City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Ljusterö 20 July 2020

Defunding not only the police, but the hospital and social services too; cooks as health workers, police as care workers; a city of gardens promotes care and repair

The bushfires, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter combined have not only pulled focus onto the deep economic and political fractures in our patterns of living, but also the material reality they are embedded in, such as schools, farms, ports, homes, offices, shops, railways, streets, and the technologies that manifest themselves in these environments. In each of these places, 2020’s unfurling roll call of disruptive events has forced a pause, and sometimes a reset of sorts. Combined, they could describe very different kinds of public life, different social infrastructures and technologies, within different environments. Therefore they may suggest, even necessitate, quite different emphases within design practice.

That all this turbulence plays out on the street, amongst those other places, is telling. The virus cleared the street of cars, enabling biodiversity to spring back, at least briefly. Then Black Lives Matter filled the street with politics, reminding us that it is about public life and what we stand for as a species; it is not a mere road. Neither of those things are about form, but they are absolutely about our living environment, about values, and about public life. This is what streets are about, and given that they are designed — as are these other places — this is what design is about.

As Kieran Long writes: “We see in our public buildings and spaces (our park benches and metro trains; a hot dog kiosk and a monument to the dead) what we are made of. Design can not avoid this assignment — it either embraces the task, or it unwittingly displays, or even conceals, society’s prejudices and weaknesses.”

Sometimes, this broader purpose is inadvertently made clear as clear as day, if we are looking for patterns, and not simply in the social infrastructure of park benches, but in the architecture of our public services.

‘Stunning mural of George Floyd provides community ‘a place to process’, Pioneer Press, 30 May 2020

The architecture of this system

In an emotional New York Times interview in August, reflecting on the broader context around the killing of George Floyd, the mayor of Minneapolis Jacob Frey described how he can’t remove police “due to issues with both contract and arbitration.” Frey lamented that he is “hamstrung by the architecture of this system that prevents change.”

Frey’s phrase, “hamstrung by the architecture of this system” indicates that we might focus our sense of progress not on economic growth or cost-effective police, but on the social infrastructures that trace, shape, and direct our patterns of living and structure of feeling. That is where design can be most powerful, increasingly — in understanding that built architecture and social architecture are the same thing, joined at the hip. And therefore, the linked questions of safety, crime, and social justice, for instance, can be hosted and pursued by design practices.

Of course this isn’t easy. And yet the heightened sensibilities due to current events make quite radical proposals at least possible. Indeed, as I started writing this set of Papers, the Minneapolis city council pledged to dismantle the city’s police department and replace it with a new system of public safety, promising to invest instead in finding “non-police solutions to the problems poor people face.”

This suggests a shift of emphasis towards creating and nurturing places and communities that intrinsically reduce and avoid harm, rather than reacting when harm happens. Better still, using the language of mental health and wellbeing, producing places and communities that enable people to thrive, moving into promotion beyond prevention. For example, this would be akin to designing streets that are intrinsically healthy, sustainable, vibrant, open, and diverse in the first place.

Upstream, Dan Heath (2020)

Dan Heath’s book ‘Upstream’ indicates the broader value of prevention rather than cure, in investing in preventing crimes and illnesses which subsequently cost vast amounts to society, in numerous ways. The book was written upstream of COVID-19, as it happens, but turns out to be useful in understanding many aspects of why the USA’s healthcare system is both as unnecessarily expensive as it is hopelessly inadequate. Heath describes how the $3.5 trillion health care industry, almost a fifth of the American economy, is “designed almost exclusively for reaction … It’s hard to find someone in the system whose job it is to address the question ‘How do we make you healthier?’” As he points out, “We spend billions to recover from hurricanes and earthquakes while disaster preparedness work is perpetually starved for resources.”

In this sense, we can file COVID-19 alongside hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, in revealing an endemic lack of ‘disaster preparedness’. The virus’s ability to locate and exploit the weak points in our systems is particularly obvious in a nation rendered fundamentally unhealthy (and for the USA, see also the UK.)

More broadly, this funding and focus on the reactive ‘hospital end of things’, rather a proactive addressing the root cause of why people might end up in hospitals, has been a debate for decades, clearly, and continues to be so. Ever since the American-Israeli medical sociologist Aaron Antonofsky articulated the notion of salutogenesis (as opposed to pathogenesis) in the 1980s, we have had a ‘new way of seeing’ at hand. Yet little has been done to truly absorb these principles into the multiple arena it would apply, and thus health is still pinned as a downstream practice, rather than upstream. This makes healthcare itself ultimately unsustainable in welfare states like the Nordic countries, just as much as it is already broken in countries who attempt to fund healthcare privately and individually, rather than collectively.

