Cities a Place of Human Flourishing

Can cities be places where people flourish? Before we can answer this question we need to define what we understand by human flourishing. The UN predict that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population (around 6.4 billion people with the world’s population at approximately 9.6 billion) will be living in cities. The majority of the growth will take place in Asia and Africa. Currently there are 28 mega cities with over 10 million people, by 2050 there will be 41 with Tokyo having the largest population.

But what will the quality of life be for those 6.4 billion? Of which, if I’m still alive I’ll most likely be one. By 2050 I’ll be 76. So I wonder what will Melbourne be like? What will all the services be offering? Will there be any cars in the CBD? Will there be a CBD? What will shopping, healthcare, education, the media be like? What will technology have given us? Where will the gathering places be? How will community be formed?

What are the guiding principles that will not only ensure sustainability, but lead the way for human flourishing?

Cities are often seen as negative places, devoid of natural environment, without a soul and so forth. I don’t buy it! I see incredible potential for cities to be places of light, hope, of new beginnings and endless possibilities. However we need to ensure they are places where EVERYBODY can experience those things. This will involve some major re-thinking about how our cities develop and what we see as important as we experience growth. Perhaps even the economic agenda needs to be displaced from its position of privilege and replaced with the relational or community agenda as the central guiding principle. If this is achieved, the door is open for a sustainable economic future that we can all participate in.

In a step towards this, last year the City of Melbourne put on a conference called Beyond the Safe City. Internationally Melbourne has been recognized as a safe city, but they wanted to go further to look at places and spaces for human flourishing. The input from professionals in their field was outstanding. We were able to explore the benefits of social entrepreneurialism, explore what event theory had to offer CBD hotspots and look at cities, Melbourne in particular from a number of different angles. The desire of the conference was for everyone to feel safe in the heart of Melbourne. One of the standout examples was the hospitality (creating space for the stranger) shown by Urban Seed and the care they take with building relationships with people who frequent their laneway. There was encouragement for people who live in other laneways to offer similar hospitality rather than shunning those who are different in some way.

On Sunday Melbourne had another opportunity to show hospitality and its willingness to make space for everyone to flourish. It was the Palm Sunday March for Refugees. Over 10,000 people turned out in force with banners waiving showing their support for refugees, pleading for children to be let out of offshore detention, showing their dissatisfaction with current government policy and demonstrating that all are welcome in our city. One of the things that struck me was the diversity of people in the crowd. Many arms of the church were present as was the Humanist Society, medical professionals and countless local refugee groups. It seems that this kind of issue around human flourishing transcend the usual sacred / secular divides. Can we celebrate the thousands that turned out to the march that stretched from LaTrobe Street all the way Flinders St Station? More can we celebrate the spirit in which they turned out? The welcome they offered? And I believe the sacrifices that many of them would be willing to make to bring their statements about refugees into actuality. This is the kind of spirit of openness we need to display to each other in order for Melbourne to be a place where everyone can flourish.

Everyone is Welcome
Everyone is Welcome
Children advocating for children
Children advocating for children
A popular cry
A popular cry
A letter to the PM
A letter to the PM

The UN fact sheet on population from August 2014 states that sustainable urbanization requires cities to generate better income and employment opportunities; access to clean water and sanitation through the expansion of the necessary infrastructure; transportation; information and communications; equal access to services; reduction in the number of people living in slums and the preservation of natural assets.

However, is sustainable urbanization enough to ensure human flourishing?

I have a suspicion that human flourishing has to do with belonging and meaning or purpose. If someone feels they belong to a place or a people this opens the door for them to explore more of who they are and to begin to discover and live out their purpose. Sadly with isolation in Melbourne increasing many do not get to experience either. The United Nations’ list of what constitutes a sustainable urban environment is important, yet how these things are developed in concert with a sense of belonging, individual and community empowerment and a lived out purpose becomes crucial to human flourishing.

In the past cities tended to be developed in silos. The silo mentality is still alive and well in many of our institutions. Through working alongside local councils I have discovered that quite often it is difficult to get the planning department to talk to the community department and vice versa. Yet these types of conversations and the relationships behind them are vital if municipalities and cities are to be developed well. These relationships need to be formed not only within the institution of local government but across the different spheres of a city.

For example what would it mean for the development of a city if there were vibrant relationships between the spheres of politics, health, education, sport and recreation, business, community service organisations (not for profit), media, Arts, Justice and Law?[1] What creativity and innovation could be released through this sort of cross profession and multi-disciplinary conversations?

[1] The drivers of society borrowed from Dr David Wilson, developed through his work withSophiaThink Tank

In Search of Simplicity

Payments To and From the Vulnerable

It’s been revealed by the ABC via a Credit Suisse report that $90 million of Radio Rental’s $197 million in revenue has come directly from the Federal Department of Human Services. But no the offices aren’t being decked out with rented desks, computers and white goods, or flat screen TV’s and sound systems. This money is coming from Centrelink customers’ benefits via the Centrepay system.

