Exhaustion and the Built Environment

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

A few days ago on the Slow Home blog, John Brown posted the following quotation from Dolores Hayden:

It is much more common to complain about time or money than to fume about urban design. In part this is because we think our miseries as being caused by personal problems rather than social problems Americans often say, ‘There aren’t enough hours in the day’, rather than, ‘I’m frantic because the distance between my home and my workplace is too great’.

Hayden, who is a Professor of Architecture, Urbanism, and American Studies at Yale University first wrote these words in her 1984 book, “Redesigning The American Dream, The Future of Housing, Work and Family Life.”

There aren’t enough hours in the day as we rush around our cities from place to place in order to get work done. No longer do we know what it is to do good work in a given place. We are torn between a multiplicity of places. Home, Work and Third Places are all in different corners of the city as multi-use neighbourhoods are replaced by monocultural, single-use sprawl.

“When people do not live where they work,” asserts Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America, “they do not feel the effects of what they do.”

Don’t they?

In some senses, Berry is right – people who live in one place and work in another do not directly feel the effects of their work on their place, their home. And in our society, our personal home life is to be left at home. It’s not supposed to influence our work. It’s not supposed to make an appearance as we perform our daily tasks. As if that kind of societally-imposed schizophrenia is somehow healthy.

On the other hand, however, reading Berry alongside Hayden’s commentary, when we do not live where we work, we do feel the effects of what we do. Perhaps not in the direct way that Berry implies, but moreso in the harried, hurried, haggard pace of our lives that causes us to run from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next…

And what are these effects? We may not have a direct knowledge of how our work affects the earth or how it affects other people. But what we do have – and perhaps we should pay more attention to such an obvious indicator – is our own perpetual exhaustion.

We are not immortal souls or complex computers that can shed all biological and physiological limitations (even though we sometimes live that way). Rather, as Norman Wirzba observes in the Essential Agrarian Reader:

The fact remains that we live necessarily through our bodies. And these bodies, in turn, necessarily live through the bodies of others—wheat, rice, steer, fish, microorganisms, bees, chickens…

We exhaust ourselves, as we live frantic lives that exhaust the earth and her resources. And we fail to ask questions. Or rather, we fail to ask the right questions. Hayden is clearly on to something here. Our misery and our exhaustion are more than mere personal issues.

Society points the finger at individual failure – but doesn’t everyone point the finger when they’re the ones to blame?

Our society has accepted a fractured, dispersed structure in its suburban development. Our city councils
approve enormous condo tower after enormous condo tower. We replace fertile farmland with cracked pavement and McMansions.

How now should we respond? How now should we live?

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

Leave a Reply