On communal living and public luxuries

Issue 118

Happy new year, urbanists!

I hope you had a good holiday. I enjoyed some time with family, worked on my Master’s thesis, and have been thinking about my plans and goals for 2020. In short, more writing, finally launching a podcast (if I can decide on a name!), and hopefully getting a book deal later this year.

I’m switching things up a bit with today’s issue, with a short essay on communal kitchens and public luxuries. I might do a bit more of this in 2020 — we’ll see.

Have a great week!


P.S.— No war in Iran.

Thoughts on communal living and public luxuries

I’ve been thinking a lot about communal kitchens and food preparation lately. What kind of benefits would arise from making meals a communal, rather than a private activity? Not only would it remove a burden that typically falls more on the shoulders of women than men, but it could allow more opportunity for socialization and community building if people in a neighborhood or community converge in the same place multiple times a day.

As I was thinking about this, Angie Schmitt (formerly of Streetsblog) happened to be tweeting about them from a slightly different perspective, which she expressed in a 2018 piece. Schmitt explains that “single family houses — and even apartments each with their own kitchen — help make domestic labor which overwhelmingly falls on women, like cooking, isolating.” Apartment buildings could have been designed with communal spaces where mothers could have socialized and shared the burden of domestic labor, but instead capitalism prioritized a model of everyone having their own private spaces. Schmitt quotes Alexandra Lange, who says “more private space doesn’t make a better life-style. Think about what you really want access to and how you want to spend your time. It’s more fun for kids to play together on a big lawn than alone on a little lawn.”

I would argue that goes beyond children. We’re living in a time when loneliness is a crisis and, despite social connections being easier to maintain than ever because of social media, community seems to have been largely eradicated. We’ve been alienated from one another, and the design of our cities contributes to that separation. As Schmitt writes, “[a]ll sorts of ideas about the heteronormative ideal family life — and the role of women — have been codified in zoning laws. When they are challenged they are often met with intense resistance.”

But what might a more communal alternative look like? I’m a big proponent of what George Monbiot calls “public luxury”: “magnificent parks, playing fields, public swimming pools, urban nature reserves and allotments sufficient to meet the needs of everyone.” In effect, the prioritization of great public amenities and services rather than expecting to have their own private versions of each because “[t]he expansion of public wealth creates more space for everyone; the expansion of private wealth reduces it, eventually damaging most people’s quality of life.” We’ve retreated into our own suburban, private environments where many people only have good amenities if they can afford them. This needs to be reversed.

I’m in the process of reading Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” (tweeting about it here) and I’m always struck by how I find myself yearning for aspects of the anarchist society she describes on the barren desert moon Anarres. That’s not to say it’s perfect — she did, after all, call it an “ambiguous utopia” — but there’s much to be desired: the lack of title and surname, the communal eating, the DivLab which distributes labor to those who need it, and even the notion that “excess is excrement.”

Sure, some aspects of the society are a bit extreme — they live under extreme scarcity, unlike the unevenly distributed abundance of Earth — and even the main character, Shevek, acknowledges “[o]ur society is practical. Maybe too practical, too concerned with survival only.” But when Le Guin writes the following, I can’t help thinking there are things we can learn from it:

Everybody had the workshop, laboratory, studio, barn, or office that he needed for his work; one could be as private or as public as one chose in the baths; sexual privacy was available and socially expected; and beyond that privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste. The economy of Anarres would not support the building, maintenance, heating, lighting of individual houses and apartments.

Should we abolish houses for dormitories? No, I don’t think we’re under such scarcity that such an extreme move is necessary. But as we rethink how our societies are constructed for a more sustainable and enjoyable way of life, I think we need to start thinking about how we can not only live closer together, but make more of our tasks and society shared and communal instead of private and individual. Maybe we have our individual living spaces and bedrooms, but we have shared laundries, cooking areas, dining areas, outdoor spaces, etc.

Maybe these ideas are more palatable to me than most because my living situation since 2013 has been rather uncommon. I’ve spent years of my life living in hostels — dorm rooms, shared kitchens, communal living spaces, etc. — including nearly half of last year. Privacy is a luxury, and often I own little more than what can fit inside a carry-on bag, naturally leading to appreciation for minimalist and even ascetic ideas that are in opposition to the rampant consumerism that dominates many of our societies.

In 1973, André Gorz wrote that cars “are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people.” The value of a car, its ability to allow one to get where they’re going faster than anyone else, “has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking.”

Given the link between automobility and suburbia, I think we’re starting to accept the same about the latter: it’s fine for some rich people to have plots of land and mansions on the outskirts, but when everyone has their own plot of land with a house and yard, the utility eventually breaks down. Now we find ourselves with governments that struggle to maintain suburban infrastructure, and people who are lonely, atomized, and with little free time as they have to try to work, sleep, take care of themselves, and drive their ever-longer commutes to unnecessarily distant places they must visit. But the ideology of suburbia hasn’t been diminished, or at least not as quickly as its real-world benefits, and it seems the only way we will transform it is with a state project the likes of which was necessary to make auto-oriented suburbia a reality, and I feel the Green New Deal offers the opportunity to build it.