For the uninitiated Centrepay is a Federal government payment system that allows people on benefits to have their bills deducted directly from their entitlements. It has been operating for a number of years and overall it seems to be a good system and is totally in the control of the customer. This is unlike the benefit card which has been rolled out in some of the most needy communities around Australia. This card enforces a budget direction, ie a proportion of the customers Centrelink income is put on the card and can only be used for groceries, rent, some bills etc, thus disempowering once again the most vulnerable. This was used extensively in the Howard government’s intervention.

Centrepay has become central to one of the projects I’m involved in concerning rooming houses in the City of Greater Dandenong. I recently facilitated a conversation between police, council, rooming house operators, regulators and a person with a lived experience of homelessness. One of the plethora of issues that was discussed were concerns about Centrepay. The issue was raised by an operator who was lamenting about residents who come to the rooming house, sign all the documents and rent begins to be deducted from their benefit. Then if something goes wrong or even on a whim the resident contacts Centrelink and stops the direct debit. In this particular case the person refused to leave the boarding house and as legal proceedings trod their course proceeded to trash his room. So when he was eventually evicted the owner hadn’t had rent for about 6 weeks or so and had to spend money fixing the room.

Now this becomes a wider issue than Centrepay and reflects a lack of understanding of the sector and the difficulties faced by operators on the part of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). There is a feeling that they tend to favour the resident. Which on face value sounds like a good thing, but when rooms are being trashed, I guess questions need to be asked.

As with the majority of issues surrounding vulnerable people, it is never straightforward and there are many forces at play. These include mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, extremely low self-esteem and a lack of a sense of worth, quite often acute isolation and disconnection particularly from significant supports such as family. People who find themselves in this kind of vulnerability also in many cases (though certainly not always) lack education, a sense of purpose or direction, essentially hope that anything will ever be any different. So when issues come along the survival mechanism is all too easily triggered, often with devastating results for themselves and those around them.

Coming back to Radio Rentals and their income from Centrepay. The customers using their benefits to purchase household items etc are more likely to be families that are either on low income or where a partner has become unemployed. Although this is not always the case, the ABC article tells the story of Norma a grandmother on a pension who on a whim decided to purchase a vacuum cleaner from Radio Rentals over 3 years, paying a very high interest rate on the loan (on average the consumer ends up paying 3x the retail value of the product). According to the ABC report there has been an increase in Centrepay being used to buy flat screen televisions and sound systems. This use of money is seen as discretionary spending and together with Norma’s story is perhaps where our society needs to take some of the blame.

Here in Australia, even without us knowing it, when it comes to marketing, consumerism and the like we are part of the postmodern junket. Jean Baudrillard a postmodern philosopher sees that consumerism has past through a number of crucial stages and is now a sophisticated coded system of meaning dominated by the value of the sign. So advertising of all sorts is focusing less on the products and more to what they signify. This plays into our aspirations and blurs the line between reality and fantasy. It creates a whole new system of codes and meaning (Greene and Robinson, 2008). The Coca Cola ads are classic examples where the focus is often on the group of friends having fun as opposed to the ‘brilliance’ of the product. “Buy coke, you’ll belong and it will be fun,” is the subtle message communicated.

Like for all of us, this plays into the desires of the most vulnerable, with money going straight into the pockets of organisations like Radio Rentals. Adam Mooney from the not for profit lender Good Shepherd says there is an alternative for household items. Good Shepherd provide no interest loans for fridges and other household items. Their service alleviates some of the stress for the needs, but what about the wants, how are we as a society to deal with our wants?

We tend to think that the accumulation of stuff is part of what it means to live a fulfilled life. But we forget about the law of diminishing returns and continual lure of the next purchase with its promise of everlasting happiness. We tend to think that as long as our family is ok and we are continuing to build our castle and all who reside within its walls, life will be good. But we forget there are many of our fellow human beings with hopes, dreams, gifts, skills, potentials for whom the light slowly dies. And we forget that it is better to give than receive. We tend to think that as long as we look out for number one the wealth will filter down and everyone will be ok. We forget that for the decades this thinking has been predominant it has not been the case.

So how do we address our wants and the inequality that takes root in society when those who can, pursue them? And those who can’t try to keep up? Simplicity is an ancient concept that talks of a singleness of heart and an uncomplicated life. Have you seen the stories of those that leave the busyness and complexities of everyday life for a sea-change or a tree-change, if its told well the stories can make you breathe that deep breath and leaves you almost being able to taste the sea salt air or smell the eucalyptus. I was at the Cardiologist the other day and asked him about stress and how it contributes to high blood pressure. He was somewhat on the fence, but did mention a patient who changed her lifestyle to a more laid back approach to life and suddenly her blood pressure dropped to a more acceptable level. So simplicity involves a letting go of all the clutter that we think we need, but really only pollutes our space.