The question of shifting upstream applies both within the health sector—Gillian Tett noting that “We need to treasure — and fund — medical innovation, not just in a crisis but in “normal” times as well”—as well as without, including the broader public health concerns, often positioned outside of the formal healthcare sector, as well as within those sectors whose decisions and actions fundamentally produce good or bad health. These include the obvious candidates of transport, urban planning, employment legislation, architecture, education, food, social services, and so on, yet there are very few areas of government or sectors of industry that have no impact on health. Yet most are run as if this is not the case at all; thus, the healthcare industry has to pick up the pieces ‘downstream’. It will be interesting to see if we manage to invest the 2% of COVID-19’s economic damage required to prevent future viruses.

Antonofsky‘s core idea was that we should address what causes health and wellbeing (salutogenesis), not what are the reasons for disease (pathogenesis). Under the current circumstances, we might equally ask what causes the coronavirus (see Slowdown Paper 2: We make the virus and the virus makes us), not simply how do we make a vaccine. We might also ask what causes crime, not simply how big is our police station.

The Black Lives Matter protests have placed this question of ‘upstream’ strategy and policy directly on the table, yet framed through the question of policing, rather than healthcare per se—although of course public health and community resilience are intrinsically linked. The potentially radical moves to ‘defund the police’ in Minneapolis and elsewhere, triggered by the actions on the street, are entirely in this ‘upstream’ direction. Similarly, the traffic-oriented moves to transform the street itself—in fact, to repair the street—are triggered by actions to mitigate COVID-19. This is also in this upstream direction.

The transformation of housing, education, physical activity, community clubs and societies, and social services are all upstream targets, if addressed coherently and ethically. The revisioning of policing itself is of course radically upstream. These all in turn suggest, and even demand, a radical revisioning of design at some point: around relational principles, around care and repair, around a deeper examination, and then articulation, of the value we are producing, and the values we stand for. We cannot defund the police unless we redesign the environment that fundamentally produces crime, whether social, cultural and political, or the built fabric that enshrines, enables, or engenders these things.

This does not mean that design is the sole answer to the question of how we defund the police. Any chance to prick the last remaining shreds of hubris around ‘design thinking’ must still be taken, clearly, and no doubt some will be too quick to claim this is all a design problem. That must be resisted, as there are no doubt more fundamental approaches required. Listening to Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and William Finnegan on the role of the police unions around the NYPD makes that crystal clear. Similarly, no amount of restorative landscape design can counterpoint punishing working hours; a holistic answer includes the wellbeing benefits of a shorter working week, as well as environmental improvements.

Remember “The designer’s share”. From Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World’ (1973). Of course, it may be that this small dark tip is crucial to unlocking some aspect of what Papanek draws as ‘The real problem’. Interconnectedness means that parts of this triangle are rarely mutually exclusive in reality. Still, it behooves designers to have a healthier respect for the very real limits of design, and for the possibility in other disciplines.

In terms of unlocking the idea of defunding the police, removing the barriers that Lightfoot and Finnegan discuss, providing meaningful pursuits (gainful employment or otherwise, with working practices and patterns that nurture, care, support, and develop), delivering good quality and universally accessible lifelong learning, public health, social services—all of these interventions will mean rather more than environmental design, even if the latter is also a strong contributor to lower crime.

Most obviously of all, and most politically difficult of all, reforming gun laws will make the greatest difference. Disarm the populace and you can defund the police. The problem of a country that had 400 million private-owned guns in it before 2020, and still witnessed unprecedented growth in firearm sales this year, is well beyond a ‘design challenge’.

Broken windows got broke

Yet design, given its fundamental shaping of the infrastructures and environments of everyday life, must certainly be part of the answer. This approach to addressing social justice through environmental means has deep, if complex, roots. Criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey, who developed Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), suggested “There are no criminals, only environmental circumstances which result in criminal behaviour. Given the proper environmental structure, anyone will be a criminal or a noncriminal.”

