urban thinkers campus report – shaping spaces for gen z

Urban living in the early part of the 21st century has not been good for children. The present generation are the least fit and the fattest that they have ever been. Social marginalisation, mental health problems and serious cardio-metabolic disorders have been on the rise in adolescence and early adulthood. On a more positive note, there is good international research evidence that many of these unwelcome facets of modern lifestyles for children could be eradicated through relatively small adjustments of the opportunities available to children, such as those that might be gained through active play and active travel to or from school.

These issues were the focus of discussion at the “Shaping Spaces for Gen-Z” Urban Thinkers Campus that was organised by the Urban Synergies Group and the Health Research Institute, University of Canberra on 8th March 2017. Hosted at the University of Canberra, Australia, the Campus focused on environments that foster healthy childhood development in the broadest sense of this term i.e. including mental and physical capacities, social and psychological development and connectedness to community. Child health, physical inactivity, environmental design, child empowerment and the right to play and interact were central themes.

The premises going in to the Forum were:  (1) Current societal norms for the general physical condition of children are too low, (2) Current societal norms for body weight status are too high, (3) Many children today have fewer opportunities to develop social skills and psychological resilience than they would have had in the past and (4) To reverse these trends will require a societal shift, with specific objectives to be agreed as the core drivers for change and the available societal resources aligned to achieve those objectives. The societal challenges posed for discussion were:

  1. All children have the right to the best opportunities we can provide for their social, psychological and physical development – how can we do this better?
  2. We need to provide more opportunities for children to achieve and maintain good general levels of physical activities as a lifestyle norm – how can we achieve this?

One hundred and twenty delegates attended. There was good representation from the key stakeholder groups: Parents, General Public, Government, Non-Government Organisations, Health, Academia and Community Services. Education other than tertiary, Commercial organisations and Sports organisations were not well represented.

The “Shaping Spaces for Gen-Z” Urban Thinkers Campus, Canberra, Australia on 8th March 2017 contributed to the following 9 of 17 Sustainable Development Goals:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Industry innovation and infrastructure
  • Reduced inequalities
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Life on land
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Partnership on goal

The outcomes of the Urban Thinkers campus will be presented at a side event at the 26th UN-Habitat Governing Council Meeting in Nairobi on the 8th May 2017 between 1 and 1.45 pm in Conference room 11. Should you not be able to make it, don’t worry as the final report is now available. To access the core findings and co-designed solutions that can enable actions  for better health outcomes for children and young people in urban systems access can be download here.

Summary for download

Full Urban Thinkers Campus Report for download

World Urban Campaign Online Report

Envisage the city we need! Designing healthy streets with children

Urban Synergies Group committed to implement the New Urban Agenda with an emphasis on healthy environments for future generations. As part of the 100.000 Dollar commitment across the Asia- Pacific region we design a program that aims to empower children and young people in city building processes. Our kick start in 2017 will be the International Forum “Shaping Spaces for GenZ” on the 8th March 2017.

In the lead up to this forum Urban Synergies Group hosted in collaboration with the Cross Culture Design Lab and the Health Research Institute at the University of Canberra a street design workshop with children from the Girlang Primary School.

The students aged range was between 8- 10 years. Aim of the workshop was to empower children and elevate their view on how their city should look and feel like.

The following video provides valuable insights and captures some of their views in relation to a healthy street environment in Canberra. We would like to express gratitude and say thank you to all parties and children involved.

Should you be interested in learning more about the findings you are invited to take part in the forum and register by clicking here.

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USG Publication launch at UN Habitat 3 conference in Quito, Ecuador

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Urban Synergies Group (USG) launched today the booklet on “Right to the City” at the Habitat 3 conference in Quito, Ecuador. This conference was organised by the UN Habitat. The aim of this conference is to determines the future of urban development globally for the next 20 years. Our team at USG as one of the Global Assembly of Partners informed the development of the ‘New Urban Agenda’ document on three key issues:

  1. Right to the city – in line with our Perspective Statement on the ‘Right to the City’ that has been developed with the involvement from grassroots level.
  2. Health and well-being in planning and urban design.
  3. Child- friendly environment as part of the public space agenda.

