by Dr. Gregor Mews, Queensland University of Technology, School of Design
Cumulatively the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice issues, climate emergency and the extreme biodiversity loss create an unprecedented opportunity in human history to critically reflect on the state of health and wellbeing. It has become now evident that the impact of the environment affects all of us individually, on community level as well as on societal level on a profound level, which can indeed promote or inhibit mental and physical health (Dannenberg et al., 2011). In accordance to the World Health Organisation health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organisation, 1948). The environment can be defined holistically as the result of external (or nongenetic) factors including physical, nutritional, social, behavioural and others that act on humans and the built environment is produced of (Dannenberg et al., 2011). Therefore, it is important to recognise that on every level our health and wellbeing is profoundly impacted by the environment.
On the individual subjective and perceivable level, the crisis touches us on a profound and meaningful level through personal feelings, sensations and experiences as part of our everyday life. Sennett rightly observed that the subjective experience of life undergoes a form of transformation and making a person turn outward (Sennett, 1990). Many of us can experience mental fatigue, depression, stress and anxiety- the pandemic becomes ‘very real’ and will have an outward effect. The disruption affects the production process of the social fabric of our communities and puts its connectedness and resilience to test. Local businesses are closed and people appropriate spaces between buildings in new ways. For example, people playing music on balconies in Italy. The immediate impact on the societal level occurs on a more conceived and abstract level as the full impact of the pandemic has yet to be mapped out. However, disruptions to the economics of societies suggest that business as usual is over. The public health community has long ago recognised that the connection and preventive measures is more than lowering the risks of morbidity (Schmidt, 2007). The answer is apparent, we need collective interdisciplinary collaboration that leads to transformative actions in the environment in a holistic way (Mews et al., 2018). There is sufficient evidence that suggests the way how we design and engage with the environment can enable healing conditions in which one can realise the transformative potential to feel positive in different places. Toolkits and professional expert advice are available. Consequently, the design process for a healing starts in cities. The general public and the elements that constitute the social fabric might be the right starting point to reinvigorate together an evidence-based ‘glocalised’ (we are all in this together), context and cultural specific discourse on the ‘new normal’ in relation to our collective state of health and wellbeing. In fact, urban scholars such as Georg Simmel (1903) have foreseen this long ago and realised that “The decisive fact that in the life of a city, struggle with nature for the means of life is transformed into a conflict with human beings, and the gain which is fought for is granted, not by nature, but by man.” Since the immediate impact is intensively felt on the individual level, the ‘new normal’ must be approached conceptually as part of people’ s everyday life experience such as walking around the neighbourhood or the way we engage with each other. For example, in our recent project with the Danish NGO Dreamtown in Sierra Leone we were actively seeking dialog and feedback from community members in informal settlements related to their health and wellbeing.
We all have a choice! Perhaps we should utilise this precious moment to engage in a meaningful qualified discourse to renegotiate the way how we socially produce spaces for everyday life in cities and imbue physicality with new meaning, reconnect to nature and embrace a paradigm that reminds us what makes us human beings. This decisive moment in human history can be utilised to shift our collective paradigm from ‘urban liveability’ to ‘urban loveability’. It is noteworthy to mention that pre-CORVID19 the urban policy focus focused on urban liveability associated with global rankings that attract resource rich and well-informed minorities instead of creating meaningful outcomes for people equitable across urban systems. This model is over-reliant on reductionist approaches that measure quantitatively physical qualities of the environment without taking the necessary internal dimension (non-physical) environment and local context into consideration. Under the pressures to sustain the basic level of living, people seek ways to cater to their basic needs. The current health crisis highlights and brings deficiencies to the fore and that have insufficiently addressed in policies and underfunded within the pre-CORVID19 paradigm. So far this remains unresolved.
On the contrary ‘urban loveability’ represents the next evolutionary step of liveability by taking context specific qualitative measures into consideration. It takes the local context and the internal dimension (people’s experience and mind) into consideration. By definition ‘urban loveability’ can be characterised as positive, voluntary, and intrinsic feeling, or compassionate affection, turned into a positive action that can be observed by others (Fredslund Ottosen & Mews, 2019). It uplifts the human spirit in each of us on an individual and on a collective level as part of the ordinary everyday life. Urban lovability can improve the wellbeing with a sense of immediacy, by starting to pay attention to the details of our daily existence and struggle.
While currently many people around the world experience high levels of anxiety, stress and depression we also witnessing incredible acts of kindness and actions aimed to lift the collective community spirit (see youtube clip below published by the NEW YORKER).
In conclusion, let us all engage in an active discourse to renegotiate and emphasis what is of value in your own life and within our respected communities as well as societies. Now it is the time to agree on a new paradigm followed by meaningful transformative actions that turn words into actions and bring us closer together than ever before. After all we are indeed all in this together. Have the dialog related to positive actions on community and societal level (Freire, 1996) in your city or community. Step up and become a leader. With this new paradigm of ‘urban loveability’ we can make ethically conscious use of digital technology in service of a shared vision of a cities for all in which we can co-produce well -balanced healthy, just, safe, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable environments as outlined in New Urban Agenda (United Nations, 2017).
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