large, rapidly-growing youthful populations, high immigration from rural to urban areas, and a poor citizenry working mostly in a non-organised informal economy. He notes that 40-60% of residents live in home-made housing in unplanned, fragmented, sprawling settlements with inadequate infrastructure, social services, transport connections, and poor urban governance. Such environments – well outside the rich nodal centres of the space of flows – present an enormous challenges to urban planners around the world.

How can we attract the resources to the areas that need them – and away from the global cities that become distorted by the overabundance of capital and people – in a post GFC globalised world, where large companies and agglomerations are criticised (rightly) for having more collective power than the world’s governments? As Florida and Sassen note, space is still as important as ever – and largely inescapable for the poor – so what can we do to redirect the flow? In an era of resurgent protectionism, rather than restricting the movement of needed capital and people, perhaps we should pay more attention to its distortionary effects, and think about the kinds of agreements and regulations we might need to better and more equitably direct what is needed to where it actually needs to go?

Suburbia, meh … Give me Inner City! Cosmopolitan, gentrified, creative … and diverse?

In a globalised, digital world, with expensive inner city housing and commuting nightmares, surely we should all just live AND work in the suburbs? Work online, or in little local community working co-ops? Save ourselves all that expense and travel time? And yet we don’t. Something draws us back to the inner city, in ever-greater numbers.

The last few decades have seen a counter-movement away from suburban life, as young educated people and skilled migrants return to live in the inner city. These middle class knowledge-workers, identified as cosmopolitans by Robert Merton and Herbet Gans in the mid-twentieth century – outward-oriented, mobile, highly educated, networked professionals, students, artists, intellectuals and bohemians –now dominate inner urban environments. Richard Florida calls them the ‘creative class’, and notes that congregations of these workers appear in particular areas and particular cities (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – and in Australia, inner Sydney and Melbourne). They attract both businesses AND other creative workers, because they give the business a competitive advantage in the ‘creative age’, and because the diversity they bring to an area – culturally, technologically, ethnically – is attractive to other creative workers.

They have changed the inner city. Sharon Zukin notes how the cosmopolitans have not only changed the mixture of people in the inner-city streets, but also changed the character – and costs – of the streets themselves. Carefully considered consumption choices have lead to the urban renewal of housing, shopfronts and amenities, with cafes, bars, food and clothing outlets and farmers markets selling organic, free-range, ethical products now a staple of inner city living. As Zukin notes in ‘Consuming Authenticity‘:

“Often the same men and women are shopping for fresh goat cheese, supporting fair trade coffee, and restoring old brownstone houses in these socially ‘marginal’ areas. Just as they take pleasure in choosing alternatives to mass-market products – ‘pure,’ original, ethnic, fresh – so they are willing to take risks in choosing where to live. But in the process of developing alternative consumption practices, they contribute to changes that make these spaces more desirable” (2008, p725)

However, there are problematic elements to this renewal. ‘Desirable’ is synonymous with ‘expensive’. This is not only manifest  in the spiralling prices of houses and rentals in inner city areas, but in the rampant inflation of organic, ethical, and ethnic foods sold to creative types searching for ‘authenticity’ in their consumption choices, which as John Oliver notes in a recent satire of the American Whole Foods chain, sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

At a more serious level, the consumer driven gentrification wave has lead to the displacement of the working-class and migrant workers who have traditionally inhabited the inner city for many decades. In looking at the differences between cities and regions, Florida notes that as business compete to attract the creative class, the cream of the gifted middle class and skilled migrant workers are sucked into the largest ‘creative’ global cities and spaces, leaving many home countries and cities to suffer from ‘brain drain’. In looking at the differences within the city, Zukin points out how existing, long-term working class residents and unskilled migrants are displaced in inner city areas of high migrant, middle-class intake, via increases in the cost of housing and living. And Kathleen Dunn notes how even the production chain and public space of traditional migrant workers working in the humblest of jobs – such as NYC street vendors – is being coopted and displaced by the wave of middle-class hipster food trucks sweeping the inner cities of America (and Australia).

Each of these factors points to widening inequality; between different global cities, between the inner and outer cities, and within the inner city itself, often between older and newer migrant groups. They also raise concerns over the long-term sustainability of such expensive living arrangements, the maintenance of diversity and authenticity if the poor are driven out, and the stability of neighborhood social cohesion.

#S208UOW17 #Tut10

The McMansion – the small idea with the big cost

Australian houses are very big. Since overtaking the US in the 1990s, Australian house sizes have consistently outpaced those of every other country: in 2009, one average Australian house (214m2) could fit almost three average UK houses (76m2) inside of it. Whilst we may have been recently overtaken by the US, and now have only the second-largest houses in the world, over-sized houses – rather than large lot-sizes – have become characteristic of Australian suburbia. The rise of the big, multi-roomed house in Australia – or the ‘McMansion’ to use the American term – has changed the landscape of our suburbs, and the quality of suburban family life.

