More Than Books: Libraries as Catalysts for Healthy Urban Transformation

Over the past few months, I’ve had the honour to serve as Guest Librarian with the Kitchener Public Library. Guest Librarians are invited by KPL to bring new ideas and to act as ambassadors for the library within their communities.

During my tenure, I chose to focus on healthy cities. Specifically, how we as citizens can work towards making our cities places that support wellness. Following this theme, I organized a panel discussion where we heard from experts in the field as well as community members on how we could make Kitchener a healthier and happier place. You can read more about it here. I was especially excited to learn from the community and hear their ideas. In my mind, engaged citizenship and bottom-up urbanism are crucial to creating healthy cities, and I think the library plays the perfect host to this ongoing conversation.

As a physical space, libraries embody what we should aspire towards when we are talking about healthy places. They are inviting public spaces where people from all backgrounds come together in the spirit of learning – perhaps about topics of interest to them, but also, maybe more importantly, learning about each other. In a sense, libraries are the living rooms of our communities. These living rooms are needed now, more than ever, as we are seeing xenophobia and intolerance being stoked all around us. As the bigots continue to try to create divisions amongst us, we are increasingly in need of spaces where we can come together to connect as humans.

“Libraries are the living rooms of our communities”

This connecting quality of the public library is also important in a time when we are witnessing increasing rates of urban isolation. The library is the first I place I visited after moving to Kitchener last year. I was feeling lonely and just wanted to be around people. I don’t know that I am alone in visiting the library for that reason. No surprise then, that KPL’s slogan is “where community connects”. It should be noted that the library is one of the few spaces people can come together to connect without the pressure to purchase something. There’s a particular indignity someone experiences when trying occupy a space that demands they spend their money when don’t have much of it. This was very apparent to me when I practiced as a mental health occupational therapist and tried finding places for my clients (all who lived under the poverty level) to connect with others. The library was a much better option than a shopping mall food court.

Libraries aren’t just warehouses for books. Libraries are constantly evolving to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. For example, KPL provides coding lessons to children and was the first library in Canada to lend out wi-fi hubs. As we move into the age of the smart city, access to the internet will be paramount and we’ll need people who are code literate. Ultimately, through various means, libraries promote equity and level the playing field so that we all have the tools and resources required to participate in civic life. We can’t talk about healthy cities without also talking about equitable and inclusive cities. I’ve often worried that the conversation on urbanism caters to the privileged, while leaving out the voices of the marginalized. The library helps address this inequity through operating under the premise that everyone deserves a seat at the table.

In 1968, Henri Lefebvre, a sociologist and philosopher, wrote a book called “Le Droit à la ville” – which translates to “the right to the city”. In his treatise, Lefebvre states, “the right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city… The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Fifty years later, we are still grappling with this most neglected of human rights. Recently, change makers and city builders from around the world met in Quito at the UN Habitat Conference to discuss the future of cities, and central to the conversation was the “right to the city.”

Through both its physical design as an accessible meeting place and the equitable values upon which it exists, libraries will continue to safeguard and foster this right to the city and will assist us, as Lefebvre puts it, in changing ourselves through changing our cities. As our cities continue to grow at a rapid rate, libraries will serve as think tanks for urban transformation and will play a vital role in our collective effort to make cities healthy, happy and inclusive places.

Photo: Flux at KPL Central Branch

Photo Credit: Joe Martz

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