Humanistic Urbanism – staying healthy in the city.

Isthmus creative director David Irwin outlines how using a human-centric approach in urban design can support the needs of a modern world. (Originally published in Idealog #70 Wellness Month).

Cities are systems in which the people are meant to thrive, but Isthmus creative director David Irwin says the design of them is instead accentuating many of the human ailments, such as stress, anxiety and depression. Here, he outlines how using a human-centric approach in urban design can support the needs of a modern world.

The city is where most of us live. A grouping of homes, streets, workplaces. It’s where we bring up our families, where we go to sleep, where we meet our friends. It’s where our loved ones are born and where they die. It’s where we live and because of that, it includes not only the physical aspects of our built world, but the intertwined social aspects of us as people. Yet we are failing to thrive in our cities, our suburbs and in the heart of our central business districts.

Today, our people are crying silently – perhaps being drowned out by the noise and cacophony of city life and 21st century lifestyle. Our people are suffering, with depression and anxiety at unprecedented levels. The city plagues of old have been fixed: the rats are mainly gone, while old diseases have been replaced by new diseases, like overcrowding, damp cold housing and rhematic fever, fixable, if not for our values. Others like anxiety are hidden in our contemporary values, lifestyle and in the loud, confused yet potent rhetoric of today.

I feel we have forgotten who and what we are designing for: tangata, the people, and whenua, our land and environment. We have forgotten the basic needs of who we are as people. We have somehow created a divisive world. By separating the science and the arts and the engineering and the arts, we have stripped bare design to its component parts. In doing so, we are forgetting the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That true understanding is about it all: the physical, the social and the spiritual. We have even forgotten that Maslow’s pyramid of needs he so elegantly drew requires all to be provided, not just the bottom line. That culture further defines and refines those needs, and in doing so, they directly reflect who we are as individuals and as a society.

Today, our lifestyle feels like we are on a perpetual treadmill with no way of getting off. Our cities are noisy to the point of despair. The shiny and new lures us all, while the most basic of needs like shelter is reserved for the privileged. As designers, we seem in desperate need to design for rather than with and appear preoccupied by the ‘thing’ rather than the experience.

We are failing to remember that we are human with human needs. We are social animals with needs, real and complex, and that the environment nourishes our very being.

As designers, we have a responsibility. A responsibility to design for what is best for our planet and for ourselves. I suggest that if we place humans in the centre of these choices, we can design in humanistic way and as a result, we have the opportunity to create a humanistic city. A new humanistic urbanism a place where people can thrive.

In doing this, I think we should start with the home, because this is the centre of a person’s world. It is more than ‘a thing’, it is a feeling and is created by both the social and the physical.  A home is the sanctuary for where people reside and interact, where families live. It is homes that are the building blocks of our city and we need to design for the people within them.

Our homes need to be carefully arranged. Arranged to encourage social interaction, to allow us to connect and protect our families, to allow conversation and sharing to reduce isolation yet provide sanctuary. They need to be laid out so they can work together and have a relationship with one another, whether they are stacked on top of each other as in an apartment or laid down a street in the suburbs. The street, the corridors and the shared spaces have a critical role to play in building our humanistic city. They provide the setting for the conversations to occur between people. It is these conversations that make our city a work, that make it humanistic rather than mechanistic. It is the difference between a street and road, between a box for living and a home and together the difference between a group of individuals and a community.

We are all inextricably linked to nature, it is hardwired within. Our natural environment needs to be healthy for us to be healthy, our wellbeing increases when we are in touch with our natural world. Cities and the systems that control them, such as economics, have trouble balancing these needs. Yet this is the very land we feed our families from, that we build and play on, the air that we breathe and the water we drink. It’s the sun we now hide from, and the moon and the stars that we now need to travel to see clearly.

Our cities, it is said, reflect our values as a society. If we hold up our city as a mirror and look at ourselves, does it reflect our values as a people, does it reflect our culture? Here is the challenge for us as design community. We all have a leadership role to play – whether we are designing the cups that go on the dining room table or the houses we hope to call a home, or the streets we share with our neighbours – everything needs to place people in the centre.

When we place humanism in the centre of our design world, our vocabulary, both visual and verbal, will change, our aesthetic lens will change and as a result our city will change. It will be more human, and we will feel more at home, more grounded and at ease. Our reflection will be our own.

We will have created a humanistic urbanism that not only reflects who we are but makes us better in the process. It is a design problem that we all have responsibility to act on and in doing so, we can make our cities better places.