CPTED emerged alongside the ‘Defensible Space’ theories of Oscar Newman in the 1970s, and both helped shape the ‘Broken Windows’ approach of the 1980s onwards, extolled and perhaps exaggerated by Harvard professor James Q. Wilson, and implemented across the USA (most famously under Commissioner William Bratton at LAPD and NYPD). Yet the social and political context these theories emerged often led to missteps, inadvertent or otherwise — CPTED was associated with creating gated communities, whereas ‘Broken Windows’ often ended up being implemented as ‘Stop and Frisk’ (often illegally in New York) amongst many other problematic law enforcement practices, and its focus on quotas and statistics being an object lesson in data-gathering dangerously driving behaviour.

Michael Sorkin pauses to note Newman’s work in his book, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan:

“Ignoring the possibility that social pathologies were not produced by, but came to be warehoused in, typical public housing towers, Newman proposed a physical solution that could be brought about by establishing clear proprietorship of space, eliminated ill-defined (and non-maintained) public areas and replacing them with private yards and more visibly structured environments.”

Sorkin was referencing Newman’s work after seeing how it was interpreted at Washington Square in Manhattan, where the concept of defensible space “quickly morphed into a more general vision of the control of political miscreants via the construction of a fence designed to keep them out.”

In an article for De Correspondent, Rutger Bregman points out that fixing actual broken windows would clearly be beneficial, yet the way that Broken Windows theory was implemented has been responsible, as much as anything, for the severe breakdown in relationships between law enforcement and minorities; “Broken windows, broken lives” was the slogan of protestors across the USA in 2014. The practice has been largely discredited by thorough research, as Bregman’s article describes, yet culturally, it still informs much of how the concept of police is articulated, in the USA in particular.

It’s also worth simply reflecting on the implicit violence in the phrases ‘broken windows’ and ‘defensible space’. No amount of well-meaning urban design theory will survive its first contact with a culture of violence, inequality and individidualism, unless it is explicitly crafted to address these dynamics. In these cultures, the instinct is to lead with ‘the police end’ of the problem.

This is not simply a North American issue; Elhadi Abass, one of the residents in the Melbourne social housing blocks locked down, wonders why “the government sent 500 police to the towers instead of 500 nurses. The British Conservative Party has a particularly sadistic fondness for expressing such ‘police-end’ policy measures in nakedly violent terms. It remains extraordinary to me that any contemporary politician — a Prime Minister, even — could come up with a policy called Hostile Environment. But then this is a party which produced a previous Prime Minister who issued the memorable phrase “Society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less.” Messages like this are deliberately broken windows, and lead straight to the “bring back law and order/your suburbs will burn” rhetoric that Nixon deployed in 1968 and Trump is deliberately conjuring now.

Ed. For similar themes, see also my write-up of the Postopolis 2009 event we did featuring Michael Downing, Deputy-Chief of Counter-Terrorism for LAPD. That summary delves into these issues from the point-of-view of the LAPD itself, including the possibility of an urban design wing for the LAPD.  The discussion also happens to capture the militarisation of the police occurring at that point.

Today’s social backdrop of Black Lives Matter represents a far more ambitious and progressive impulse than that found in the period bookended by early 1980s politics through to the Bloomberg administration of New York in the early 2000s. Jeffrey’s words about the influence of “environmental structure” have at least a chance of reinterpretation in this contemporary context, learning from previous implementation errors and motivated by a now-mainstream fight for social justice.

Put simply, we may not need much in the way of a police force if we produce an environment that does not generate crime — if, by “environment”, we understand the true context we live with and within, including social services, employment patterns, education, food, public heath, cultural production, and environmental qualities and so on. Places always need some form of police, clearly, but in most countries there exists the potential for a radical reduction in number, presence, and cost of policing by taking apart a crime-generating environment. (In the USA, over 650 urban planners recently signed a letter in favour of their professional body supporting moves to defund the police, making clear the responsibility that urban planning’s design decisions has had, and must have, in this regard.)

Similarly, any contemporary society will always need hospitals, of course. But we would need far fewer if we produce an environment that does not actively make us unhealthy. Radically alleviating the heaviest weight on most of our public healthcare systems would enable entirely new models for public health, shifting the dynamic from the large, expensive centralised hospital model towards distributed public health practices embedded in neighbourhoods. It is not only ethically sound — though this should surely be enough — to shift emphasis towards landscapes of care, but it also far more effective, and quite possibly more cost-effective. In my current home, such moves would enable us to continue with the welfare state that has defined its identity.