Tech dystopia

🚨🗳 “More than 100,000 documents [from Cambridge Analytica] relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on ‘an industrial scale’ is set to be released over the next months.”

😬 Ross LaJeunesse, former Google Head of International Relations, wrote a piece about how the company changed between 2008 and today by putting aside the mantra of “Don’t be evil” to pursue profit at any cost. He’s particularly concerned with the company’s stance on human rights abuses in China and Saudi Arabia, and called out the company for workplace discrimination:

Senior colleagues bullied and screamed at young women, causing them to cry at their desks. At an all-hands meeting, my boss said, “Now you Asians come to the microphone too. I know you don’t like to ask questions.” At a different all-hands meeting, the entire policy team was separated into various rooms and told to participate in a “diversity exercise” that placed me in a group labeled “homos” while participants shouted out stereotypes such as “effeminate” and “promiscuous.” Colleagues of color were forced to join groups called “Asians” and “Brown people” in other rooms nearby.

In each of these cases, I brought these issues to HR and senior executives and was assured the problems would be handled. Yet in each case, there was no follow up to address the concerns — until the day I was accidentally copied on an email from a senior HR director. In the email, the HR director told a colleague that I seemed to raise concerns like these a lot, and instructed her to “do some digging” on me instead.

📦 “Time after time, internal documents and interviews with company insiders show, Amazon officials have ignored or overlooked signs that the company was overloading its fast-growing delivery network while eschewing the expansive sort of training and oversight provided by a legacy carrier like UPS.” That included vetoing driver safety training and shooting down plans to give drivers longer rest breaks or capping the number of packages they would have to deliver. Such decisions may have contributed to the death of Joy Covey, Amazon’s first chief financial officer, when one of its delivery vans struck and killed her while cycling.

🖕 Amazon threatened to fire employees that pushed for more aggressive climate action. Sounds like it’s time to unionize!

🇦🇪📱 ToTok was promoted as “an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family” in light of Skype and Whatsapp being banned in the United Arab Emirates. But it was actually used by the government to spy on users.

🇨🇦 What if we created public alternatives to dominant digital platforms? Daniel Joseph examines what such a proposal might look like if implemented in Canada.

💰 Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire who’s spent more than $100 million on television ads in less than a month and paid for prisoners to make phone calls for his campaign, is putting millions into a secretive tech firm called Hawkfish to provide digital services to his campaign. He began putting the company together earlier this year.

✊ 2,300 Google cafeteria workers have unionized to address issues of overwork, low wages, bullying, and casual racism

🛢 How tech companies are boosting the oil industry

Critical urbanism

🇳🇴😁 There were no traffic deaths in Oslo in 2019, and no children under 15 died in traffic accidents in the whole of Norway. But how could this be possible without autonomous vehicles?!

🚗 Aaron Gordon writes about what he learned about cars and car culture while writing for Jalopnik

🇫🇷 “When you walk down the street, how can you feel happy if you’re constantly being reminded of what you don’t have? Advertising breaks your spirit, confuses you about what you really need and distracts you from real problems, like the climate emergency.” Residents in France are pushing back against digital ad screens.

🇺🇸 Ride-hailing costs are rising in New York City, and fewer people are using it as a result. “Close to 556,000 Uber rides were taken in New York City in March. By October, that number had declined to 468,000.”

🚙 “In ‘06, Hummer ran an advertisement that focused on a man buying tofu and vegetables at the grocery store. He notices that the man behind him is buying massive piles of meat, clocks a Hummer ad on the back cover of a magazine next to the cash register, and races to a Hummer dealership after completing his purchase. […] The Hummer succeeded by making itself look like the obvious choice for heterosexual men.”

🚌 Helsinki, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Singapore, and other major cities have been experimenting with on-demand buses, often called ‘microtransit’. But they never seem to work out.

🇺🇸🙃 “What American Dream offers is alienation-plus. […] it is not a mall. It’s a performance piece ruminating on the corporate takeover of nature and society.”

Climate crisis

🇦🇺 Yes, Australia’s always had bushfires. But the ongoing fires are unlike anything it’s ever experienced before: fueled by drought, destroying vast residential areas, and destroying rainforests and marshlands. And while the death count is currently low, the number of premature deaths will grow as a result of the particulate matter people are breathing.

🌅 Everyone’s paying attention to the bushfires in Australia, but the ocean is also warming at an unprecedented rate. Off Tasmania, the ocean is warming at four times the global average, killing 95% of the giant kelp in the area. And it’s an effect being repeated around the world. Maritime heat waves are also becoming more common. There’s a Texas-sized area of water off New Zealand that was recently 5ºC (9ºF) warmer than average.

🇳🇿 Glaciers in New Zealand turned brown after smoke from the bushfires in Australia blew across the Tasman Sea, and that could make them melt faster

💰 NATO is a threat to the climate. To slash emissions, we must slash military spending.

🧊 Visualizations of lost sea ice over the past decade, especially in the Arctic, are quite shocking

🚧 “Increasing demand for the world’s most-used natural material, sand, is fuelling mining in fragile natural habitats and prompting a growing number of countries to ban exports.”

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