Five ways parenting is like researching the informal economy
There are things in life that you simply cannot learn by taking a class.
For example, how to map an informal neighborhood unrecognised by a local government.
Or how to distinguish when a baby is crying out of hunger, exhaustion or the need to be entertained.
As a design researcher focusing on emerging systems of cities, I recently realised that learning how informal economies and babies operate is in that very group of things you just have to figure out for yourself. Or in the words of the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, ‘The only way to do it is to do it.’
In South London, I mapped how immigrants reformulated storefronts into mini street markets. In Mumbai, I designed card games and postcards to include street cleaners and fishermen in the urban planning process. And most recently in Kuwait, I documented informal housing for undocumented workers.
All of these projects required paying attention to my surroundings, constantly iterating approaches to collecting information and engaging people, and all the while exercising tremendous patience for the process. It turns out these projects were a good primer for parenting.
As a first-time mom of a nine-week old human being, I was invited to give a talk on design research methods for informal economies at the School for Visual Arts (taught by some the creators of Makeshift Magazine). In a time and sleep crunched state preparing my slides, I began thinking how parenting resembles researching the informal economy.
So here, in an expanded version of slide two of my talk, are five ways that the subject areas cross over:
1. Early starts and late nights
Informal markets and newborns open early and work late. They both run on 24 hour schedules and you need to be present throughout to understand their daily rhythms.
2. Balancing romance and science
Theories of economic development and child development can be useful frames of reference. Falling in love with your subject matter can also be helpful. Without a deep love for your subject or outside reference points, research and rearing can get confusing and exhausting.
3. Everything is temporary
You spend one day mapping trading patterns at a street market and you think you’ve got it all figured out. The next time you return, new construction, new vendor alliances, or a new immigrant group has shifted the spatial dynamic you once understood. Same with baby. What soothes, captivates or distracts is very rarely the same from one day to the next.
4. Something so pervasive is yet so mysterious
Both researching informality and parenting are like joining the world’s largest underground-overground network. Informal trade shapes everything we touch - from the food we eat to the technology we use, yet until you explicitly set off to study informal markets, they remain invisible. In a similar vein, parents and kids are all around us, yet until we become the former, it’s difficult to generate a fine tuned empathy or awareness of the social conventions, services and spaces conducive to caring for your charge. Just as I learned to decipher the three informal businesses being run from the 2nd story of a McDonald’s in London, I can now name the make/model of any baby carrier from across the street.
5. It’s okay to be paranoid
Both informality and babies can inspire healthy doses paranoia. It’s okay. It’s only human to be protective of your offspring and your livelihood, especially when both are in constant states of emergence and growth.
“For me the prison is a city within the city. There are many of the same things inside that exist outside. There are workshops – gardening, tailoring, carpentry. There are services – a kitchen, a post office, a bank, a barber. What is lacking is entertainment – like cinemas, theaters, or concerts – but the inmates replace this with television, which almost all of them have in their cells, just like people on the outside in their apartments. I was surprised how similar the trappings of freedom and captivity look.”
Moabit-West land use (commercial, residential etc.) Download the map here.
Moabit’s Kulturfabrik has a cinema, a theater, a cafe and party / event rooms. A former factory and warehouse built in 1911, the building was reopened in 1991 after negotiations with the Berlin Senate. Artists , residents and students organized themselves and continue to run the space without institutional support.
But then once I saw this I thought ‘hey, that kind of fits the mood, doesn’t it?’ So I just kept stripping it down, taking everything off. The ferries weren’t going, why should they be there? The parks were closed, remember? So why should the parks be there? So I just took out everything that wasn’t actually happening and ended up with this.
TrafficCom ! Get involved in transport planning and data gathering for your city!
Andrés Duany makes a good case for considering density at the scale of the neighborhood rather than the individual building. He states that the types listed above, in the context of a neighborhood reflecting the average United States market for need and choice results in roughly thirds: or one acre of apartments per two acres of townhouses per four acres of single family houses. This delivers a net density of 10 units per acre for a complete neighborhood. Next time you’re faced with a frightened crowd of density opponents, try turning the conversation to types of buildings, and allow that discussion to evolve into addressing the neighborhood as a whole, rather than simply a sum of its individual parcels.
— –Susan Henderson
Planning cannot eliminate slums. As long as there is large-scale deprivation, as long as our rulers, our media and our urban middle class believe that proletarianization is better than being a farmer, artisan or a tribal, there will be sizeable number of people who will be made available for blue-collar work in our cities. Such people will like to stay close to their places of work.
— Ashis Nandy, http://www.sacw.net/article1389.html