EDITORIAL

USG interview with Ric Stephens, President of the International Society of Cities and Regional Planners on ‘Right to the City’

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(Picture copyright by Gregor Mews)

Urban Synergies Group (USG) Founder Gregor H. Mews met with Ric Stephens, President of the International Society for Cities and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) on 18th August 2016 in Sydney, Australia. The following interview is part of USG lead up commitment to raise awareness on the making of the New Urban Agenda, Habitat III, and the 'Right to the City'.

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USG: What does ‘Right to the City’ mean to you in a professional context?

RS: From my view the issue of equity or equality with respect to ‘Right to the City’ is a big discussion question here in Australia and where I am from in Metro Portland in the USA. The big discussion we are currently having is on affordable housing. In Portland we are considering it under the term “equitable housing” and for Habitat 3 it is the concept of “adequate” housing. The real issue here is not just providing affordable housing rather housing for a broader range for society and to provide housing that is equitable in the sense of the ‘Right to the City’, but also in the sense of adequate housing that is not only the housing that is affordable but accessible to amenities. In other word’s you can have affordable housing, but what does it mean if there is no ability to find jobs or schools nearby for the children. The question of the ‘Right to the City’ is broadened from affordability or equity and then a larger definition provided by UN Habitat with adequate housing.

USG: What about your personal experience?

RS: Personally having a more diverse city is really more desirable than having a city that is structurally limited in terms of demography. Where I worked in Southern California we are having a variety of cities where only senior citizens live. It’s a weaker, less vibrant in every sense of way. It may be more safe and they have more interest in the common. But even they would say that they are missing the sound of children hearing them laughing. Not having the diversity of culture really limits the quality of life. I’ve seen that first hand in some communities for example in Metropolitan Portland, where I live and work, we really embrace a cultural diversity.

USG: Would you agree with the premise ‘We should design more playful environments in order to create a sense of mystery and uniqueness in our urban systems?’

RS: Definitely, most cities and this is a bit of a discussion I had during this visit in Australia. Globally, the plans and vision for cities such as the master plans and the documentation to implement those development and zoning codes don’t have any or very little provision for a sense of place. Sense of place that have a lot of elements such as a sense of discovery, sense of time and even a sense of joy. Those elements I am missing from those documents that define places from an administrative and governance point of view. Creating mysteries in cities, creating possibilities to explore and discover places would be something really wonderful to incorporate.

USG: What do smart cities to offer in terms of ‘Right to the City’?

RS: The smart cities concept is really controversial, because many of my colleague’s feel that having a technology component, which is so commercialised, won’t address the issue that you are in a city in line with ‘Right to the City’. Of course the profit mode of other drivers for smart cities don’t usually include directly equity or social responsibility. For developing countries smart cities can offer increased opportunities for of citizen’s engagement. Even in poor cities a high percentage of the population has smart phones, that can be the foundation for creating a smart city which is also a city that is equitable.

USG: What are your top three take away messages that get us closer to healthy cities for all?

RS: This does not represent ISOPCARP and is my personal opinion. I would say the first one is to bring nature back into the city. Biophilia, the concept of the love for nature and biophilic design is really critical. We need to bring nature back into the city and in a systems way. Not just ‘plunk’ a tree here and there or scatter it with a park, but have a system of nature in the city where we are creating an urban ecology. This would be linking the parks with trails, creating meaningful green roofs, green streets, green walls and second and in connection to that is providing local food. We need to bring local food back into the urban environment. I always ask my students and colleagues how far do we have to walk to find food in the environment –a berry, a nut or vegetable. In some cities the question is there is no place to walk to find food. So we need to change our thinking with nature in the city.

The second recommendation: I feel planning has tried so hard to become a science that we overlooked and bypassed being an art. Or perhaps not ourselves but necessary being artist but at least bringing art and culture back into the city in a meaningful way. And again we have ‘plunk’ art where everything is built by dropping a statue in a place or put a mural on a wall or somewhere, but that is not meaningful. We should have culture in the city where we have public spaces and art everywhere. The city should be infused with cultural expression and there should be ways where people can express themselves about the city. Maybe one street is a festival street. They close the street and its used for Madrigal or Christmas or Ramadan – whatever the events are. There needs to be a venue for cultural expression. We should have more things where art permeates the city in every form. Streetscapes and build urbanscapes should all have art as a component of that.

The third element that would make cities more lively is the idea of a smart city. Our cities can be seen as dangerous places and difficult places for many people, but people understand cities. Information and knowledge is more ubiquitous. Cities can be friendlier places, finding your way around and navigating through the city. All of this is part of the smart city concept to make cities understand better. Of course along with this concept is the importance of citizen engagement. Our cities should be much more vibrant where people understand and care about the governance of their city.

