Put Yourself In Our Shoes: Using Empathy to Build Walkable Cities

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how urban design can impact a person’s sense of dignity. The issue has been on my mind regularly since.

I think about it every day, actually. My research involves understanding how people perceive urban environments. A study I wrapped up this semester examined how being in the presence of skyscrapers affects mood and stress. Considering the rate of urbanization and the trend of building upwards as a method of urban densification, I thought it would be prudent to explore this issue in more depth.

And so, I spend my days thinking about how our cities make us feel and how we can use psychological methods to help inform how we build them to support wellness. The deeper I go into this research, the more I realize that urban design transcends being just built structures or concrete roadways. There’s a qualitative, personal aspect of built environments that I think often evades the people who design them.

Marshall McLuhan is famously quoted as saying that the “message is in the medium”. If we were to accept that urban infrastructure is a communicative medium, what is it that we are telling people? Furthermore, are we being empathetic in communicating with them? Are we considering how they feel?

We need the people who design our cities to think long and hard about this. Perhaps they do, but if my surroundings are any indication of empathic design, then they’re failing horribly at implementing it. I’ve been in Kitchener-Waterloo for about a year. I sold my car before I came here and so I’ve spent this past year as a pedestrian, cyclist and transit user. I’ve been trying to walk more, lately, but it’s usually… how should I put it…not the best experience.  I can count on having a negative encounter almost every day. I often feel disregarded, seeing vehicular movement being prioritized at traffic crossings (if anyone gets an advance signal, it should be pedestrians). We have beautiful trails that have no crossing infrastructure when they meet roadways, giving vehicles the right of way while putting trail users in harm’s way as they try to sprint across high traffic roads without being hit. Construction signs regularly obstruct sidewalks with little thought put into a safe detour for pedestrians. We’re bluntly told to “use other sidewalk”. And, at least in those areas there are sidewalks. Not too far from my house, there’s a strip of amenities on a high speed roadway (Victoria Street) that are inaccessible to those without cars. If you can’t afford to drive, it seems your safety and dignity don’t matter. I regularly see people walking on the grass to these amenities as cars speed by. They even have bus stops on this street – I don’t understand what they expect transit users to do when they get off the bus. Occasionally I see people pushing walkers and baby carriages over a muddy lawn that is soon to be covered in snow and ice. And this issue isn’t unique to KW. I saw it all the time in Edmonton when I lived there. I get frustrated by it when I visit my hometown of Saanich, BC.

All of these cities are trying to tout walkability and they haven’t given pedestrians the basic tools to do so. We’re being set up to fail. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Yesterday, I saw that 22 pedestrians were hit by cars in Toronto. IN ONE DAY.

Car culture is injuring and killing Canadians on a regular basis and we do nothing about it. We occasionally get words of condolence, but nothing more. We need to treat this problem with the attention and respect it deserves. We can’t afford more people getting hurt or killed.

Maybe the solution involves having the policy makers and urban designers who build our cities actually try to navigate them as pedestrians. On a regular basis. Perhaps if they walked a mile in our shoes, we’d have the walkable cities they like to talk about and communities that are safe and inclusive for everyone. It’s a matter of life and death. We need action. Now.

UPDATE: Here’s audio from my interview with Eric Drozd on walkability and urban design:

 

Winter, Mental Health and Urban Design: Social connection and Public Spaces

Last week, I had the privilege to do a talk at the Winter Cities Shake-Up. The conference brought together innovative thinkers from all over the world to discuss ways in which we can make the most out of winter. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference and felt that it validated a lot of my feelings around city building in a winter city. One of my favourite moments at the conference was chairing a session in which Gil Penalosa spoke. He’s such an amazing advocate for healthy cities. His 8-80 approach proposes that cities should be designed in a way that is accommodating and liveable for both an 8 year old and 80 year old. If you haven’t seen his work, I’d highly encourage you to visit his website.

My talk focused on winter, mental health and urban design. While I am not an urban planner by training, I believe that occupational therapists are positioned to contribute meaningfully to the conversation on how we build our cities. OTs have a comprehensive  and holistic understanding of health in that we acknowledge the influence the environment can have on well-being. Whereas the traditional medical model sees disability and illness as existing in the person, OTs see illness as a dynamic experience that is influenced by the environments in which we live.

medical-model

The reason I’ve developed such a strong interest in urban design stems from an experience I had working with a client (who I’ll call Philip) who was referred to me because he was experiencing severe depression. Through my conversations with Philip, I learned that he was profoundly lonely. My first thought was to find opportunities for him to connect with others. Using my OT skills I did some community mapping with him. Community mapping involves analyzing and assessing a neighbourhood for the resources and opportunities it has to foster natural connections with others. Philip is on income assistance and the only place he could afford to live was in a group home in the suburbs on the fringe of the city. Through the community mapping process, I soon realized that his neighbourhood had next to no places to meet others. No coffee shops. No libraries. No recreation centres. The only “public space” he had access to was a small park that was a few blocks from his house, which in the winter was barren and uninhabited. Philip was extremely lonely and couldn’t even really do anything about it. He didn’t own a car. He found public transit to be an arduous and lengthy process. He usually got around by walking and his neighbourhood was brutally “unwalkable”.

