Interview with Gregor Mews on “Shaping Spaces for Gen Z”

“Play is the way children
make sense of the world
in which they live!”
Maxim Gorky

This is an interview with Gregor H. Mews, Founding Director of Urban Synergies Group, on insights around the need for a Forum on healthy child development and their environments in Australia.

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1. Why are you organising a forum, and what do you anticipate to achieve with it?

We at Urban Synergies Group, together with our partner the Health Research Institute at the University of Canberra, found sufficient evidence that indicates the health conditions of children in Australia are concerning.

The international forum “Shaping Spaces for Gen Z“ is part of our collaborative commitment to shed light on an important societal issue, that cannot continue to be ignored. Our message is clear and simple- we need to do better. If we want to ensure that future generations can enjoy equal opportunities, prosper and develop to their full potential, we need to explore new approaches to decision making around such ‘societal’ challenges. Collective actions need collective discussions and a fair, informed process for key decision making.

With this forum, we want to create a platform where we can come together with all relevant stakeholders and passionate members of the community, including concerned parents to do something about this societal challenge.

We will attempt to answer two questions. Firstly, how can we provide more daily opportunity for children to develop the social and emotional skills, psychological resilience and physical attributes to enable them to succeed in life as independent individuals? Secondly, how best do we align our collective resources to reconfigure our environments and the opportunities available to children within them in a fair, effective, efficient and cost-effective manner?

2. Why do you focus on child play, and what kind of relation does it have to obesity?

From our own data gathered since 2000, 69% of primary school children in the ACT are of low general fitness and 1 in 4 are classified as over a healthy weight. Children’s gross motor skills are another area of serious concern. We observed children that are unable to walk properly backwards, because they never had the opportunity to explore and engage in risky experiences on their terms. In our society the perception of risk has shifted. The ACT Government is aware of this and is committed to address this issue. Many Non-government organisations are doing their very best to reverse this health crisis.

Play offers a very potent narrative for children to engage in a meaningful way with the natural world around them, if we allow them to have enough space and time. Indeed, evidence suggests who children that engage regularly in outdoor play have higher levels of physical activity. Children are not even aware that they are getting healthier, because it is simply fun. Playful experiences offer mental health benefits and improve their capacity to be creative as well as learn important social skills. We are thrilled to have our colleagues from Yale University join us on the day, sharing their latest research findings.

However, despite of all the evidence, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child clearly states in article 31, that children have a right to play. In theory, this alone should be enough reason for adults to make sure their children have enough time and space for playful experiences in our cities. The health data helps to strengthen the case for play.

3. Is there a big cost associated with transitioning environments to allow for adequate physical exercise, what is this compared to the greater cost of childhood obesity?

True, there is a high cost associated with childhood obesity, which puts pressure onto the healthcare budgets, not just in Australia but worldwide. Combining these costs with physical inactivity as an independent risk factor is even more compelling. Infrastructure interventions in the built environment cost money and can have a lasting impact over their lifespan. This can be more or less helpful to achieve better health outcomes. Spent in an effective way, a piece of health supporting infrastructure, for example a safe and inclusive bike lane or footpath connecting attractive destinations, can become an effective measure in preventing diseases. However, the questions we should be asking ourselves are; how much do you value your own life? Can you put a price tag on it? Perhaps you want to be loved, spend as much time as possible with people you care about, grow up in comfortable home and have access to clean and safe environments. All of these contribute to your overall health and well-being. So I’d like to ask you why do you choose to spend these days so little time among your loved ones, feel like you need to spend more money on a bigger house, and pollute the environment contributing to an ecological footprint that is now five times higher than this earth’s carrying capacity? The price tag is our children’s overall well-being and we all are starting to pay for it. They are becoming fatter as well as sicker and sadder. Playful spaces near you can be part of the solution. Share your thoughts with us, be part of the debate and help us shape spaces for future generations on Wednesday 8th March.

Interviewed by: Kimberley Le Lieve, FairFax Media.
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Background information on Gregor H Mews

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