Chiang Mai, Thailand – Human Settlements II: Cultivating Healthy Habits in Our Cities

January 2013 – In the first Human Settlements essay I claimed that in our rapidly urbanizing world, the habits of our cities will become the habits of our human species – the city as a reflection of ourselves and ourselves as a reflection of the city. In this second Human Settlements essay I’d like to ask, what urban habits would we like to cultivate within our cities to facilitate the growth of a healthy human civilization?

As individuals, our collective habits come together to shape our identities. A thoughtful awareness of our existing habits gives us the ability to move towards habits we think are beneficial and away from habits we perceive as harmful. This is true not only for individuals but for cities and societies as well.

Rooted within our current global civilization are habits that create disparities, encourage inequalities and deny basic human rights to certain populations. We have the capacity to provide basic human rights to every living person in this world but it’s our current system of global organization that prevents us from doing so. With more awareness of our global habits, we can take steps towards building habits that promote a healthier human civilization.

Our cities, much like our societies, are built upon a historical evolution and a historical memory. Cities didn’t just appear – they have grown over time, continuously evolving and updating. This means our cities and societies are constructed from older, previous learnt habits as well as habits that we’re currently cultivating. The first step to creating healthy human settlements is to identify some of the bad habits that we’ve developed in our cities and begin weaning off them.

HARMFUL HABITS

Our most harmful habit is our passive willingness to live within a global system dominated by the manipulative control of the elite and their mechanisms of oppression. The core values of our societies have been distorted and twisted by a global system that exploits the majority for the benefit of an elite minority. Without a countering force, cities would become prisons for oppressive control rather than playgrounds for creative human interaction.

We already see nations and urban zones where the corrupting forces of big business control nearly every aspect of people’s lives. Everything from food and energy to education and government is held within the firm grip of an organizational system manipulated by the global elite. Rather than striving for a healthy expansion of the human civilization, this destructive global system values materialism over tradition, encourages individual profit over equality, and promotes controlled world views over openly-shared knowledge.

It’s important that we protect our cities against the harmful habits of our global system. We can do this by building healthy habits within the institutions that govern and guide our cities.

TAMING THE POWER OF THE ELITE WITH LOCAL INSTITUTIONS

Even in a highly globalized world, we still live our daily lives in our local communities. By supporting strong local institutions and encouraging innovative grassroots organizations, we can lay a secure foundation that will allow us to provide a counter force against the domineering control of the ruling class. The rise of social networking sites, English as the world’s second language and the popularity of slogans like “think globally, act locally” show us that people are craving to connect with a global network while still remaining grounded in local culture.

By nurturing and empowering local communities, we can grow our cities from the bottom-up rather than letting big business dominate our cities from the top-down. Strong local institutions keep existing communities intact and provide a sturdy foundation for future development.

Chiang Mai is a city very much rooted within local Thai culture yet the magnitude of an international presence is rapidly transforming the city. Thai society is slowly opening to global perspectives while also sharing their own ways of life with outsiders as well. Many Thais are partnering with members of the international community to create incredible organizations and institutions throughout the city that give Chiang Mai a feeling of creativity and globalism. However, Chiang Mai as a city and Thai society in general are both succumbing to the bad habits encouraged by global materialism.

As Chiang Mai continues to develop, the rise of trendy shopping malls easily outpaces the nearly stagnant expansion of museums, cultural centers and creative public spaces. The city is acquiring a nasty habit of tearing down its traditional neighborhoods in exchange for flashy housing developments designed for fashion and ostentation rather than sustainability and community building. Like many developing nations new to the prosperity of global wealth, Thailand’s urban development seems to be focused on the indulgence of material pleasures rather than the long term health of its cities. Without the presence of strong local institutions to chaperone healthy urban growth, Chiang Mai is in danger of becoming the victim of its own expansion.

The good and bad habits of globalization move swiftly and with force. By supporting local institutions, cities have the ability to welcome the beautiful aspects of globalization while protecting and preserving local culture. A city that is strong within is less likely to be manipulated by the unhealthy habits of our global civilization.

By taming the role of big business within our global system and by supporting strong local institutions, we can begin deepening the process of building healthy habits within our cities.

ENCOURAGING IMAGINATIVE HUMAN INTERACTION WITHIN OUR CITIES

When our survival needs as living creatures are satisfied, our human nature dares us to dream further. A stable global system where basic human rights are available to all gives us the opportunity to pursue these dreams.