USG: Thank you very much indeed for your valuable observations and critical reflection on issues that are fundamental to shaping healthy communities around the world.

The Urban Synergies Group perspective statement on 'Right to the City' can be downloaded by clicking here, but our commitment to 'Right to the City' goes even further...

Urban Synergies Group is revisiting the 'Right to the City' and will contextualise the concept in a contemporary context as part of a creative work, which will be launched at the Habitat 3 conference, 17-20 October in Quito, Ecuador. The creative publication on 'Right to the City' is reaching out to passionate individuals around the world aiming to raise awareness and fund ethically activities that create healthier environments on the ground.

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UC Students designing with play in mind…

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Urban Synergies Group proudly supported the 2016 Special Design Unit at the University of Canberra (UC), Faculty of Arts and Design, entitled "Designing with play in mind..."

In just seven weeks the undergrad students in architecture and landscape architecture developed remarkable results that are not just evidence based but also holistic in their approach.

Their brief was to design a play scape concept that is based on the renewal efforts of the UC campus Masterplan and the associated hypothetical co- location of the aged- and childcare facility.

Both design teams pushed the boundaries of the current risk adverse society to enable better health outcomes for future generations. Through their collaborative and playful spirit the results speak for themselves.

Congratulations to the next generation of architects and designers.

The publication of the student works can be accessed here: Play Space Publication

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Rediscovering Urban Happiness

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More and more people live in cities. In 2014 the human race reached an urbanisation level of more than 50 percent. If this trend continues by 2050, 66 percent of us will live in cities. At the same time global disease patterns are changing. Depression is on the rise and accidents caused by traffic will increase dramatically.

What could we do to prevent these diseases and incidents from rising. Public transport and bicycling as a preferred form of transport can help. But the majority of urban systems are not designed for it or just starting to invest in it. Optimistically they are still 20 to 30 years behind cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Münster.

Could there be something out there that could help to reduce or even prevent lifestyle related diseases such as obesity, physical inactivity and depression? Something that fundamentally touches our spirits, uplifts us and contributes to a reduction of traffic accidents? Something that every government and decision maker should be excited about, because its easy, cheap, simple and can become extremely popular if we all commit to it?

If city governments would invest in policies for it, it could transform urban systems and make people’s everyday life more liveable. It would enable a meaningful pathway to improve social, environmental and economic performance.

It will help you to become more creative, relaxed, socially connected and productive. Also it can increase capacity for innovation- simply put- it may achieve better health and well-being outcomes on all scales.

The answer to all that is play. It is an intrinsic induced activity, that constitutes freedom, based on the acceptance of risk in its temporary transformational nature. Play is not structured sport and includes attributes such as spontaneity, curiosity and creative processes that voluntarily occur outside of the ordinary. This purposeless activity is necessary to the human identity as an exploratory pursuit of pleasure and comfort outside of social purpose.

You can have it and older people have certainly experienced it. Children are champions in it, if we let them.

Most people associate play with fun and in theory it can occur anywhere. But why doesn’t it and why are we not playing more often across all ages in every city.

Once we are developed we just stop! Why? For example, in every professional context and learning exercise we now speak of lifelong learning or lifelong development. If we want to seek and embrace development we shall not stop playing.

Evidence suggests that play is not just important for children, but fundamental for their overall developmental capacity. The co- benefits for adults are overwhelming. Contact with nature and other beings has surprising effects on your mental health. Sufficient amount of physical activity in other words walking in a moderate speed can contribute to physical health and well-being.

Each of us has this gift, but when we grow up we are less often engaging in it?

Here is a little story a child has written, that may give you a idea:

“Dear King, I've got a question. Must life be so fast? For us it is like that: In the morning I have to get up quickly and then I get quickly dressed. After a fast breakfast, I quickly brush my teeth. Then very quickly we got to go to the kindergarten. In the kindergarten we have to hurry up when dressing and undressing, tidying up also has to be fast and when we are outside we must come inside quickly, so that everyone can eat on time. Then I have to go home in the afternoon quickly. Tuesdays mom drops me quickly of at music lessons and twice a week we go quickly shopping. On Wednesday we have to go quickly over to Grandma Hilde and check whether everything is okay with her. On Fridays we always put quickly the garbage out, and on that day we must also quickly pour water over all the flowers on the balcony. Every evening around 8 pm Mama wants to watch the news very quickly, otherwise she does not know what's going on in the world. Then I'll go very quickly to bed and try to fall fast asleep. I ask you: Does life have to be so fast? Because – then it means that it is very quickly over!”

Could it be that in our collective obsession to satisfy our material desires we are so out of balance in the western world?

An ancient African proverb says “It takes an entire village to raise a child”. This takes time and if you care about your children and the next generation -  don’t just think about play but engage in it as part of your everyday life.