Even before COVID-19 hit the UK, poor diet was responsible for 90,000 deaths annually and cost the NHS £6bn a year. And then when the pandemic does hit, we discover that obesity appears to exacerbate the effects of the virus—in fact making death 48% more likely—as does poor air quality. Even the industrial aspects of unhealthy food appear to hasten the spread of the virus.

Author of a recent report for the UK Environment Secretary, Leon restaurants co-founder Henry Dimbleby revealed widespread public support for state intervention to improve diets, adding: “It seems clear that the state has the moral authority to intervene in people’s lives to help them eat better, especially given the terrible costs that diet-related disease imposes on our society.”

Moving upstream would enable that £6bn per year to be deployed towards better diets rather than stomach staples, surgery, and years of medication.

Yet the UK government seems keen on dismantling the body responsible for public health, and especially preventative health, in England at least. During August, it was announced that Public Health England would be dissolved, in favour of a body focused more directly on pandemics. Various respected public health experts believe this is precisely the wrong thing to do:

Rather than focus on the environmental generators of poor health, and invest in countermeasures such as healthy, resilient living environments, the UK government seems determined to do the opposite. As noted in the Papers casebook ‘Clear skies, full parks, can’t lose’, British parks are being ‘defunded’, as are other leisure facilities:

“Community Leisure UK, the members’ association that specialises in representing charitable leisure and culture trusts across England, Scotland and Wales, estimate that 48% of all public leisure facilities are at risk of permanent closure by the end of 2020, with potentially 1300 sites at risk and over 58,000 job losses. 20% of the UK’s swimming pools could close for good over the next six months.”— ‘The government must act now to save our leisure industry’, 7 August 2020

It’s not all bad news. The UK government also announced the creation of a new body for active transport, Active Travel England, with a £2 billion budget. This is a game-changer in the UK, a more coherent attempt to transform mobility, and environments, in favour of walking and cycling (and other active forms.) Yet as Feargus O’Sullivan notes, the allocated budget still reveals where the government’s priorities lie:

“A promise of £2 billion over five years might seem huge in a country where, in the English section of the U.K., only 2% of all journeys take place by bike. But to put it in context, that figure still comes in at £500 million less than what the U.K. government has already committed to spending on filling potholes alone during the same period, while the government is also going ahead with a £27 billion road-building scheme.”—Feargus O’Sullivan, ‘Britain Is Creating a Government Organization Devoted to Biking and Walking’, Bloomberg CityLab, 29 July 2020

Still, despite the dissolution of Public Health England, this Active Travel England organisation could clearly unlock upstream moves around health, climate and social justice. It has this potential, at least.

Prisons and police stations

Rutger Bregman’s article is equally focused on the Norwegian approach to prisons, and paints a compelling portrait of their approach, noting that spending more on the prison environment — again, in the richest sense of the word — actually saves society money in the long-term, as well as being more humane. Why? Because Norwegian prisons take care for their prisoners. Not simply because that may be an ethical position, which it is, but also because this is more effective in terms of reducing repeat offenders. Norway has the lowest recidivism rate in the world, meaning:

“The number of victims goes down, which is priceless. Conclusion? Even using conservative estimates, the Norwegian prison system pays for itself more than two times over. Norway’s approach isn’t some naive, socialist aberration. It’s a system that’s better, more humane and less expensive.”—Rutger Bregman

Norway has moved the idea of prison upstream, preventing problems occurring at source, deriving multiple forms of value downstream. In contrast, the USA has amongst the highest recidivism rates in the world, with 60% of inmates back in prison within two years. Again, a holistic approach to environment, with an upstream dynamic and a sensibility of care, is both ethical and effective. The idea of prison itself is taken apart, in this way, and put back together in a very different form.

Photographs by Knut Egil​ Wang, Halden Prison, Norway, 2014. From Here’s a radical idea that will change policing, transform prisons and reduce crime: treat criminals like human beings’, Rutger Bergman, The Correspondent, 31 July 2020

Norway also shows that interventions cannot be just at ‘the prison end of the problem’. Bregman describes the “long tradition of community policing (in Norway), a strategy that assumes most folks are decent, law-abiding citizens. Officers work to win community trust, informed by the idea that if people know you, they’ll be more likely to help out. Neighbours will give more tips, and parents will be quicker to call if their child seems to be heading down the wrong path.”

