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Working with an Ethic of Care

Posted on 21 June 2022

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

Opinion piece

Having worked at The Glass-House for a while now and having built my confidence and familiarity with The Glass-House methodology and my role as a Design Champion, I wanted to reflect on the ethos of care, (as something important to my own practice) in relation to the work we do at The Glass-House.

In the traditional sense, and perhaps my first association with the word, Care is  synonymous with looking after and providing for the needs of others. My mum is a nurse and as a result, attaching concern or an importance to looking after something or someone felt very present during my childhood.

During my studies, I was interested in how the idea of care, or an ethic of care could be applied within my own spatial practice working within the built environment. Care embodies multiple relations, affections, moral obligations, work, burdens and joy. It is a word subject to many meanings for multiple people (Puig.d.L.B, 2017).

Excerpt from Jake’s research proposal during their studies: exploring the predicaments of caring for earth & nonhuman actants.

For myself, the term care is a way to understand ourselves and our interactions with the earth and those around us. This is  why I believe it is important to apply the lens of care when thinking about placemaking, as it brings into question a new approach to morality in addition to thinking relationally about what, how and where we place value. Applying the ethics of care to placemaking would require attention to considering whatever is threatening the conditions of care for that place or people, be that mobility, rootedness, equity, social justice. It becomes a guiding principle for promoting the value of human connection, while embedding a practice that regenerates equitable living in society for current and future generations.

The ethics of care firstly acknowledges the important role certain emotions play in our moral reasoning. As Rousseau observed, moral reasoning is best ‘guided by reason and modified by empathy, recognising that the absence of moral emotions, could pervert moral judgement’ (D.E.Gatzia, 2011).

A lot of the work we do at The Glass-House (in my opinion) shows a precondition of care. Through connecting people with the design of their place and embedding community-led processes, we contribute to individuals, groups and communities strengthening their confidence and skills within a design journey. We recognise the importance emotions play in conversations around place, so it is important we also create spaces for building empathy, allowing others for a short time to step into the shoes of another and share each other’s realities in the design of our cities.

Joan Tronto, a professor of political science, defines the ethics of care as something that includes “everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our world”. Reminiscent in aspects of the work we do as The Glass-House, we seek to share knowledge and learning which can often fill what we see as a ‘missing gap’ within the built environment sector. Our, often small, interjection in design processes is something I would consider as an act of repair, like planting a seed within the crack of a concrete path, which can grow to create greater equity over the spaces we live, work and play. This is a continuation of an ethic of care which embeds the knowledge and foundations for a society in which all can participate.

Mapping collective values and priorities for collaboration at Down Lane Park

Our role as a  charity is fundamentally collaborative and the work we do often brings multiple voices together to work collectively. This culture of  collaboration is embedded within the methodology, practice and learning of The Glass-House. A fundamental consideration of the ethics of care is that it actively dispels the myth that independence is strongly tied to the individual (Gatzia.D.E.,2011). It could be considered that an aspect of this ethic is promoting collective care, a collective independence; which through the lens of The Glass-House could be viewed as encouraging and supporting the collaborative development of communities, groups and even institutions (government, local authority and education). Embodied within our work are ideas around collective care where we ourselves dispel the myth of the individual in favour of collaboration and partnerships.

In my opinion, many facets of today’s society act in opposite (or anthesis) to this. Cities that impose neoliberalism cannot provide for the caring (non)institutions a society needs. As such, there is an intense need to connect and empower people and communities and this is why the need to think and take action creatively becomes ever more important for us all. 

The ethics of care is something that we all embody in different aspects of our life, and it is up to us to diversify how we think about, and with, care in order to contribute ways of continually maintaining and repairing our world. When placing care at the forefront of our thinking, when working with and for others (and ourselves) might we begin to design our cities differently and experience a society with greater empathy and understanding for one another; including nonhumans (plants, flaura, fauna) for whom we also share this planet with.

Care, T., 2020. The Care Manifesto. Verso Books

D.E.Gatzia, 2011,.Towards and Economy of Care 

Puig de La Bellacasa, M., n.d. Matters Of Care. Minneapolis (Minn.): University of Minnesota press. 

Eckenwiler, L., 2016. Defining Ethical Placemaking for Place-Based Interventions. American Journal of Public Health, 106(11), pp.1944-1946.