Translating urban loveability into action in a post-COVID-19 world

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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).

Copyright by THE NEW YORKER, 2020

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).

References

Dannenberg, A. L., Frumkin, H., & Jackson, R. (2011). Making healthy places: designing and building for health, well-being, and sustainability. Island Press.

Fredslund Ottosen, N., & Mews, G. H. (2019). Exploring New Horizons for Youth Wellbeing and Public Space in Sierra Leone. In M. Hanzl, Reilly. J., Agrawal, M., (Ed.), Planning for Metropolitan Area (Vol. Reivew 15, pp. 332-349 ). ISOCARP

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum.

Mews, G., Muminovic, M., & Tranter, P. (2018). Time for action. Implementing the New Urban Agenda in public spaces for health and wellbeing. The Journal of Public Space, 3(1), 193-202. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.5204/jps.v3i1.330

Schmidt, C. W. (2007). Environmental connections: a deeper look into mental illness. 115(Aug), A404-A410. https://doi.org/doi: 101289/ehp.115-a404

Sennett, R. (1990). The Conscience of the Eye. Faber and Faber.

Simmel, G. (1903). The metropolis and mental life. In J. J. Gieseking, W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (Eds.), The People, Place, and Space Reader. Routledge Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315816852

United Nations. (2017). New Urban Agenda (H. I. Secretariat, Ed.) [Outcome document]. UN-Habitat. http://habitat3.org/wp-content/uploads/NUA-English.pdf

World Health Organisation. (1948, The definition has not been amended since 1948.). Preamble of the Constitution of WHO as adopted by the International Health Conference. WHO. Retrieved 31 March from https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/frequently-asked-questions

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

Raising Awareness “Shaping Spaces for Gen Z” – Urban Thinker Campus

First #UrbanThinkers campus for Asia Pacific was held in Canberra, Australia, on the 8th March 2017. More than 100 stakeholders engaged in discussing actions and solutions to transform our cities into healthy and playful environments for all.

Check out our short video from the event “Shaping Spaces for Gen Z” and watch this space for more information in the near future including the outcome report.

The organiser team from University of Canberra, Health Research Institute, and Urban Synergies Group would like to thank all those people that expressed interest and participated in the forum.

We would like to highlight the meaningful contribution of the ACT Government, being the key sponsor of the International Forum, as well as the Minister Fitzharris and Dr. Paul Kelly, Chief Health Officer. Our keynote presenter from Yale University Dr. Tong Liu shared insights into the social and emotional development of children. Prof. Tom Cochrane highlighted the pressing evidence relating to the state of health and physical inactivity of children in the ACT. The issues presentation included contributions on children and the built environment by Gregor H. Mews, Designs around the state of Children’s health by A/Prof. Lisa Scharoun, as well as on the importance of play presented by Dr. Tong Liu and A/Prof. Paul Tranter.

Our gratitude goes to our Master of Ceremony, Dr. Anthony Burton and all table coordinators that helped to capture the essence of the event and the In-kind support partners, including the ACT Government, ACT Council of Parents & Citizens Association, Australian Primary Principle Association, ACT Children and Young People Commissioner Jodie- Griffith- Cook, the ACT Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment with Dr. Kate Auty and Edwina Robinson, the Cross Culture Design Lab, Heart Foundation ACT with Annie Kentwell, Living Streets, Planning Institute of Australia ACT, SEE- Change and University of Canberra, Prof. Rachel Davey.

Watch this space for the outcome report and speakers presentations !

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