The next big movement in successful cities will be their ability to play with urban space to create new forms of innovative and imaginative human interaction. For the fortunate members of the global population who have the ability to move freely about the world, we already see a trend of global migration towards cities that encourage creative lifestyles, promote healthy communities and offer compelling career paths. The globalization of economy and culture has generated worldwide trends in urban planning that can be found in cities across continents. In order to stand out from the crowd, innovative cities must push the human experience in directions that are new and exciting, yet also productive and meaningful. How do we achieve this?

Let’s change the language we use to define nations and cities.

We have GDP to measure the annual monetary value of a nation and Per Capita Income to determine how much wealth an average individual possess. What about GDC; Gross Domestic Connectedness? We could use this term to describe a nation’s ability to create interesting social networks and healthy human connections. How about PCE? We could use Per Capita Energy to discuss how well a city empowers its residence with a sense of creative energy, empathic energy and cooperative energy.

Language influences our world view. By using new language to define our cities, we can make the transition from systems that preserve old habits of inequality and inefficiency, to systems that encourage healthy habits of reform.

INSTITUTIONALIZED COLLECTIVISM FROM THE GROUND-UP

Cities built on principles of individual consumption and disconnected systems are less efficient and nearly always less enjoyable than cities designed for collective use and collaborative action. For instance, cities that support strong public transportation systems provide greater urban mobility to their residence, produce less sprawl and pollution, and foster a greater sense of urban connectedness than cities designed for the individualized motor vehicle.

Our cities have cultivated strong habits of individualism and materialism during the past century – some to the point where they resemble enormous shopping malls more than actual cities. Systems of sustained inequality and perpetuated exploitation are clearly visible as enclaves of lavish wealth tower over massive urban slums. Powerful top-down institutions preserve positions of power by controlling core urban mechanisms such as economy and politics. A lopsided urban structure based on individual gains rather than collective growth.

A shift of urban consciousness is necessary to balance the scale.

Grassroots organizations, neighborhood institutions and collaborative communities are powerful tools for generating concrete momentum towards collective-based cities. Local organizations create connections between individuals within a community but they also forge relationships between individuals and institutions. This web of interconnectedness constructs a broad network of collaboration between individuals, institutions and cities. On the topic of transportation, many cities have begun to implement bike-share and car-share programs while looking towards neighborhood organizations to welcome these innovations and help their community become more hospitable for bikers and public transpiration commuters. Nourished from the ground-up, cities can move towards healthy habits of collectivism and leave behind corrosive habits of individualism.

PUBLIC SERVICE

Within a collective urban structure, public service and public involvement are crucial. Public service is difficult in a capitalist system that aligns time with money, essentially making the act of giving service a waste of time.

This is all wrong. Public service has the potential to yield massive returns in both our local communities and our cities as a whole. Successful cities are cities where citizens have a stake in the health of their city and actively participate in urban life. If our cities could support innovative programs that allow people to give service without feeling the pressures of a consumption oriented system, our cities would reap the benefits of a population that’s invested in their community.

For the motivated youth in the United States, there are a handful of programs such as City Year, Teach for America, Peace Corp, AmeriCorps, YMCA and many other local organizations that offer opportunities to give service with the promise of modest financial support. These organizations put young Americans in the position to contribute to society and the world around them but the capacity of these programs is limited and acceptance is relatively competitive. An imaginative expansion of service-oriented programs would strengthen the social fabric of our cities and encourage the growth of healthy urban communities.

I believe that people truly do want to contribute to society in a significant way but the structures currently in place don’t have the capacity to offer the opportunity. Large scale urban programs could give people the training and structure to contribute to society while providing social support such as vouchers for housing, food, transportation and a modest monthly spending allowance. In this way, we can begin building stronger and more connected cities.

OPEN-SOURCED URBAN PLANNING

Urban planning shouldn’t be reserved for those in downtown office buildings – urban planning is a tool used by anyone interested in improving their city and is the responsibility of everyone who wishes to live in healthier communities. Open-sourced urban planning furthers urban collectivism by inspiring citizens to be creative and entrepreneurial with urban design. Urban planning as a shared experience, not a top-down process.