Studio Gang’s ‘Polis’ proposal for Chicago indicates a similar approach to policing, and the physical and social manifestation of the police station itself—converting the station house, the ‘police station end of the problem’. The station house, as a building, is traditionally seen by many (most?) in the city as a place of detention, fear, and intimidation and perhaps only on occasion protection—yet protection is a ‘downstream’ dynamic. Gang’s proposal was to take apart the police house as an archetype (as Norway took apart the prison) and transform it into into a community centre, with recreational facilities for young people. From the Studio Gang site:

“Polis Station proposes reframing police stations as sites of social connection and services that together offer a holistic, community-centered approach to public safety. It lays out a series of physical and programmatic steps that can be taken to adapt the existing infrastructure of police station buildings to become civic assets that support new, community-based models for public safety. It also illustrates how these opportunities can expand throughout a neighborhood to form a network of recreational, educational, entrepreneurial, and green spaces that support a healthier and safer community.”—Studio Gang

Polis Station self-initiated research project, by Studio Gang

In an interview at Curbed, Jeanne Gang describes how the starting point was a set of typically abstract policy proposals.

“A report came out in May from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing … We looked at the pillars outlined in the report. The recommendations and policy ideas didn’t have anything spatial in there, nothing about architecture. But they all seemed like things we could amplify with design. Number one was building trust and legitimacy; how do you create community and more overlap between officers and the communities they’re serving? The document set things up for us. We put a full team on it, an urban planner and a couple of designers, and they’ve been working on it since June. It would have been a lot harder without the report”—Jeanne Gang, Curbed

As she implies, the architect’s role can be to transform at least some of these ‘pillars’ into something more tangible; and particularly, physical, spatial and social. In doing so, by literally making the proposal, it also reveals how hard this transformation is. As Donella Meadows once said, “there are no cheap tickets” to finding leverage points a priori—you have to throw yourself into it.

Eric Klinenberg, whose work has often been based in, and on, Chicago, mentions the Polis concept, in his Palaces for the People.

“The Polis station would include many of the social infrastructures whose benefits we’ve seen in previous chapters: a barbershop, a café and restaurant, a well-groomed park and playground, a community garden, a gymnasium, and a communal lounge with free Wi-Fi, all of which would be open to police offers and citizens alike. In places with more land available, Gang’s designs include police housing, libraries and computer labs, counseling centers, and places of worship as well.”—Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People (2018)

Polis Station self-initiated research project, by Studio Gang

Klinenberg also describes how, in reality, this grand concept has ended up as a converted parking lot becoming a basketball court in North Lawndale, adjacent to the police station house, at least thus far. As Klinenberg reports, “it’s a modest but successful project … a place that local youths use often, and each time they visit, the officers who work there become a little more familiar, a little less threatening.”

Pointing out this minimal interpretation of the concept in reality is not intended as a criticism. Jeanne Gang’s presence and influence in Chicago, and elsewhere, means the concept will have repeated chances of being implemented. The basic question of the role and impact of the police station, will now be asked repeatedly. Equally, rather than a single building, the diagrams by Studio Gang indicate precisely the approach I’ll describe as ‘small pieces loosely joined’, busting open the building to produce a distributed network across the landscape, an additive impact produced by multiple interventions. As such, it can be built in stages, and the basketball court may be a perfect place to start.

Yet perhaps a key addition to the Polis design strategy would be a sense of how a project can start small whilst articulating a bold vision and placing emphasis on building iteratively over time. That means sketching out not the end point, but the likely step-by-step trajectories, and how value might accrete—and indeed be challenged—as the project evolves. Jeanne Gang hints at this kind of ‘minimum viable intervention’ approach, as she describes how they helped get the court delivered:

“We pitched the idea to the city and asked what was the easiest thing we could do. We want to make a basketball court where kids and community members can have interactions with the police. Police are often asked to be coaches for local teams, but they often live far away, so they have to do it on their time off. It’s difficult for them to engage. What if we put a court right at the station, in the parking lot, so police could shoot hoops with kids after school? Kids would feel safe there, and parents would feel safe having their kids play there. I call our practice actionable idealism. We’re idealistic — we can’t help being that, we’re designers. But actionable means we want to do it, even if it’s the first little step, and we try to move it forward.”

In other words, how to get from a basketball court to the fullness and richness of the diagram above in reality? An adaptive strategy would provide a set of graspable handholds. Again, this is one of the advantages of the ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ approach described later—over and above a grand projets sensibility—and certainly would be on Studio Gang’s agenda; yet it’s missing somewhat from the project descriptions.