Apart of being able to provide constructive input in a round table discussion at the Children and Youth Assembly infrastructure stream- one of our key highlights so far was the launch of the booklet on “Right to the City” earlier today.  As the only constituency Urban Synergies Group got exclusive access to the UN Habitat library in the UN Pavilion. Listen to our Founder and Director Gregor H. Mews on what he had so say by clicking on the video recorded live earlier today in the UN Pavilion.

This is your invitation to become part of our philosophy and contribute shaping healthy communities internationally.

Purchase a copy of our crowdfunded booklet and choose where your contribution should go. Support either to play space projects in Vietnam or to local  safe journeys to school project  “Tunnel Talk” in Australia.

Click here and follow three simple steps if you want to call this booklet your own.

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Our efforts here in Quito are not over yet. Tomorrow, 19th October 2016, we will participate in the discussions at the Transport day, support ISOCARP on “Smart Cities and the New Urban Agenda” from 12.30 -1.30 pm and will showcase our perspective at the “Moving from Habitat3 to Implementing the Right2City from 2-4 pm.

Be part of the debate and follow us on twitter for the latest updates and news on the New Urban Agenda – UrbanSynergiesGroup @usg_gregor.

 

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

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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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).

USG Sus Graphic

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.

Play together- being human

True freedom in this world begins with the opportunity to play. Play is both an essential and basic element of any child’s development. It is important to ensure that children enjoy life and have the chance to grow-up as physically and mentally healthy individuals because they need to be able to subsequently participate appropriately in their own culture and society as well-balanced adults. And yet, all too many children are not given the opportunity to play in the fashion they would themselves prefer. There is insufficient awareness with regards to value of giving children the freedom to undertake autonomous play. Many adults see ‘play’ as merely a trivial aspect in the lives of their children or even as an unnecessary distraction from more ‘important’ activities. Parents consider play to be something that can be safely ignored – unlike the structured educational processes that their children are subjected to in school. However, studies have shown that31-logo-redrawn play actually improves the learning performance of children over the long term and also enhances their social skills so that they tend to be more successful in their later professional careers. The International Play Association (IPA) subscribe to this view and believe that every child has the fundamental and universal right to play. It is their view that children should in future be allowed to determine freely how they want to play. The 2014 IPA Conference provided the ideal platform for participants to exchange ideas on innovative approaches to dealing with this aspect, to learn from each other and develop new strategies.

Political background

It was 25 years ago that the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 of the Convention specifically outlines children’s rights to relax, play and be involved in cultural activities and this was the focus of the discussions at the IPA Conference. The basis was the summary of General Comment No. 17 on Article 31 published by the IPA in September 2013. The delegates saw this as a welcome opportunity to emphasize the rights of children to rest, leisure, play, participate in recreational activities and in the cultural and artistic life. The IPA places particular stress on the ‘right to play’ and first issued an official declaration on this subject in November 1977. Anyone involved in children’s play activities – be it manufacturers, designers, educators, public authorities and parents – needs to read and take to heart this declaration. “Children’s play is any behaviour, activity or process initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves; it takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise. Caregivers may contribute to the creation of environments in which play takes place, but play itself is non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation and undertaken for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. Play involves the exercise of autonomy, physical, mental or emotional activity, and has the potential to take infinite forms, either in groups or alone. These forms will change and be adapted throughout the course of childhood. The key characteristics of play are fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility and non-productivity. Together, these factors contribute to the enjoyment it produces and the consequent incentive to continue to play.“ This declaration is derived from more than 20 years of international collective experience and is based on the results of studies that have demonstrated the serious and lifelong effects that a lack of opportunity and space to play can have on the physical and psychological wellbeing of children. It was apparent from the IPA Conference that there are different ways in which the value of play is perceived throughout the world. The delegates from some countries claimed that play was an essential and fundamental need while others saw it as subordinate to structured education, as a diversion from preparing children to participate in the labour market.