McMansions are not just maligned for their size, as US sociologist Brian Miller notes in reviewing McMansion descriptions in the popular US media. Miller finds that since the term became popularised in the 1990s, it has been commonly used to imply three additional criticisms beyond simply large dimensions. First, the relative size of the house matters. Replacing a ‘teardown’ with a house disproportionately bigger than those around it “appears to dwarf its land footprint,” and can ruin an existing community’s character, devalue older homes, and simply look wrong “like steroid-stoked biceps on a skinny teen.” Second, McMansions are characterised as aesthetically ugly. On the one hand they are criticised for too little diversity when they are churned out as standardised mass-produced housing: “Instead of stimulating your imagination, the typical McMansion simply deadens your senses.” On the other, they are criticised for too much diversity when the architectural styles on a given street, or even on a single house, are haphazard, incoherent, and jumbled: “Because of its architectural pastiche, the McMansion can be seen as not being “authentic” or is viewed as a caricature.” Third, they are seen as a symbol for more complex issues, including urban sprawl, status-seeking, and excessive consumption. When linked to the proliferation of mega shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, and big cars, their excessiveness has been equated to fast-food: “These stores offer the gastronomic equivalent of McMansions, and show our kids that wasting food (and blowing cash) is all part of family fun.”

This last quality in particular raises the issue of how McMansions change the social landscape: as one of Miller’s paper’s quips: “The McMansion is both pretentious and isolated, an island in a sea of strangers and cars.” Is the rise of such big houses reflecting a desire for private space in an increasingly paranoid suburbia? As captured in the recent ABC documentary ‘Streets of your Town’, voluminous houses now serve as place for our kids to play ‘safely’ inside rather than on the street. Decks and pizza ovens are replacing grassy backyards, traditionally oriented to gardening and child play, and are increasingly used for entertaining select friends privately at home (rather than having to meet our neighbours publicly in the street). And an increasing number of people, particularly retirees, live in gated communities. Jacek Tittenbrun notes that gated communities now comprise 1/3 of all housing construction in the US, and house 1/6 of the US population.

The pursuit of bigger, more private houses has almost certainly impacted on what is arguably the biggest social issue for mainstream middle-class Australia today – housing affordability. With house prices sky rocketing in Australia, and housing debt steadily rising, a report by Jean-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute shows that younger people are less likely to own a home than at any time in the last twenty years. At the same time, the proportion of renters in Australia is rising, though legal protections for Australian renters are amongst the most basic of any OECD countries.

It seems a large gap is opening up between the older owners of the large McMansions on the city fringes, and the younger renters clustered in the inner city, working to save an increasingly unrealistic deposit for the most basic of houses. The Grattan Institute report identifies that house size IS a factor in unaffordability in advocating (amongst a host of other changes) for the replacement of stamp duty with land taxThey argue that the former policy encourages people to buy big and then never downsize, while the latter encourages people to use the space they have, or else move without penalty.

Maybe its time for big ideas about thinking small?

#S208UOW17 #Tut8

Flexible Work and Gender Inequities in Work and Care – Let’s Fix the Incentives!

As Australian society shifts towards a service driven economy, the nature of work is changing, and with it, the balance of work and family life.

Our late modern economy is characterised by more targeted consumption of niche (rather than standardized mass produced) goods, and consequently by more flexible production. Workers, contractors and entrepreneurs are moving away from the 9 to 5, 5 day week routine towards more casual, part-time, contract work at all hours in a 24-7 economy. And they are producing these services in increasingly de-centralised workplaces, working in cafes rather than offices, and working from home in greater numbers than ever before. All of this is, of course, facilitated by the rise of the digital economy and online social networking, blurring the boundaries between private friendship and public business in a way that would put Amway to shame! There has seemingly never been a better, and easier time to start a business and work for ourselves, and the flexibility inherent in such arrangements should enable workers to better balance work and family life.

However, there is conjecture and evidence that structuring our modern working lives this way is having a severe impact on our family lives and connections. It is important to acknowledge that the ‘flexibility’ in our arrangements is often imposed upon us by bosses and the market, rather than chosen by us in a way that suits us and our family lives. Richard Sennett argues that work today is increasingly temporary and fractious, requiring that we commute to a multiplicity of locations (local, metropolitan, interstate, international), work all sorts of hours (including shiftwork), and live with an increasing precarity that disrupts our family lives and relationships.