Farmers and cooks are health workers

Every aspect of our collective technologies plays a part in an upstream vision. And by technology we can mean social infrastructures and environments, as much as those things associated with the word ‘tech’. A police station is a form of technology, just as much as a black-and-white, a police scanner, or a faulty facial recognition system. Each can produce health, justice, and resilience—or not.

What if school food was seen as health care? What if transforming streets into community-owned productive gardens and meadows can be seen as healthcare as well as agriculture and culture? More prosaically, what if the street-scale community fridges that have emerged in New York, in response to the coronavirus exacerbating existing social injustice were not a sticking plaster over a broken, collapsing system but a purposeful element of ‘public luxury’, the beginnings of a new shared food system, as a form of public health as well as circular practices?

Södertälje’s forward-thinking school food programme is recognised globally

Many leading food analysts recognise that we have made food too cheap, and yet broader issues of social justice and economy mean poor people still have poor diets. The only way out of this fix might be to recognise that food today is not really about sustenance and nutrition; food is about social justice and culture, but also health and environment, which means we must recognise that farmers, food retailers, local cooks, delivery bike-riders are all health workers, amongst other things.

In this way, following upstream logic within a slowdown dynamic, we might move funding from public health to public food — or rather, recognise that public food is public health.

Ed. This thought is derived from missions we are leading in Sweden around public food, such as school food in the first instance.

Similarly, given that growing food also produces green space, Klinenberg writes:

“The evidence that vibrant green places promote health by reducing stress, especially amongst the most vulnerable, is hard to ignore.” — Eric Klinenberg, ‘Palaces for the People’ (2018)

And yet we do just that — we ignore it.

Few places, if any, are genuinely orienting their planning and design cultures around vibrant socially-diverse super-green and biodiverse places, with the production of health as the primary outcome alongside other co-benefits. We have so much evidence to support this reorientation. I’m collating this research for the Vinnova-led Street missions here in Sweden, which I’ll share more broadly soon. But for example, the opening paragraphs of this single paper — “Perceived species-richness in urban green spaces: Cues, accuracy and well-being impacts” — lists numerous forms of psychological, physical, and social wellbeing that would be generated, or promoted, by transforming our living environments with ‘salutogenetic’ approaches to health in mind.

During the summer of the virus, I find myself browsing scientific papers peppered with phrases like the “passive recovery of the herbaceous layer is possible at large scales following invasive species removal”. I hammer the UCL library and discover research papers on the restorative effect of biodiversity, the value of wildflowers and meadows, the relevance to birdsong, the calming impact of touching plants, the value of allotments and community gardens, the phenomenology of outdoor exercise, the effects of air pollution on individual psychological distress, the relationship between environmental pollution and risk of psychotic disorders, the wonder of weedscapes, the long-lasting benefits of nature on mental well-being, the experience of nature for those with sight impairment, how natural-enriched environments lead to enhanced environmental engagement and altered neurobiological resilience, the salutogenic effects forests on the integrity of the amygdala and brain structure, how visual contact with nature positively impacts on health and wellbeing, the potential for positive anti-inflammatory effects and mental health and other symptom amelioration via microbiota potentially linked to experiencing biodiverse soil and how urban habitat restoration provides a human health benefit through microbiome rewilding ‘naturally’ increasing immunity, insect abundance and diversity in grass-free lawns in urban environments; pollinator diversity and plant-pollinator interactions in urban green spaces, how reduced car noise will reduce mental stress, chronically noisy urban form likewise, or negative impact on the amydala from the urban environment generally … (and there is so much more like this, with good highly readable guides like Losing Eden: Why our minds need the wild by Lucy Jones and The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith as alternatives to the academic studies.)

Losing Eden: Why our minds need the wild by Lucy Jones and The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith

This research linked to above is the tip of the iceberg, and only relates to a narrow slice of the environment and health crossover. (It gets nowhere near other impacts yet, such as that of car tyre microplastics on the environment, humans and nonhumans, for example.)

Transforming those research insights into interventions would enable us to explore how these potential benefits are latent within our living environments, potentially simply waiting to be unlocked. And with care-ful design, the same interventions prompted by these research findings can also deliver for social justice, cultural expression, convivality and trust, and so on.

Yet seeing the street as a place that generates health, as opposed to diminishing it, would mean conceiving of transport planners as health workers too — as well as seeing them as social services workers, gardeners, artists, and more besides.

