Our Cravings for one another

Jean-Jacques Rosseau, 18th century philosopher, composer, and writer of The Social Contract, accepted the idea of individual ownership of property, under the conditions that it could also function for profit and of duty: “Land that can be cultivated or worked for some other purpose.”

Today, we own land but feel not the duty to work it. Our land is not farmed for crops, the sparsely used Econ recitation classrooms are never given a second thought, we walk past carefully spruced landscapes, tread lightly within LEED certified buildings, let out audible sighs upon exiting the elevator into musty 5th floor of Van Pelt, and quickly gather our books to take shelter back in our bedrooms. The property, places, and buildings at Penn are ours to function within, but many of these spaces have long ago abandoned the complete functionality of a space — lacking security, community, and opportunity.

The problem is unproductive property. We have denaturalized what a piece of property means. We allow it to sit there, to stagnate in time and space, and to be overlooked as an opportunity…for something greater than the space itself. Physical space has a transforming potential. But only when the laws of space obey the laws of humanity.

I’m not saying we should create a case analysis for every single room and examine every square foot of Penn, our neighborhoods, and our offices. I’m not yet “qualified” to define efficient land usage and space on a college campus, nor delegate underused spaces towards a more purposeful existence for students. But I will say that the uses of space at Penn is a problem. A problem that both administration and its shareholders (sorry donors, I’m talking about the students this time) must take responsibility for. The benefits to our collective community will be much greater than the costs to the underused spaces and the select individuals nominally attached with them.

Productive property makes collective action practical. It pushes for creative enthusiasm and excellence. It establishes civic trust and might even introduce this long forgotten notion of carrying out the civic duty each of us has for our school community and society at large.

Logistically, it means thinking hard about that purpose of each space, and how our community interacts and benefits from it. It means recognizing the spaces that could serve greater use as a public space for gatherings, discussions, or quiet reading rooms, rather than singular, underused office spaces. It means asking ‘How might we’ questions about the productivity of each space within its physical and social context.

That’s quite a hard task. And I can suggest a more practical, grassroots approach to re-claiming productive property in the meantime. It requires intimacy, generosity, and trust.

I suggest turning our dwelling units into public spaces. How might we open our dorms, apartments, and houses for more meaningful interactions with one another? If public spaces really aren’t that public at Penn, then maybe our private ones can lead the way to creating spaces for us to form deeper connections and possibly even friendships.

I recently sent out a survey to Penn students asking for their thoughts of Penn. What they experience, what they feel, what they lack, what they want. The first question asked, “what do you crave during the school year”?

*A landslide majority of us responded, “I crave deeper friendships”.

Let’s frame our private-public space discussion around creating deeper friendships. This might manifest in someone hosting a Space gathering at their home, opening up their dining table to a few new faces over dinner, getting a book circle going, a morning meditation crew, or a spontaneous speakeasy before another pre-game. Of course simply creating spaces does not gaurantee deeper friendships. But it’s a start. Anything authentic, anything welcoming, anything non-exclusive is a start.

“I have always had this devouring curiosity to look into the effects of a positive action” — Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier is a French architect of the 1930’s. He exudes a steady determination to push against the reality that too many of us have accepted. He asks us to go back to the basics: “Is there one man in the Spanish government, who, despite the paradoxical nature of the question, will understand its full significance, and who has the energy and power or influence to produce a strong proposal, more than that, a whole set of laws? Even more, to draw up and publish a doctrine that is neither contemporary, republican, socialist, nor communist, but just human?”

Simply being just human seems to be the most difficult task of our community. This confusion has certaintly manifested itself into our physical spaces. Nonetheless, towards it we must run.

*full survey results and an actionable vision to be released soon. If you’d like to take the survey, you can still find it here. It’s completely subjective and I’m not legit enough of a surveyer to account for potentially priming your first answer. Fight the priming effect!