Through working with Philip, I was witnessing firsthand how urban design was impacting mental health, and since then have had a keen interest in exploring the relationship between design and health outcomes.

My talk at the winter cities was a collection of thoughts around how we can build our cities to support wellness and mental health, particularly in the winters. Winter can be a difficult time for people for a variety of reasons, and it is important to recognize the added challenges it brings (as well as the opportunities it can provide as well).

I thought I’d share some of my thoughts in my next few posts. I’ll be writing about my #lightbrightyeg project in the coming weeks, but in the meantime check out my recent interview on CBC Spark.

Winter and Loneliness

Winter can often keep people indoors and function to further isolate those who already experience significant social exclusion. Social exclusion has been shown to impact both mental and physical health. One study has shown that being excluded activates the same circuits in our brains that physical pain does. Social isolation literally hurts.

Rejectionpage

The other fascinating piece around social connection is that it has been shown to release oxytocin which then triggers the release of serotonin. Interestingly, Philip was on an anti-depressant which was designed to increase the amount of serotonin in his brain… It seems that we are trying to medicate loneliness when we should actually be “prescribing” friendships. Humans evolved living in groups and communal settings. In today’s society, we’ve drifted so far away from that model of living.

Serotonin

Public spaces can function as convenors and meeting places. Places where we can connect with each other and get our necessary doses of feel good chemicals, like serotonin. The issue with winter is that it often drives people indoors, away from others. I think that great winter design would make public spaces easier to access in the winter. I live a block away from Cafe Bicyclette, where they have fire pits on their patio. On a wintry day you can sit outside, enjoy a coffee, and meet some neighbours. It’s a fantastic example of a winter city public space.

bicycette_patio

If you’ve ever taken a walk on Stephen Ave in Calgary, you’ve probably seen the “trees”. Apparently they were designed to reduce wind gusts, which would reduce windchill and get more people outside connecting with each other. Brilliant.

Stephen-Ave-Trees-Szmurlo

My dream is that one day we have outdoor hot tubs for public use in Edmonton’s river valley (if you can help me do this please let me know!!). Research has shown that immersion in warm water releases oxytocin as well. A conversation with someone in a hot tub and you’ve got yourself a good dose of feel good chemicals.

I am hopeful that we are moving in a direction that where we begin to incorporate health into how we design our cities. From my perspective as a health care professional, I see huge potential for urban planning to address some of our most significant health challenges, particularly mental health. I know I’m not alone in thinking this way and would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Feel free to comment below or tweet me!

Combating a Toxic Culture in Edmonton: Some Thoughts on Dr. Gabor Mate’s Wisdom

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to introduce Dr. Gabor Maté. Dr. Maté was in Edmonton to speak as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series. As I had mentioned in my opening speech, I was a little star struck. In my world, Dr. Maté is a bit of a rockstar and it was a little surreal to be able to meet and introduce his talk.

Dr. Maté’s rockstar appeal is no joke. He speaks on topics of addiction and mental health with a fierce passion and has fans across the world. There was so much demand to see Dr. Maté that EPL had to create a second session. Both of his talks revolved around “growing Edmonton with compassion and social inclusion”. EPL was bang on with bringing him to Edmonton to speak on that topic, as I believe it is currently quite relevant to what our City is working towards. It is no surprise that EPL chose to bring him, seeing as how they are a significant forward -thinking social institution in our city. We are very fortunate to have them.

Dr. Maté is gifted in being able to communicate and articulately explain complex topics of brain development, addiction and social policy in ways that are accessible by all who listen. His approach is informative and inspiring. I left his talks energized and excited about how to apply his wisdom to the city-building currently happening in Edmonton.

I can’t do Dr. Maté’s talk justice, but will try to distill some of the key points I took away.

Dr. Maté began his talk with an astute observation: The fact that we need to discuss social inclusion as a construct is a direct indication that we are lacking something that should come naturally to us as humans. I’ll get into this more later on in the post…

Dr. Maté is currently writing a book on the topic of “toxic culture’. His premise is that our society is one that is currently functioning in a way that is toxic to our well-being and health (both physically and psychologically). Our increasing emphasis on capitalism and individualism is taking us away from our inherent need to be social creatures. The construct of money and the impact it has on the stress we experience has proved to be detrimental to our mental health. He believes that issues of mental health and addictions we currently struggle with can be directly tied to early childhood experiences – trauma during early childhood can significantly impact the way the brain develops. Early childhood trauma can lead to emotional pain, which often can be temporarily soothed by engaging in addictive behaviours. Dr. Maté defined an addiction as a behaviour that provides temporary relief or feelings of wellness which we choose to do despite potential harmful consequences.  Dr. Maté did not make the distinction between illegal and legal substances (i.e alcohol vs heroine) or moral or immoral behaviours (i.e “sex addictions” vs “a shopping addiction).  His intention with this approach was to elucidate that we are all not that different – some of us are just more fortunate than others in our society, which is reflected in how we cope. This approach creates space for compassion. Instead of damning those who engage in “socially unacceptable” behaviours, perhaps we could empathize with them from a place of understanding.

