Oh    how     we     love    to    divide our Communities!

Work, Play, and Living

the compartments of our modern day.

Work is further divided into its performance, its management, and its capital. To this capital, in the view of some, accrues all the risk and therefore all the rewards. For others, the performance of Work is value added rather than a wage-time equation, and that value should be rewarded. In the face of economic calamity, we now wonder whether managers have managed anything except their own self-interest, in a world where the virtues of self-interest are everywhere lauded.

We’ve been busy parsing Play as well, so that the family’s rush from one activity to the next often seems more like Work in another form. Concepts of leisure and play as an unstructured and open-ended creative activity have been pre-empted by organized sport and rules.

And Living? We’ve divided that into styles. “Lifestyle” is an image of ourselves, separate from Work and Play, a treadmill of consumption powered by marketing. Pursuit of image takes all our gains from the world of Work and turns them into brief moments of self-respect won through a purchase, only to be lost as the treadmill moves on.

Our cities have evolved so that each of these three compartments of existence has its rightful place:

  • the business district and industrial zone for Work;
  • the park and the “natural” landscape for Play;
  • the suburb for Living.

As an integrated design for improving the quality of life for the many, we might argue that is has served us well. We might, but only if we ignore its “externalities” (to borrow from those dismal scientists, the economists).

To illustrate the inherent problems with division as a prescription for progress, consider the following. Two economists are walking down a road, one more experienced than the other. They come upon a pile left by a horse, and the more experienced offers the junior $10,000 to eat it. After careful cost-benefit analysis of this opportunity, the junior agrees. The transaction is completed, and they set off again. Further along, another pile of manure is encountered. In a spirit of equality the junior then offers the same bargain to his companion, who comes to the same conclusion with a reciprocal result. Onward they go. After some time, however, the junior economist gives voice to his suspicion that they are not really better off for having the same money but having both eaten a pile of horseshit. “Well, that may be true”, said the more experienced, “but you overlook the fact that we’ve just been involved in $20,000 worth of trade.”

I introduce this unsavoury story as a segue to three ideas.

One is that our present world situation obviously involves experts, phantom trade and large amounts of excrement, lacking only a fan to complete the picture.

Second is that as a result of this turmoil our design for living is to undergo a radical transformation. It involves dealing with the by-products of decades of wasteful consumption, whether our monied and middle classes find it palatable or not.

Third is that rather than swallowing the offerings of expertise applied to each individual transaction and compartment of our lives, each pile we encounter, we might benefit from a more holistic, and arguably more sophisticated, approach practiced in that literal “externality” to our cities: our surrounding agricultural landscape.

Oh those hicks! What has the farmer to teach us!? Well, perhaps quite a lot.

First and foremost is that we are part of a larger system: of climate and land, of production and sustainable input. Sophisticated and sustainable farming practices may divide the fields among pasture and crop, apportion herds between milk and meat production, and make use of sophisticated technologies, but the farmer always views the land and his family’s living as a sustainable system. The system must incorporate, rather than ignore, its by-products, and actually deal with the externalities of weather and market. Careful husbandry involves longterm solutions and continuous adaptation through dedication to the efficiency of the system rather than a middleman content to maximise only a part of it.

Expertise and innovation can be applied to aspects of the operation, but is judged in the context of the whole. Farming is not about the divisions among work, management, and capital, but their integration. The family farm is a functioning enterprise where Work, Play, and Living cannot begin to properly describe what is at stake. The farmer’s connection to his land, his animals, and his family is pastoral in the best sense of the word: neither romantic nor idealised, but based on a deep understanding and care, an enormous amount of work for the benefit of others.

Can you design the farm and farm life? Krista Duynisveld, in her recently defended Masters Thesis in Architecture, has grappled with this question. For her, the seed of the answer lies in the nature of design itself: “energy, community, land stewardship, ecology and environment, architecture, mechanisation, economics and agribusiness, urban sprawl, aging farm population, and consumerism are the issues that design must work within and develop solutions for.”

It is clear that design can play a role in our environment and our communities, but not in the way that we have designed our buildings, our cities, and our suburban life to date.

Perhaps our efforts  should be directed toward a new and more sustainable design for living, and perhaps, just perhaps, a greater appreciation for the sophisticated and integrated design that hard and enduring work upon the land can accomplish.

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