It is a fun and engaging way to restore the balance and unlocking the benefits of health and well-being - all you need to do is stop seeing it as a waste of time and space. Reconnect with your senses and with your community around you. Otherwise why is it so important for our children?

In conclusion I’d like to invite you to bring play back into your life. All it takes is a bit of time, trust and space.

Author: Gregor H. Mews

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Ideas Hatchery: thank you for your contribution

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The Ideas Hatchery event  was a fun and stimulating opportunity to share your ideas on the topic "Right to the city".

Be part of it

Should you feel like you missed out and would like to make a contribution, please share with us your idea what the "Right to the city" means to you.

Post your idea on our page

Send us your idea either directly to Daniella  (email daniella (at) urbansynergiesgroup.org or simply post it on our Facebook or LinkedIn page. We harvest ideas until the 10th June 2016.

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Ideas Hatchery

Urban Synergies Group is hosting the first "Ideas Hatchery" event in Canberra, Australia.

Under the theme „Right to the city“ interested and passionate individuals are invited to take part in a exploration to better understand our collective understanding of the topic. Participants will discuss challenges and opportunities with like minded individuals in a relaxed after work atmosphere.

Urban Synergies Group will harness the thoughts and develop a bottom up approach on the issue that can inform the Habitat III and related debates.

When 2nd June 2016 from 5.30 pm onwards
Where Parlour Wine Room, 16 Kendell Lane in New Acton, Canberra, Australia

Material and nibbles will be provided.

What is an "Ideas Hatchery"*?

The concept was developed by Gregor Mews, as an instrument to harvest and to improve the collective common understanding of an nominated subject in a informal and relaxed environment. It is not a mechanism to articulate a formed opinion, rather than listening and harvesting other peoples thoughts on a nominated subject. By collecting thoughts of participants the ideas will be naturally validated throughout the event. The more thoughts a participant collects his or hers understanding will improve.

Rules

  1. It is not about your own idea - it's about our common understanding on a nominated subject.
  2. Participants will be asked to write down their initial ideas of the subject on a piece of paper.
  3. Ideas written on paper will be collected in a boy by the moderator.
  4. Now all participants will be invited to collect as many ideas from other participants as possible. Each collected idea should be written and numbered. Given that the atmosphere is relaxed, discussion should be possible this may take up to a hour.
  5. When finishing the collection and the participant had an opportunity to speak to as many people as possible. Each participant hands the collection of ideas over to the moderator.
  6. The moderator notes the amount of ideas from each participant. The person with the highest amount of ideas collected will receive an award at the end.
  7. The collection of ideas will be read out by the moderator and the top three voted upon by the participants.

Group size: 5 - 50 participants
Time: pending on size of the group (up to two hours)
Material required: paper, pens, box, award, snacks, drinks

  • cc by Gregor H Mews, Urban Synergies Group

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Right to the city – the new UN Habitat paradigm

“Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays” wrote Friedrich Schiller (1795).

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Urban Synergies Group has been advocating for a paradigm shift towards human rights in urban design as integral part of sustainable development. Our submission highlighted that if we want to sustain health and well- being  in urban systems we must embrace sustainable development with our collective bio-history in mind and adding human rights into the equation. We are pleased to share that the outcome of the UN Habitat III meeting has just been released. The Barcelona Declaration for Habitat III - Public Space stresses the following:

"Human rights are key to advancing and developing an urbanization that is sustainable and socially inclusive, that promotes equality, combats discrimination in all its forms and empowers individuals and communities. The New Urban Agenda is a unique opportunity for state authorities at all level to realize the human rights of all inhabitants."

"The Right to the City is a new paradigm that provides an alternative framework to re-think cities and urbanization. It envisions the effective fulfillment of all internationally agreed human rights, sustainable development objectives as expressed through the Sustainable Development Goals, and the commitments of the Habitat Agenda."

The Barcelona declaration can be accessed by clicking here.
Should you have question in relation to our contribution, please contact us under info (at) urbansynergiesgroup.org
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A return to values in a society of unconscious consumption in four steps

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Sustainability, health and wellbeing are fundamentally intertwined. This article argues that this interdependence should be recognised and explicitly included into sustainability theory. Philosophical observations and system critic thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre and Martin Heidegger provide an opportunity to revisit our contemporary approach and practice regarding sustainable healthy lifestyles in an everyday context.

Lefebvre’s “everyday” concept, as Hegel cites it, refers to the real life in the here and now. Sustenance, clothing, furniture, homes, neighbourhoods and the environment as objects providing meaning to subjects in the context of every day life. He critiques the capability of people to generate consciousness as part of ordinary, trivial, banal and repetitive characteristics of life in contemporary capitalism. This highlights one of the greatest dilemma of societies achieving significant outcomes on the ground that can prevent climate change beyond the 2 Degree Celsius mark.

