Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Social Networks and Network-Friendly Housing in the U.S

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Social Networks and Network-Friendly Housing in the U.S

Article excerpt

Among the many insights that characterized 19th-century Utopian Reformers, one is the theme of this paper: To facilitate meaningful changes in the social relations of families, one must bring about corresponding changes in the physical spaces that surround them. Europeans - specially the Scandinavians - as well as Canadians (more recently) have a history of addressing changes among families, and their governments support the development of a corresponding range of innovative living environments (Fromm, 1991). And although U.S. scholars are well-aware of the shifting social relations of families, sociologists, for example, have not kept abreast of the issue of corresponding changes in physical spaces. No public policy question has been more widely debated in the U.S. during recent years than matters of family "change" and "breakdown." The latter term tends to be applied to solo-mother households - particularly among African-Americans. "Change" encompasses several matters perhaps the most salient of which is the spread of dual-earner households. It is widely believed that when both parents are employed, they are unable to care adequately for their children. Several associated patterns (common throughout all Western societies) also fitted under "change" include: increases in the numbers of children born to nevermarried women, decreases in first marriage and remarriage rates, increases in cohabitation, increases in separations and divorces, and so forth. Weisman (1992) observed that these trends foretell the dispelling of the "family mystique" of the patriarchal-led family as well as the typical "single-family house mystique" that accompanies it.

The nub of the matter is this - although Americans are suggesting a variety of solutions for the ills that allegedly plague their families, they tend to operate within a narrow paradigm - both socially and spatially. The social paradigm has been called the Benchmark Family, and describes the legally-married, economically self-sufficient, husband and wife living with their natural children who are cared for full-time by their mother. The corresponding spatial paradigm sites this ideal arrangement within its own single-family detached dwelling. As long as structural (especially economic) and cultural conditions permitted the social paradigm to predominate, there was little pressure to question its corresponding spatial paradigm. However, in view of widespread variation in the ways Americans are constructing families, a number of analysts are arguing that current housing solutions are seldom flexible enough to accommodate changing social patterns (Weisman, 1992; Cromley, 1989; Franck and Ahrentzen, 1990).

For example, public and private housing available for low to median-income homeowners and renters is consistently equated with some version of the standardized single-family house. Even for those families whose housing choices are not restricted by income, available options that can support their chosen lifestyle present few alternatives. For example, shared housing tends to be relatively uncommon even though it has provided a positive living environment for battered women and children (Refuerzo and Verderber, 1993), the elderly (Streib et al., 1984), and for mother-led families (Klodawsky and Spector, 1985) in Canada. Consequently, social, aesthetic, economic, and environmental considerations, point consistently to the need for public policy changes for both families and for urban living environments. Humanistic policy approaches must be proposed to respond to the lifestyle and life stage stresses as well as to low income levels of solo-parents, elderly people, single adults, young couples, as well as to dual-earner parents.

During the past twenty years in the U.S., few architects and designers have labored alongside low and median-income people to create meaningful physical expressions of the user's lifestyle that truly supports their particular requirements. However, this need not be the case. …

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