What is home? – Part 1: Time is greater than space, reality greater than ideas

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’ 

Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man, published in 1914.

People’s ideas and practices about ‘house’ and ‘home’ are shaped by changing conditions, often over long periods of time, and particularly by a community’s economic fortunes. Among people of different professions, age groups and nationalities – with some more mobile than others – ‘home’ assumes varied forms. For example, some would describe it as a place or country, rather than the house/home in which they live. Common public aspirations for housing in England and Wales tend towards a strong association with real property, that is, a high level of private control over land and immovable attachments such as the buildings. There is potential to muddle that with understandings of ‘home’ and welfare in ways that foster peace, conflict or distance between individuals, families and communities.

A major report for the Church of England described home as:

‘More than bricks and mortar, more than a roof over one’s head. Decent housing certainly means a place that is dry, warm and in reasonable repair. It also means security, privacy, sufficient space: a place where people can grow, make choices, become more whole people. It also relates to the environment in which the home is located as much as to the conditions inside the front door. Vandalism, graffiti, fear of violence, lack of play space, all affect how people regard their surroundings. How property is managed, as well as its physical condition, is important for it affects how people make decisions. To believe that you have no control over one of the most basic areas of your life is to feel devalued.’

‘Faith in the City’, Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, Church House Publishing, 1985.

This description exposes a tension in linking human dignity with a rights-based approach to housing. It directly ties a person’s life and worth to feelings and perceived control of ‘basic areas’, which in turn – given that human development is elastic – creates a sense of unlimited personal entitlement to control land and property over others’ development. In the home environment in 1985, power sharing might wryly have been caricatured as a negotiation over a single TV remote control. Since then, technological development has accelerated so that everyone can feel a sense of more ‘control’ of housing. On one hand, houses are more interconnected than ever by common reliance on pipelines moving basic utilities, food, furnishings, appliances and information over long distances, which in practice means that homeowners are participating in a process to shift production and the burden of travel further from their own agency, towards the market, and often more remote sources. On the other, new incarnations of old walls have been developed, such as the gated community, CCTV and private security firms patrolling the most affluent neighbourhoods, and digital ‘firewalls’. Developments in ‘personal’ and household technology have tended to further emphasise housing the individual (note 1), creating more visible forms of isolation, such as staring down into one or more screens at once, often with headphones, while walking in crowded public spaces. The purpose and worth of home has moved beyond a Modernist vision of being biological convenience for its occupants, insured by reliable physical utilities. Today the premium is on a dwelling’s capacity to offer a disembodied space of escape for the individual, eliminating negotiated spaces. Against that backdrop, public criticism of governments building walls between countries seems incongruous.

Similarly, a modern trinity of policy frameworks – the planning system, housing market, and housing ‘benefits’ – is ‘time poor’. In other words it seeks ever greater efficiency, through a system which privileges division of space over relational time. It has inbuilt tendencies to increase distance and mistrust between everyone. The choice for national policies and their implementation is between creating joyous participation in the dance of creation(2), and perpetuating the current dance for more money (as a form of security for activities) extracted from families and communities that are presumed untrustworthy and/or insufficiently educated or motivated. Insofar as home is reduced to a place of isolation, personal emotional attachments and fantasies, policy makers have become more likely to demand more resources for standardised measures of ‘wellbeing’. The welfare of the city becomes an external and technical market problem to be fixed, and home about what makes people emotionally happy; the state, of which all are now ‘customers’, is also distant enough for citizens to feel that they can deny their own responsibility for it: the time-poor dance is thus sustained, drowning out creativity, the cry of the poor and the harm done to nature (cf. Laudato si’, 116-123).

Continue to Part 2: The welfare of Babylon

Picture: Royal Crescent, Ramsgate, Kent


  1. James Hanvey SJ and the Heythrop Institute considered the ‘distortion of time’ and individualism in similar vein, cf. ‘On the Way to Life: Contemporary Culture and Theological Development as a Framework for Catholic Education, Catechesis and Formation’, CBCEW, 2005, section 6.6, p23-5. Another way of considering this is in relation to work, on which stable family life and communities depend. In Laudato si, 128, Pope Francis points out that the goal should not be that technology replaces human work in a way that is detrimental to humanity. The same thought may be transferable to some of its uses in housing and planning, at least as a test before adopting new technologies in future. 
  2. cf. Richard Rohr, The Dance of Creation: The Trinity and Your Transformation, 2016.

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