Dr. Maté spoke of the sad history of residential schools in Canada. He discussed intergenerational trauma and how the horrible things that happened in previous generations have trickled down and directly affect today’s generation. Acknowledging the impact of trauma on brain development, mental health and addictions, we can begin to understand the significant impact the residential school fiasco has had on generations of Aboriginal people. The issue is not as black and white as many people believe it to be – systemic oppression at the hands of our own Government has led to the complex issues faced by Aboriginals in our country. This cannot and should not be under-emphasized.

If we know what type of child-rearing environments can lead to poor brain development, what environments are supportive? Dr. Maté stated that the ideal environment was that of the “hunter-gatherer” or “tribal” environments.  These tribal conditions provided numerous attachment figures for the child’s developing brain to grow healthily. Contrast that to today, where more often than not, women are over-burdened and expected to raise children on their own – often times in stressful environments where basic needs aren’t met. How are we to expect future generations to be psychologically healthy given what we know about early brain development? Dr. Maté made the salient point that the way Aboriginals in Canada lived prior to colonization was the ideal child-rearing environment. The Western world has done its best to eradicate that lifestyle. Despite this, we have strong and proud Aboriginals who are doing their best to preserve their culture. I witnessed this earlier this year when I attended the Truth and Reconcilation Comission. Perhaps in our process of reconciliation, We can be open to learning from First Nations as well. Their wisdom will be very important not only in the necessary process of reconciliation, but also in our attempt to reconstruct our society to be one that is inclusive and compassionate.

For some time, I have felt that topics of neuroscience and mental health can be applied to city building and so I was compelled to ask Dr. Maté what he thought about the impact of built space and city planning on issues of mental health and healing. I told him about Edmonton’s current growth and the emphasis being put on city planning. Dr. Maté encouraged the building of more common spaces. Creating schools where children, parents and teachers socialized together outside of school time. In his talk, Dr. Maté lamented at the impact that a Wal-Mart had on a community. The associating parking lot took people off the streets (where they would typically have a chance to connect with others). Local businesses, which can also function as community gathering places, are forced to close down. The interior of a Wal-Mart itself isn’t conducive to connection. It is a chaotic environment where people barely engage with each other, let alone treat each other with respect. Just look to the sad state of the Black Friday riots where people have often been trampled in pursuit of a discounted x-box.

How can we apply Dr. Maté’s wisdom to Edmonton? For starters, I would like to acknowledge some of the things we are doing well:

  • Farmer’s Markets. I’ve had the chance to attend many of our fantastic markets and find that they are an amazing space to interact with other members of our community.
  • Increased support of local businesses. We are slowly moving away from our reliance on box stores or chain restaurants. The success of shops like Earth’s General Store or restaurants like Tres Carnales indicate where we want to spend our money.
  • Not to draw on an old slogan, but we do festivals well in Edmonton. Festivals are yet another chance to connect with fellow citizens.
  • The Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty Elimination. Mayor Iveson has made it his priority to address poverty and homelessness. His inspiring introductory remarks at Saturday night’s talk confirmed that he is passionate about addressing these issues.
  • Thinking behind developments like the Blatchford development. It is apparent in the plans we’ve seen so far, that community spaces, store-front shops and sustainable transportation are all prioritized.

Dr.  Maté’s suggestions revolved around the idea that we need more points of connection with others. Opportunities for human connection not only helps support the healthy development of young brains –  it has been well documented that connecting with others releases feel-good neurochemicals and impacts the reward circuitry in our brain. Interestingly enough, the neurotransmitters that are released naturally through human connection (dopamine & serotonin) are the same ones that are targeted by common anti-depressants and psychiatric medications.

Moving forward, what else can we do? Can we intelligently build public spaces that promote connection with others? Can we address the marginalization of particular groups that effectively bars them from social participation? Can we be more neighbourly? Can we make an effort to connect with people we don’t typically connect with? How can we actively practice the compassion that Dr. Maté so eloquently described as the compassion of transformation?

Dr. Maté contends that in practicing the compassion of transformation, we see people not as their “bad” behaviours, but rather who they are as a possibility of love, wholeness and health. That the true nature of human beings is not to condemn one another or engage in war, but rather that our true nature is one of connection and belonging. In our journey to see others in this light, he encourages us to reflect on our own darkness and see that we may not be so different from one another.

Aware of this information, I would encourage you to think of how we can shape both our social and physical world in a way that is conducive and supportive of human connection. How can we actively combat the toxic culture that Dr. Maté speaks of? If we choose to acknowledge and incorporate his wisdom, I believe we have a fair shot at deeply addressing issues of mental health, addiction and poverty in our wonderful city.

If you are interested in engaging in discussion that addresses how our city can affect our well-being, I’d encourage you to come out to a free screening of the documentary Human Scale. The Human Scale discusses how the built city influences human health and well-being. Following the screening, we will be hosting a panel where we engage in a more depth discussion. Get your free tickets here: www.makesomethingedmonton.ca/HumanScale

If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Maté, visit his website: www.drgaborMaté.com

You can find his books at the Edmonton Public Library here