Cities should engage local communities in the urban planning mission and provide the necessary tools and infrastructure to co-create within their cities. This means supporting both local and city-wide organizations that provide the proper training, resources and inspiration to create in their communities. Science and technology have seen incredible innovations through open sourcing – can urban design experience this same kind of innovative explosion from a system of collective co-creation?

HARNESSING CREATIVE URBAN ENERGY

Cities that strive to conjure a creative and collective urban energy would benefit from providing a user-friendly platform for people to make their ideas come alive. Why focus so much on building a creative city if there aren’t institutions in place to take advantage of that hard-earned energy? Cities should provide sturdy scaffolding for people to realize their ideas and create organizations and companies that further catalyze creativity and innovation.

AN EXPANDED ROLE FOR UNIVERSITIES

Cities can harness this creative energy by supporting urban institutions that cater to the entrepreneurial spirit. There is a diverse array of institutions that could play this supportive role but universities in particular have the imaginative capacity and technical competence to become leading institutions in facilitating the expansion of healthy urban habits.

The university as an elitist establishment that only benefits the well-off students within the classroom walls is an outdated model for universities. Universities should deepen their roles within local communities and widen their spectrum as centers for learning.

To become more active within local communities, universities could sponsor programs that get students out from the study halls and into the surrounding communities. Designing curriculums that integrate academic study and local engagement enhances the richness of education for students and shares the resources and creative energy of the university with the city as a whole.

For example, during my time at the University of Pittsburgh, I was part of a student organization called Keep it Real which matches students with immigrant families from African refugee camps. Members of Keep it Real primarily act as tutors but volunteers soon find that their most important role, and most rewarding, is as facilitators for adjustment to life in America for the families. Sponsored by the resources of the university and the motivation of the students, Keep it Real is able to contribute to the city of Pittsburgh in a truly significant way.

Universities can deepen their role within local communities by reevaluating their identity as centers for learning. Holistic organizations teach well being and facilitate spiritual growth while universities provide technical skill and encourage intellectual growth. Merging these places of learning within a single institution would give us more encompassing centers of education. The university is a powerful tool for urban innovation when it’s presented as a balanced center for learning where teachers and students from all walks of life are welcomed upon the walkways of the university campus.

Universities help cultivate workers for high-level economies and thus prestigious universities attract the best students from across the world. As our global economy becomes more innovation based, top students from around the world will be attracted to the universities that offer the most creative and holistic approaches to education. The university is a strong magnet for global migration, to both nations and cities.

During my travels I’ve met many university students from developing nations who dream of enrolling in a U.S university some day. I’ve met leaders and entrepreneurs from the developing world that have used their university experience abroad to return home and contribute to their community in ways they wouldn’t have been able to previously. Not to mention, so much innovation in the developed world is fueled from immigrants arriving from developing nations who utilizes the institutions of developed countries to do and create great things.

Universities should expand themselves as centers for learning in ways that are tailored to the needs of the local community. This would help cultivate intellectual and spiritual growth that in return could act as creative and cohesive forces in society and economy. In this way, the university could be a central institution for building healthy habits within our cities.

BIOMIMICRY

For a healthy continuation of our human civilization, it’s important for us to build habits that bring us in greater harmony with the earth. The basic idea of biomimicry is that we can learn from nature by mimicking and modifying some of its inherit wisdom and integrate it into our own human systems. Nature has already done our homework for us; we just have to figure out how to infuse its creativity and brilliance into our own human systems.

By integrating methods of biomimicry into urban design, we can begin aligning our cities with the habits and traits that have proven to be successful over time. Biomimicry offers us a wealth of knowledge that could be used to improve our cities and to bring our human species in greater harmony with nature.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As individuals, our collective habits shape who we are. Through a self awareness of our habits, we can work towards habits we would like to cultivate in our lives and move away from habits we don’t want. I believe the same is true for cities.

If cities are a direct manifestation of the collective habits of our human species, then by reforming the habits of our cities we can, in turn, reform the habits of our human civilization. The city is the most complex and prolific form of human settlement we’ve created, so if we work towards building healthier cities we would be reforming the central system that we live within and thus allowing for a healthier and more successful expansion of the human species.

Can a city practice meditation or learn to sing and dance? Can a city develop habits of kindness and empathy upon it’s streets and sidewalks or foster habits of humility and unity within it’s urban institutions?

What habits would you like to see our cities build?

 

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