The need for a Department of Care

Care and maintenance have been part of many discussions over the last few years, and for good reason. During the pandemic, many realized the importance of essential workers, many of which work in one form of care or another. Even before that, personal care and personal time were gaining importance for a growing number of people, and even though more often than not we refer to them as annoyances or “construction,” what are street work, building renovations, and new infrastructure but maintenance of cities and homes? So it’s no surprise that the concept of care as a driver for city planning is already gaining traction.

A municipal Department of Care could make sure the trash was picked up and the tree pits were weeded. A Department of Care could pay teens to tend to public spaces and teach them stewardship skills. A Department of Care could check on seniors in a heat wave and basement apartment dwellers in a flood.

One thing about the topic, is that “once people see it, the need for care is hard to unsee.” Now that we’ve seen it, we need to organize it further and better, take care of the people providing it, take care of people generally, take care of our cities and homes.

As with many of the wicked challenges faced today, it’s often an interconnection of domains, an overlap where distant ministries, cabinets, and departments can’t address inter-linked problems properly. Something like a “Department of Care would coordinate services across existing agencies including health, sanitation and transportation, and team with community-based leaders.”

Earlier in the chain, design also has to be considered under that light, to include repair, and create products and services with those vital aspects in mind.

One oft-cited text on the relationship between architecture and repair is Shannon Mattern’s 2018 essay “Maintenance and Care,” which emphasizes the former but asks, ultimately, why designers of all kinds of systems are so bent on innovation and newness when “what we really need to study is how the world gets put back together,” and how we care for the people doing that work. […]

Designing for long-term care of people and cities has to involve rethinking design practices and processes from within, alongside less hierarchical interactions with users and maintainers.

If we could replace consumerism, throw away culture, and a currently insatiable “need” for the new with reduction, repair, maintenance, and care, we’d be making an enormous step in a transition to an economy more respectful of our limited resources, and the people doing the hard work of making it run.

Photo: incorporating features like seating into public spaces can be one way of thinking about “care” in design. Another is considering how the space will be maintained — and the people who will do the maintenance. Photographer: Marianne Purdie