Estates: An Intimate History

Ever since a gaggle of mushroom-intoxicated neolithics first got the idea of piling a big flat stone on top of two uprights people have been having creative ideas about the living spaces of the future. Over the length of social history living spaces have evolved, from medieval all-purpose pens containing bed, hearth, toilet, animals, humans, rats and plague, to the Victorian taxonomic mania for cataloguing and categorising, putting every human function from snoring to shitting to snooker in its own walled chamber. Now things are changing again as central heating and double glazing, as well as a pressure of space and cost, drive a return to more open-plan knock-throughs and multipurpose domestic environments (‘The Story of Our Rooms’, BBC Online, 12 April).

With the high priority now being placed on low-carbon living and low-impact building methods and materials, science is increasingly being designed into planning models. As old structures age and have to be replaced anyway, what if – say the scientists – whole cities could be redesigned to factor in all the known elements necessary to make them virtually self-sustainable?

If one were really to rebuild whole cities from scratch, imagine the energy savings. A city like Los Angeles, a chaotic urban mega-sprawl, is a huge energy sink which forces most people to drive miles to their nearest supermarket, and even more miles to work. Rational planning might have optimised all utilities and transport networks into the very crown joules of ergonomic design. And big cities have their own form of economy of scale, with smaller environmental footprints and higher standard of living per capita than small ones. If one were to pull them down and start again, one could build modular urban centres that were carbon-efficient, pedestrian-friendly, accessible and navigable.

Some planners promote designs for just this (New Scientist, 26 March). Zeitgeist’s Venus Project is another, 3D rendered attempt. The trouble is, even on the page these symmetrical designs look soul-destroying, like laboratory mazes for lobotomised rats. It’s no wonder many Zeitgeist supporters are reportedly in two minds about the idea of self-sufficient circular cities. Somewhere in the debate about efficiency the human element gets left out. What is beautiful about old cities is their riotous and labyrinthine irregularity, forced on them by the constraints of city walls and overbuilding, as well as their elaborate and artistic but ‘inefficient’ construction. The more planned a cityscape is, the more dreary it tends to look and the worse it is to live in. Well-meaning but paternalistic experiments in 1950s urban planning gave rise in the UK to the horrors of high-rises and disaffected concrete council estates, with all their attendant social problems, as Lynsey Hanley documents in her entertaining book Estates: An Intimate History (Granta, 2007).

Could planners ever plan efficiency to look like Venice or Rouen or York? Does the future always have to look like a plastic Thunderbirds set? Nowadays there is the potential of wiki-citizenry to offer collective input so as to avoid planners imposing antiseptic structures on our aesthetic sensibilities. But this just might mean a committee-designed camel instead of a geek-planned horse. Sometimes there is something human and endearing about organic inefficiency. In socialism there will no doubt be plenty of people calling for large-scale ‘social engineering’ projects. Let this be the first salvo fired in opposition to such notions.

Interestingly, given all the hoo-ha about ‘obscene’ bankers’ bonuses, not many ever question the apparently self-evident truism that money is a great motivator. Socialists have always gone against the commonly received wisdom by claiming that, conversely, money is actually a poor motivator and in many cases no motivator at all. As evidence we cite the voluntary sector, so large that it is known as the ‘third sector’ of the economy, but then we might be biased given that we propose a social system composed entirely of volunteers. Support however comes from studies which suggest that not only are external motivators like money decoupled from internal ones like interest, commitment or curiosity, they may indeed be inversely related, so that an excess of one can lead to a deficiency in the other (New Scientist, 9 April). It is perhaps surprising and counter-intuitive to learn that financial rewards actually reduce the incentive to work hard, but “the facts are absolutely clear”, says one long-time researcher. “In virtually all circumstances in which people are doing things in order to get rewards, extrinsic tangible rewards undermine intrinsic motivation”. Next time you hear some know-nothing blather on about how money drives progress, you might point out that the science says otherwise. People are not spurred on by money, they are simply whipped on by fear of poverty.

‘Owing to unfavourable economic conditions the search for the ultimate explanation of life, the universe and everything has been suspended.’ Perhaps this is pitching it a bit strong, but with the Large Hadron Collider due to close for a year for extensive repairs you would have thought that this was precisely not the time to be shutting down its nearest and dearest rival, the Fermilab Tevatron. The Tevatron, named because it can accelerate protons up to energies approaching a trillion electron volts or 1 TeV, is supposedly obsolete now because the LHC can manage energies up to 7 TeV. Of course that’s in theory. In reality the LHC has only once reached half this energy, has already broken down twice and now is due for another extended pit-stop. Most notably, of course, it hasn’t found anything, unlike the Tevatron which last month announced the discovery, to within 3 orders of certainty, of a new particle that may be evidence of a ‘fifth force’ of nature (‘Tevatron accelerator yields hints of new particle’, BBC Online, 7 April). Meanwhile the famous Higgs, as well as mythical dark matter ‘neutralinos’ could be lurking out there in any eV range, so even with two colliders operating it would be like two explorerers searching for penguins, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the south. Keeping the Tevatron going would cost a measly $35m – peanuts by their standards – and there’s no engineering problem, but the beancounters have given it the thumbs down. Any socialist comment on capitalist priorities at this point would be as redundant as a Chicago physicist.

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