The impacts of these changes fall disproportionately upon women. Women’s increasing movement into the workforce – rightly celebrated as emancipatory – has now become a necessity to pay the exorbitant cost of skyrocketing mortgages and rents in the never-ending Australian house price boom. Women are more likely to work multiple jobs, single mothers are moving into work in ever-greater number (thanks to recent changes in welfare payments), and yet they are still under-represented in senior business and management roles and suffer a gender wage gap of approximately $27,000 a year.

In tandem with these inequities, the greater burden of unpaid work and childcare still falls on women. Women spend more hours working in every type of unpaid labour than men (except for gardening and outdoor tasks), and do more unpaid work even when they are the main breadwinner in a household.

These trends suggest that while a more flexible economy and work practices open up new opportunities for business and friendly working arrangement, there is need to redress structural problems that make these arrangements work against – rather than for – many of us. Addressing gender inequities in paid and unpaid work is paramount, and this involves not only a culture shift amongst men, but removing the incentives to keep men in paid work to a greater degree than women – close the Gender Wage Gap, and improve the system of paid parental leave to encourage equal take-up by men. As a start – let’s fix the incentives!

#S208UOW17 #Tut6

‘The most suburban nation in the world’ – origins and influences for the Australian nuclear-family suburban model

Australians were amongst the first to claim the space between city and country as sites to raise nuclear families, and laid the foundation for a way of life that would see Australia become the world’s most suburbanized country in the 20th century. They were inspired by religious interests in purer lives and European/American movements to create and live in healthier, greener environments. The English Garden City movement started by Ebenezzer Howard encouraged an interest in creating new communities in places like Northern and Western Sydney.

American innovations had even more to offer us. The Chicago School of Sociology provided a model for the rise of the suburbs in most countries, with the movement of wealthier families into these outer regions as a natural progression away from the poverty, ill health and poor sanitation in the cities. American experiments also influenced the design and spread of our cities, from the proto-suburban model communities of Llwellyn Park near New York – featuring set-back houses, fixed blocks, contoured streets, and shared gardens funded by private owners’ association levies – to the back to front design of Radburn houses that were incorporated into Australia’s large scale, post-war, public housing projects.

And critical to the development of American and Australian suburbs was the taxpayer-subsidised ascension of the automobile over pedestrians and streetcars. Motor cars enabled longer commutes, ‘easy’ movement in and out of suburban spaces, and the creation of shopping plazas with large car-parks built around highway junctions – precursors to our modern, Westfields, mega-shopping malls.

All of this lead to the rise of the ‘special’ 1950s, and the dominance of the ‘quarter acre block’ suburban nuclear family in Australia at this time and for several decades thereafter. Families had never seemed tighter, smaller, younger, or more specialised, with most adults married (only 22% single), an absence of grandparents and extended kin, a median marriage age of 23, and with less than a third of mothers working in some form of paid employment.

However, these movements were already laying the seeds of their own undoing. The unsustainable sprawl of houses, the congestion of cars, and the stifling, mono-cultural and patriarchal nature of the suburban nuclear family, would all become apparent features of suburban life within a few short decades.

#S208UOW17 #Tut3

Industrial cities and families – the seeds of suburbia?

For many of us who grew up in suburban families, we take their existence for granted as a normal, ahistorical way of life. Few of us might be aware of the history of the suburb and the family, and the Industrial and agricultural/ feudal ways of life that preceded it.

Pre-industrial society was comprised of families in a variety of extended and nuclear forms. People lived and worked amongst extended kinship groups in communal villages and towns, and both men and women had a role in the localised, small-scale, production that characterized this time.

These forms changed in the Industrial Revolution. Middle class families became more nuclear-oriented in form, with a clearer gender divide of labour into male wage-workers and female child carers. Meanwhile, working class men, women and children worked long hours in urban factories and lived in over-crowded urban cottages and apartments. This created the terrible mix of poverty, disease, and pollution that was captured so vividly in the writing of Frederick Engels on the Great Towns of England.

In Australia, the 19th middle classes arriving from England and the working-classes families renting the cramped terraces that dominated the cities of Sydney and Melbourne dreamed of a better life. They were to find it, for the most part, in the role out of 20th century suburbia.

#S208UOW17 #Tut2

Boy, Girl, Straight, Gay … Starved, Groomed, Altered?

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4

Cities, Communities and Families

What kind of house did you grow up? What kind of family did you grow up with, and did it suit that house? We often take for granted that our childhood houses and families are ‘natural’ forms that we should try to emulate, in particular, the much-venerated nuclear family embedded in a leafy or coastal Australian suburb.

However, is this future desirable and possible? With housing costs increasing, and commuting times from home to work becoming ridiculous, is the great Australian dream of a nuclear family in a suburban house on a quarter-acre block becoming a thing of the past? And if the two don’t fit together any more, which would you rather change – your family or your home?

#S208UOW17 #Tut1