In reality, of course, this means recognising that diverse, vibrant, green streets require a multi-disciplinary approach to design and governance, with diverse, vibrant, green teams responsible for them, capable of producing multiple outcomes out of these ‘everyday complex’ systems. (Again, Papanek’s ‘minimal design team’ is a good start, or the city design and delivery teams I sketched out here.) In making that paradigm shift, much else would follow.

Victor Papanek’s ‘minimal design team’ (from Design for the Real World, 1971)

But again, few places are doing this. Look at the recently proposed Santa Monica budget, for example. Santa Monica is a very wealthy city, by US standards at least. It was apparently an innovative city too, with its ‘Wellbeing Index’ winning the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge recently. It is certainly no Flint, Michigan. But perhaps even the wealthiest US cities are now, to twist Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, ‘Getting to Flint’. So, even pre-COVID, Santa Monica is apparently having to cut its budgets significantly.

And what is it cutting precisely? Anything that might be described as upstream, or preparing for social infrastructures and landscapes of care. As Sascha Haselmayer describes in a breakdown of the proposal:

“A look at the budget cuts reveals that the wellbeing index and associated measures will be ended. This includes parks & recreations offerings, Vision Zero, safe routes to school, and active ageing programs. In addition, almost the entirety of city sustainability efforts will be eliminated (construction, planning, waste, electric vehicles, lighting upgrades, public tree planting) … Public transit will be reduced by 30% with 55% of bus routes experiencing service cuts and 20% getting eliminated entirely. Importantly, grants to community organizations, after school programs for children and youth and 75% of library programming, and culture will be cut as well as diversity and other housing support programs.”—Sascha Haselmayer

Santa Monica is cutting almost all the initiatives one would file under a programme of care, addressing climate, health, and social justice. It is not cutting its police budget, despite the recent ‘defund the police’ movements, at time of writing.

Ed. Months later, Bloomberg reports that few cities are genuinely cutting their police budgets at all, with most in fact rising. New York made a hefty cut, but "More than half of cities are boosting police spending or keeping it the same from the last fiscal year."

Cities everywhere, not just in the USA, are now facing difficult decisions. (The USA may be in a particularly bad way, not just in the municipal budgets illustrated below, but also across state government finances.) The short-termist nature of the decision-making—which may mitigate against care, repair, and upstream thinking—is not helped by the speed of the virus’s impact. In this context, and that of a shrinking New York now shrinking faster, it is hard to see how New York is going to afford its USD 10 billion flood water infrastructures any time soon. (“The Great Recession was a story of long, drawn-out fiscal pain — this is sharper,” said Howard Chernick, a professor emeritus of economics at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, who worked on the analysis published in the New York Times, estimating revenue shortfalls for 150 major cities across the nation.)

From ‘The Recession Is About to Slam Cities. Not Just the Blue-State Ones’, Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui, New York Times, 17 August 2020

“The injustices of our time are the product of design. Our societies are built on systems of racism and inequity that deeply impact every part of our lives. Design upholds many facets of systemic oppression — from the shape of our built environment to our most mundane interactions. We are in a design emergency and in need of a new vision. How might we center acts of care as a primary mode of design practice and as a form of political action?” — Alice Grandoit, co-founder of Deem Journal and LinYee Yuan, co-founder and editor of MOLD magazine

This new vision, centred around care as Grandoit and Yuan suggest, is possible to sketch out now because of these design(ed) emergencies. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Hope in the Dark, “Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibilities are sisters.”

Deem Journal

Yet a truly resonant vision may only emerge if we can pick apart the emergencies from their symptoms, move past the obvious dangers towards the deeper possibilities. Just as a continental scale bushfire didn’t exactly grab global attention, the pandemic COVID-19 may well end up being a mere footnote to the broader crises it is an expression of. It is a terrible footnote nonetheless, just as the bushfires were, but still only a brief attention-grabbing episode within these broader interlinked crises of climate, health, and social justice. This will take work, focus, care, and agility—the kind of attributes rarely kicking around in Acceleration-mode, but perhaps possible in a culture of Slowdown.

The mayoral candidate and activist Nikkita Oliver says, “It’s one thing to take a space, it’s another thing to turn a space into something functional that actually serves the community”.