None of that is really new. The Brundtland Commission acknowledged in the 1987 with the Report “Our Common Future” a fertile ground. Harlem Bundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway, herself had a strong background in Public Health. Slowly 29 years later, under the umbrella of the New Urban Agenda by United Nation (UN Habitat) we have been given another chance to embrace collective actions towards a common goal that concerns all of us.

One of the most powerful tools is social media and Apps. It provides a vehicle to understand people’s individual choices as part of their daily lives. When analysing user behaviour we can gain valuable insights into peoples lives and draw conclusions on collective consequences of their daily actions. One of the best examples are Geographical Information Systems (GIS) based traffic Apps that help you to avoid traffic jams. However, it is not just a tool to communicate in a one- way stream but a tool to convey and engage in a dialog on matters that directly relate to peoples every day lives.

Georg Lukács and Martin Heidegger described it with the term “Alltäglichkeit, meaning “authentic existence of being”. This opens a window of opportunity to grasp peoples lost direction in an inauthentic existence and provide them with solutions that not just benefit their daily lives but help to prevent climate change.

What can be understood as “authentic existence”? Especially for people in western oriented nations it can be seen as an invitation to engage in the adventure of every day life.  Giving a new meaning to space and time through playful interaction with our immediate environment, that we collectively experience and share. Authentic existence can be easiest experienced through being in touch with our senses. Playful interaction with objects can transform the perception of time. People dedicate themselves to playful activities and enjoy it, we tend to share collectively this experience in a group environment. We are able give this space a new meaning. The space becomes a place. The flow theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi provides a fertile basis for this claim. One engages with one’s sense and makes meaning of an object in a state of concentration that ultimately impacts the environment around oneself. While engaging in the flow through play, one forgets time and enjoys it purely based on intrinsic rewards. One truly discovers meaning and the joy of being as well as living in the moment.

The evaluation of my international workshops found this to be a very effective technique to realise participants state of “authentic existence”. Active reflection under professional guidance allows participants to increase their level of consciousness and to become creative innovators as part of their professional work in the field of administration, landscape architecture, planning or urban design. However, it did even more. Many of them rediscovered the playful side in themselves helping them to realise the value of trust, space and time.

How does that relate to sustainable development as part of peoples individual actions? For example, through rediscovery of “authentic existence” as part of the state of being, spaces become places and places can increase in value with time. Instead of using the car, one can choose to walk or cycle more often, engaging with the environment in a natural speed. By rediscovering biophilic life around them their physical and mental health improves. Some of the collective benefits are self evident, reduced noise and air pollution, less accidents generate savings in the health system, decongest urban environments, reduces carbon emissions and benefits to the social capital.  All these benefits have a direct impact on our development as the human race, but the traditional approach with the triple bottom line does not stack up.

What does this new sustainable development model that recognises health and well-being look like?

The model is fundamentally based on our collective bio-history and recognises the limits of earths carrying capacity. The health- and well-being is based on the environmental dimension providing the base for our collective social existence. The collective wealth we create as part of the social dimension generates and builds the economical wealth. This wealth has to be managed with care and consciously fed back through the social dimension, and benefit ultimately the environment. By adding the arrows explicitly into the sustainability paradigm, the message of ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option (see graphic below).

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How do we get there?

  1. It is important to recognise to revisit the existing ‘business as usual’ paradigm executed by many western oriented governments.
  2. Raise the collective consciousness, based on the playful experiences with the environment, which most governments can initiate through workshops with professionals and with the community.
  3. Include health and well-being into the sustainability paradigm, introduce and underpin them with “play space” workshops and actions from top- down and bottom- up.
  4. Utilise modern media beyond one-way communication stream or in a reactive manner. Let people be playful. Trust them and empower them to share positive experiences through their videos, infographics and stories on how to transform their “every day life” in a healthy sustainable manner. Be inspired by the New York based Amplify Project as a successful case study (http://www.amplifyingcreativecommunities.org).

What can you do after reading this article?

Reflect upon the philosophical discourse. Embrace this model, go out an engage playfully with your “every day life” environment. Take pictures, make a fun video or share your story of your “every day” adventure evolving your sustainable lifestyle and love for places. Share your experience in your social media network. Perhaps call your government and advocate for change. Help them to respond to the New Urban Agenda and rediscover a new consciousness in our everyday lives that breaks the circle of unconscious consumption in an interdependent world.

This article is cc by Gregor H. Mews, Urban Synergies Group.

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Season Greetings from Urban Synergies Group

"Children are not things to be moulded but people that need trust, time and space to unfold." Gregor H. Mews

This year special thanks goes to SIK-Holz, Yale University, Health Bridge, Think Playgrounds, University of Construction Hanoi and the International Play Association.

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