The science of play

Play is an autonomous activity that is full of pleasure and delight. Because there is too little conscious enjoyment in our contemporary world, this automatically results in more of the same. Therefore it is not surprising that many people now find it difficult to come to terms with our environment and surroundings. Play promotes health and well-being. It is not only fun, but also enables children to develop a long term positive outlook more easily and this is something that children are frequently denied. There are lasting negative effects not only for children, but also for communities and whole societies if there are insufficient opportunities for play and physical exercise. Children who are unable to play fail to develop important capabilities, physical, social and psychological skills and could thus be said to have a form of disability. Children who are not permitted to play become more readily aggressive and unstable; they are no longer able to integrate themselves socially. While it is true that insufficient long term studies of the effects of play deficit have been conducted, the initial results that have been reported to date are very concerning. Children confined in enclosed spaces who do not play can exhibit various negative traits such as aggression, emotional suppression, lack of social skills, physical inactivity and are at increased risk of becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes. The brains of children who are unable to play may also fail to develop normally. Persistent sensory deprivation in the form of insufficient contact with others and the lack of other sensory types of interaction can result in depression and even cerebral dysfunction in extreme cases. Play stimulates the body’s nervous system, which reacts by creating neural networks that promote brain development and flexibility. In other words, play actually helps inculcate in children a system that boosts their learning capacity. But it is not only the children that we need to consider. Adults who deny children the freedom to play often tend themselves to have unhealthy lifestyles, do not take enough exercise and suffer from obesity or cardiovascular diseases. Experts now fear that current changes and trends will produce negative repercussions with regard to future societies and the environment although this fallout may first become apparent several generations later. These predictions are based on the results of a study in which epigenetic material was investigated. The study demonstrated that if effects might skip an entire generation, an ‘echo’ is created that could become manifest in the following generation. Play is a process through which simple movements aid the growth of efficient and effective muscles and that improves the physical and psychological status. Children become more flexible, agile, coordinated and well-balanced. Play is not just enjoyable, but helps children learn to deal with primary emotions such as anger, fear, rage, shock, sadness and happiness and to translate these into more nuanced sentiments like sorrow, pleasure, affection, gratification, frustration and disappointment.

What can we do?

Free Play represents the solution to many of the problems we encounter in urban environments. All cities need enchanting refuges, places where the imagination can be set free – gateways to another world where it is possible to forget the drudgery of the daily routine. Cities are increasingly growing into an assemblage of dead, sterile, boring and undifferentiated spaces that offer no outlet for fantasy, humor and human interaction. People need distraction. Attempts to provide this to date have been only been provided by commercially-orientated organisations and the concepts have been temporary and have not been made available to all. Urban environments must furnish appealing spaces for everyone on every day. Spaces in which we can celebrate the community, historic associations, love of nature and anthropocentric chemistry. Children in Germany must be permitted more frequent and increased access to better, autonomous, free play. The creative activities of children should be encouraged to take place in interconnected spaces and not just in localised islands. The design of creative spaces may start at the level of small details but must take a holistic approach. Freedom of creativity can be a dangerous factor in play as in life because it is not always possible to predict the consequences. For this reason, a responsible attitude to the surroundings and environment must always be adopted, although, at the same time, the right of children to play must be defended, protected and sponsored. There are two simple precepts that we all need to follow if we wish to give our children and youngsters more time, freedom and space to play:

● We can and should advocate the view that play is both a universal and natural necessity that has a positive effect on children and young people. The right to play can bring people together across borders, generate tolerance and help impart cultural values.

● We can all seek to share our experience, to disseminate new ideas, inform ourselves while retaining a critical stance and provide valuable input in research, politics and our own fields of activity.

Children will play almost anywhere but to provide the ideal conditions for this, the following requirements need to be met:

● The surroundings must be full of natural and creative elements that promote autonomous play.

● There must be equipment that provides for physical challenges to enable children to develop the ability to assess risk.

● The environments should be such that children can freely express their emotions and experience sensory stimulation.

● There must be opportunities for social interaction.

● There should be a variety of different environments in both urban and rural situations that are safely interlinked and that provide an extensive proportion of free space that invites children to indulge in play.

If we really want to achieve this, we need proactive solutions such as the idependent “Werkstatt für Spiel” initiative. In the form of interactive workshops, we will be offering participants the opportunity to explore in depth the topic of “Play and human right” and the associated requirements for space for free play . With our distinguished patrons we are looking forward to an exciting and informative event from 13.- 16. June at a heritage Watermill estate in the State of Brandenburg, Germany. For more information, please ask us. Friedrich Schiller once said that “there is often deeper meaning in the play of children”. Once we have all recognised this to be the case, we can make the world a more free, healthy and compassionate place.

Armchair Geoprapher talks to Greg Mews