Nikkita Oliver, from ‘Building People Power”: Nikkita Oliver on Seattle’s Extraordinary Protests and What Comes Next’, Jacob Uitti, Vanity Fair, 11 June 2020

Indeed, the Black Lives Matter protests in the street are the first necessary, brave, and meaningful step, yet the journey to a different destination for black people is longer, more arduous, and more fundamentally challenging. Without intensive focus, our response to emergencies can express themselves in ‘pop up’ mode, and as Bryan Boyer wrote, “pop-ups pop down”. Our attention can flit from bushfire to virus, from virus to Black Lives Matter, and then to whatever’s next.

The aviation industry is grounded, but not as a result of attempting to address its numerous ways of damaging the atmosphere; its engines lie silent due to obvious knee-jerk reaction, rather than environmentally-minded intention. Thus, it is likely to be rebooted as it was before, rather than emerging with the goal of flying within planetary boundaries, as it were.

Similarly, the conservative Australian government made childcare free during the first wave of COVID-19. This was an unthinkable act for that administration before the virus. Yet the government was forced into making childcare free simply in order to enable the country to respond, rather than through any sense of an improved social infrastructure, increased wellbeing or care. Yet here is the Australian prime minister referring to the childcare policy being dismantled a few weeks later, denying that this sustainable model for childcare used in numerous countries is in fact not a sustainable model for childcare at all:

“That is not a sustainable model for how the childcare sector should work, and nor was it intended to be. And so at this point no final decision has been made on those issues. But the intention was always to return to the payment arrangements and subsidy arrangements that had been put in place prior to those things coming into effect.”—Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister

In the UK, the government briefly took a Finland-style ‘housing first’ approach to homelessness, funding local councils to give homeless people a home and thus solving the a previously intractable problem within days. That funding for the rough sleepers’ emergency scheme did not last either. (New Zealand also took a similar approach, “the closest New Zealand had come in modern times to ensuring everyone had shelter”, with similarly fragile foundations.)

The policymaker’s hand was forced by events, in each case, and so each action is being reversed, as soon as the opportunity arises. Each was a form of ‘pop up’ policy, essentially, merely scratching the surface of the deeper paradigms it was briefly propped up on, and thus they are tactical moves that can be easily ‘gamed’ by apparent orthodoxies. None of them was a true refocusing in terms of care for humans and nonhumans.

These sort of decisions do not stick essentially because the mental models, the paradigms Meadows wrote about, have not changed. Finland’s policy for homelessness is a kind of ‘upstream’ strategy of giving the homeless a home, and so removing homelessness. It is well-known by policymakers, has been researched in depth, and proven be successful not only ethically and socially, but also to be the most cost-effective way of dealing with homelessness. Yet that evidence simply bounces off the hardened ideological shells that conservative politicians tend to wear.

To illustrate quite how far we have to go, note the especially confronting fact that resource-heavy Canada and Australia are using the opportunity of COVID-19 to “cut green tape”. The apparent need to restart ‘yesterday’s economy’ means that Alberta can remove environmental monitoring requirements, for instance. These authorities must have a very different idea of COVID-19 to that of the WHO, who posit multiple clear links between environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and zoonotic diseases.

These situations indicate how easily core paradigms can be left unchallenged, even given the context of a global pandemic.

For police to be de-funded as police and re-funded as care-workers, as best we can, will take a fundamental shift in values and mental models. It will be incredibly difficult for politicians to move funding and focus away from hospitals and drugs and towards food, streets, and education instead, no matter how intrinsically sensible it might be. Where can we start rebuilding around upstream thinking and practice, moving away from downstream sticking plaster solutionism?

This is a completely different form of community, formed through different practices of design, and otherwise. In Ezio Manzini’s Politics of the Everyday (2019) we get a sense of this:

“Voluntary, light, open communities, in which the individuality of each member is balanced with the desire to do something together; fluid communities, without which there is only the solitude of connected individuality ore a reactionary attempt to reproduce the closed identitarian communities of the past, which, even supposing they were once so appealing, were certainly part of a past that cannot return … The list of possible pejorative agents could go on, and here we need this reminder to make it clear that when we have an experience like this, we must be well aware that we are in the midst of something that is as precious as it is fragile. We must nurture it, with a care that comes from everybody interested.”

Ed. A subsequent paper, 31. Tilling the soil for slow growth, explores some the decision-making cultures required to sidestep these more intransigent paradigms.

Next: 27. Events are not enough
Previous: 25. Slowdown landscapes: Building blocks for care and repair of the city
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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