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The Conscious City

Posted by on August 15th, 2017 · Cities, Data, Planning, Wellbeing

Image credit: Emily Mitchell

By Greg Paine and Susan Thompson, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney.

The city is a complex place.  It is hard to unpack all of the components that make up the enormity of the city phenomenon.  To help make sense of it all, characterising the city in particular ways can assist.

For example, we can conceive of the city as a mechanical entity.  That’s all about the pipes and wires, roads, rail and other infrastructure that keep the whole thing running.  Today this also includes the high-tech communications which have become so fundamental, and which in turn can lead to more efficient and responsive infrastructure management – the ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ city.

And then there is the city as an ecological / human habitat.  This is about aligning urban areas with biological organisms, requiring careful husbandry of the natural and social systems to ensure sustainability.  A further conceptualisation is the city as a system – a hub of flows and connections.  This view draws on the (not entirely achieved) promise of General Systems Theory from the 1970s as a framework to deal with problems composed of myriad, intricately linked components.

And then, perhaps more familiar in these neo-liberalist times, is the city as an economic engine, driving national GNP through ever expanding global link-ups.  A recent variation (the ‘creative city’) accommodates the role of the ‘creative class’ in this process.

Finally, we can even label the city as ‘pathology’.  This recognises the relationship between city form and human health.  The harmful health impacts of people living in close proximity are now largely resolved in respect to communicable diseases but still require attention in respect of the newer cohort of chronic, so-called ‘lifestyle’, diseases.

All of these characterisations are useful in their own, albeit sectorial, way.  And so too is a relatively new concept – the ‘conscious city’, informed by its own manifesto, and complemented by a concurrent cross-disciplinary grouping interested in the intersection of urban design and mental health.

The conscious city draws on evolving attributes of the contemporary milieu:

  • our ability – and propensity – to be infinitely connected between each other – both in person and via technology, and with our environment;
  • our ability to collect, analyse and interpret the traces (‘data’) of those connections, large and small, and then use them as a city-shaping resource;
  • the ability of neurological research to map our brain and body functions as we experience, think about, make decisions, and act on those connections.

These new understandings and abilities are being used in various ways.

One is to focus on the mental health implications of the ways in which we design and construct our cities.  This is an aspect of how our health and wellbeing can be supported or inhibited by city shape and city management.

Another is broader, and more difficult to pin down.  This is where the mapping of brain and body activity assists to discover how city shape and management affect our consciousness, attitudes and behaviours.  This includes the idea of the city as a communication medium in itself, particularly now that the majority of the population live in urban environments.  What messages do we receive about ourselves and the importance of community, equity, health and the natural environment from our day-to-day navigation and use of the city?  And as a result, what might we be able to define as a particular collective consciousness of each city itself, an overall statement of how we feel about and value these things?

Finally, the ‘conscious city’ is interested in how we might then manipulate city shape and experiences on an on-going basis – be it permanent or ephemeral – in all sorts of behavioural programs, such as ‘nudges’, regulations, broader community building or simply for pleasure in festivals and other like gatherings.

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health and the Conscious Cities group both support their own, refreshingly user-friendly, journals.  These are part of a related aim to encourage multi-disciplinary focussed research and practice to support a growing community of interest.  There is also an appetite to utilise the potential of ‘big data’ analytics to move the research from the mere abstract to something more representative, and ultimately more influential, of the actual experience of the city.

The objective of all these conceptualisations is though the same: to assist in delivering progressively better living environments for all.  The city-shaping, city-analytics, city-wellbeing and city-housing programs of the City Futures Research Centre are a good fit.  In support, City Wellbeing Program researchers have made recent contributions to both new journals:  ‘Planning and Building Healthy Communities for Mental Health’ in UD/MH Journal, and ‘Exploring Connections Between the Conscious City and Christopher Alexander’s Seminal ‘Pattern Languages’ ‘ in Conscious Cities Journal.  They can be accessed via the links given here.

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