Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Losing Home: The Impact of Declining Social Structures on our Quality of Life

You should know who Ray Oldenburg is.  Way back in 1991, he wrote "The Great Good Place" and it's there that we see one of the first descriptions of how society falling down as retail rose. There's a lot in there about community planning and suburban development. Bedroom communities, for example, are entire neighborhoods where people retreat to sleep at the end of a workday - and then leave again in the morning for work and school.

Oldenburg identified some ways in which changes in the ways we live impact the quality of life we have. The big one is the disappearance of social structures -the formal and informal community groups people used to belong to. I realize this is a broad description, but it used to be a big category. You'd find everything in it from church membership to participation in your kids' PTA.  Some social structures were organized for very serious purposes - think of your volunteer fire department - while others were more fun, such as the community softball team.

Some Quotes from Roy Oldenburg

In the absence of informal public life, living becomes more expensive. Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption.

Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.

 Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall’s clientele.

The Rise of Retail

Nature abhors a vacuum, but nature's got nothing on a brand manager desperate to keep their job. It's not rocket science to see that people have a deep-seated need for community. If the community is no longer there, people will seek out the connection and purpose that community provided somewhere else. Retailers have stepped in to fill that gap.

Think about the classes offered at home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. In some measure, people take these classes because they want to learn how to accomplish a specific task, such as installing closet dividers or replacing a toilet. But there's something deeper going on here. When people gather, with like minded individuals, who all have a common challenge, they're forming a community. Some of the need that would have once been filled by the casual sideline conversations that take place while parents watch their kids' soccer games, for example, has now been moved into the retail environment.

We Lost Home, Too

Other thought leaders, such as Jean Zimmerman, in Making Scratch: Rediscovering The Pleasures of the American Hearth, and Shannon Hayes, in Radical Homemakers, have detailed how the erosion of community structures Oldenburg documented has extended even further.

Home, which has traditionally been the center of all human endeavors, has evolved into a place to be avoided or escaped. It's very weird: as houses get larger and larger - Bloomberg News reports that
the median new house built in the U.S. is now about 50 percent larger than its counterpart from 30 years ago - people are spending less and less time in them.

Part of this is economic. Large homes are expensive to acquire and maintain. You generally need at least 2 incomes to keep the household going. When everyone is working outside the home, there's no one left inside the home.

When there's no one left inside the home, the home becomes no more than a house -and a house as it stands is not an exceptionally compelling place to be. Retail and the entertainment industry provide an attractive alternative. For a few - or not so few- dollars, you can have an experience designed to delight you, or at least satisfy you, and don't you deserve it? After all, you've worked so hard this week, paying for the house you don't want to be in.

It's a vicious cycle. We have to be willing to look at it critically, examine our role in it, and finally, if we're going to change our lives, step off of it. I think it starts with taking home back, but it can't stop there. Isolation within the home is part of the root of this problem. We need to build communities and connections with people, both online and in real spaces, if we want things to change. We need Oldenburg's Third Spaces, free from the influence of commerce.

It's not going to be easy, but essential things never are.

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