Enabling the future to participate

There are strong logical arguments in favour of using cooperative methods as the fundamental structures of all sustainable initiatives. Sustainable policies need to enable cooperation and discriminate against individualism and the two varieties of landlordism, private and social.

No one is an island; domination and hierarchy are not sustainable social structures. (Bookchin).

Cooperative principles have been agreed by the International Common Ownership Movement. They include equality, open access to all and continuing education. (Birchall).

These are very similar to the principles of sustainability, except that sustainability extends the definition of open, equal membership into the future, and to nature. Introducing the concept of sustainability into cooperative structures raises the question of how to ensure open membership to future generations and the participation of this planet in our actions.

Ursula Le Guin (1988) writes of an archaeology of the future.

The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, longtime from now ….. The difficulty of translation from a language that doesn’t yet exist is considerable, but there’s no need to exaggerate it. The past, after all, can be quite as obscure as the future.

A possible language, known to architects and planners is pattern language; giving people the tools and abilities to define their problems and solutions, and achieve them (Brand, 1981).

They have been proposed as a means of establishing a language for talking about what people really need from buildings and communities. The Green Chain in South East London is derived from this work.

Make sure that you treat the edge of the building as a “thing” a “place”, a zone with volume to it, not a line or interface which has no thickness. Crenellate the edges of buildings with places that invite people to stop. Make places that have depth and a covering, places to sit, lean and walk, especially at those points along the perimeter which look onto interesting outdoor life. (Brand)

Day argues cogently that our imaginations of the possible for shelters, for built environments are blinkered.

If you want to institutionalise a building, you need corridors. If you want to raise movement from A to B to become a renewing, preparatory experience, you can use a cloister. Cloisters are semi outside spaces, around a garden; if glazed they cease to be cloisters. None the less, we can build some of their quality into passages so that any future destination can take second place to the experience of where you are now. How else can eternity live in every moment? (Day 1990/1).

Day believes that art healing gift and listening may be combined as a social work within the work of building. (Day 1990/2).

It was my first lesson that building is part of the artistic process. On site, I realised that I could create a curved roof by setting rafters between non parallel wall plates. The curve that resulted I could never previously have imagined on paper. Only on site could I see the potential to develop it. Participation is so fundamental that it requires the direct interaction with a building as it is built. The scientific planned architectural method in comparison is two dimensional, like a sheet of paper.

The Danes have a concept called cohousing which is similar to ideas attempted pre-war in Letchworth. A group of properties for about thirty households is built or rehabilitated cooperatively. The households are of varying classes, ages and sizes. As well as individual properties, a high level of collective services are provided in a “common house”. Each member of the group takes full responsibility to provide, cook and clear up one meal a month for the whole group. The common house provides educational, social and meeting space for a community, enabling very high levels of direct democracy and self government.

An advert said

Most housing options available today isolate the family and discourage a neighbourhood atmosphere. Alternatives are needed. If you are interested in living in a large social community, having your own house, and participating in the planning of your home, perhaps this is for you. (Mcdermott).

One group commented;

we want to open the family up towards the community, but still have it as a base. We want to have the necessary daily functions in the private dwellings, but transfer as many as possible of the other functions to the community, thereby encouraging social interaction.

One group converted a block of old terraced housing, and created a small park where previously there were individual back gardens. The barriers in our thinking are as real as the fences around our properties.

Colin Ward (1983) discusses historical and current examples of direct participation in creating housing in Britain. A mix of circumstances, including agricultural depression in the 1880’s, a new railway, returning soldiers after the first world war wanting to make homes and livings, and evacuation from the dock areas of London led to the plotlands of Pitsea and Laindon.

Self build with appropriate technologies and management systems, as with the Segal method, are obviously participatory. A 1980 estimate showed there is waste land in London on which half a million homes could be built, all of this on sites too small to be considered by private developers. Maybe there is a niche somewhere. (Broome).

The squatting movement has historically and currently had significant effects in challenging definitions of problems and solutions. (Anning 1980). The Levellers, according to Christopher Hill, almost succeeded in turning the world upside down. (Hill).

In America, sweat equity, similar to homesteading is very common. Colin Ward notes that one fifth of properties in the USA are self-built. John Turner (1976) argues for the principles of self-government in housing, of appropriate mechanical and managerial technologies, and of planning through limits to ensure equitable access to resources.

One of the ways of achieving improvements to third world cities are support structures, which provide a basic minimum upon which people can build. This was attempted by the GLC in Chalk Farm.

The New Alchemists have constructed several Bioshelters. These are structures that are capable of providing their own energy, and climate, treating or using their own wastes, and growing good food. The system is designed so that the capital cost of construction is paid for through the sale of surplus energy and production.

The Permaculture Association is involved with similar projects in Britain. (Mollinson).

Peter Beck of Stern, Berlin, said at the Sustainable City Forum; good planets are hard to find; it is very important to lose our borders; the tenants who live in the house are the experts for the living conditions and what should be done.

The concept of ethnoscience is well illustrated by a vertical biological water filter that has been built on the side of a tenement building in Berlin. This is a series of containers of plants through which polluted water is trickled until pure water is obtained. It was impossible to plan this. It is an evolved work of science and art that works very well because a very high level of experimentation and participation occurred until a satisfactory solution was achieved. It is not something that can be copied or mass produced. If you want one you have to follow some basic rules but have to create it yourself. It is a far more elegant and efficient solution than our centralised technological solutions of throwing sewage waste in the North Sea.

Imaginative participatory approaches to creating shelter have been proposed in other directions.

Houseboats are a seriously neglected option considering the size of the docks, now empty, in London. High quality spacious accommodation can be created at zero land costs in very pleasant surroundings, very near employment and transport.

Property above shops and the use of roof spaces for conversion are further possibilities. There are legal, financial and administrative minefields, but these barriers, like the Berlin Wall, can come down.

Underground dwellings are a further possibility. There is in Gloucestershire an underground dwelling that has driven a coach and horses through the planning legislation about building on agricultural land. Underground dwellings do require very careful design and building to prevent damp problems, but there is again no shortage of land, the roof can continue to be used for farming, or receive set aside grant and excellent energy conservation occurs. Their pedigree includes a design by Frank LLoyd Wright, and an earth bermed house at the Energy Park, Milton Keynes.

Earth covered communities have major advantages over suburbia. Densities of 3 to 5 times suburban developments can occur with increased open space, near total abolition of noise problems, increased visual privacy, minimal maintenance, ability to locate shopping and community facilities very close by, conservation of energy, and that it is possible to see from underground dwellings.

Malcolm Wells (1977) has proposed underground dwellings built into the sides of hills, powered by sun and wind. The Hopi achieved this eight hundred years ago.

Passive solar housing is a design orientated approach that has been well tested. ECD are the acknowledged leaders in energy conscious design, and have worked closely with the Building Research Establishment in defining standards. (ECD 1981).

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