Richard Foster an author and teacher suggests a few hints to help on the journey towards simplicity. This is an extract from his book, Celebration of Discipline;

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you
  • Develop a habit of giving things away
  • Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (apple is exceptionally good at propaganda he says writing from his Mac Air, checking his iphone for messages)
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation
  • Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes (like those offered by Radio Rentals)
  • Speak plainly and honestly
  • Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
  • (Richard comes from a Christian perspective and so includes the following) Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God

Strange language, I grant you. But essentially its what this blog is about, seeking a more simple world, where people are recognized for the inherent value they possess rather than for what they own or how they look. We may not be able to change the whole world, but in choosing a life characterized by greater simplicity we may just change our world and the worlds of those around us.

To Stand in Solidarity defines solidarity as a union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples. Whether it’s implied in the definition or not, I’ve always associated solidarity with a fierce loyalty, the romantic image of freedom fighters standing together against a common oppressor. Of course in recent days the romance has been totally removed with the sad news of Melbourne teenager, Jake Bilardi’s suspected involvement in a suicide bombing in Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. The radicalisaton of Jake and others like him is a powerful reminder of what the promise of identity, purpose and belonging can do for someone who lacks it. Jake’s situation is sad with neighbours saying he had become more aloof and disconnected since his mother’s death in 2012.

It seems vulnerability led him to the internet where he was befriended by a propagandist from the Islamic State, which led to his eventual journey to Iraq via Turkey. My point in all of this is that perhaps Jake was looking for someone to stand with him in solidarity. Not to join him on his eventual quest, but to be close enough to him to hear his pain, to point him to meaning outside of his eventual choice towards violence and death. To help him sift through his beliefs and determine which ones were life giving and which ones would lead to death, his and others. Various politicians, includingGreens deputy leader and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt are calling for money to be given for on the ground responses, so that people in Jake’s situation are not radicalized. These issues are always so multi-faceted, whilst there may be the need for specialist programs, there is also an urgent need for communities to be strengthened so people like Jake don’t fly under the radar, so others who are experiencing pain and heart ache don’t turn to substance abuse, crime or worse.

However, our approach needs to be different. Quite often, in the past when money has gone into community strengthening, it has been used for bandaid measures, a picking up of individuals from the bottom of the cliff. Whilst necessary at times it is not a long term, sustainable approach to caring for and strengthening communities. Linked to this there is currently a lot of debate around the funding of welfare services and payments to people experiencing unemployment, disability etc. Australia has become known as the welfare state, a justifiable title, but have we really had people’s long-term interest at heart?

In days gone by the nuclear and extended family were seen as the main support for the individual experiencing difficulty. With an increase in mobility, family breakdown and estrangement, sadly for many this is no longer the case. Some would wistfully look back to those days and say we need to recapture our sense of extended family. They might be onto something as there is some evidence of an increase in 3 generation households. However for many they will never have that sense of family and here the community needs to play a part. I don’t think there would be much argument to the perception that as a nation we have generally become quite individualistic and our sense of community beyond our house and our interests is generally fairly limited.

A few years ago a friend and I tried to get a pilot program going called Spare Room. We were seeking to encourage people of faith who might have had a spare room to open their house and lives to a person experiencing homelessness. We worked hard to combat the stereotype of homeless people all being alcoholics and incredibly desperate and needy, we were offering support and training but to very little fruit. It is difficult for people to consider welcoming the stranger, offering hospitality with no strings attached.

But if we are to recognize our common humanity and to stand in solidarity with others, particularly those who are suffering, perhaps that is the response we need. We have become too reliant on the professionalization of care, seeing those hurting in our community pseudo cared for by workers that could never hope to replace the therapeutic value of a loving, embracing community, based on relationships of mutuality, concern and empathy.

If we are to go down this path, what will this cost us? Financially a lot less as a nation and as taxpayers, even if the cost of some of our caring was subsidized. As individuals, yep there would be a cost, a sacrifice, a giving up of something, but I wonder what the return would be. We know the accumulation of stuff and the pursuit of wealth are not a guarantee of happiness. We lament the loneliness and pain that at times we all feel, if we were to open our lives up to the stranger perhaps in some way that would be lessened and in helping we may even be helped.

Looking broader than our community, Alain de Botton writes on the news in his latest book (, raising questions about why some news stories grab us and others often leave us cold, including conflict and disasters from overseas. Aid agencies are well aware of compassion fatigue as the number of worthy causes around the world escalates. The challenge if we are to stand in solidarity is not to stare blankly at the screen and feel nothing when we see pictures of devastation, not to let $1.2billion be slashed from the Overseas Aid budget without batting an eyelid. Rather to let the pain of the world sink into the very depths of our being, not to become overwhelmed and to shut down, but to be touched at our core and in that way connect and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. If we can do this perhaps we will have more empathy for those around us, those we are connected with who are doing it tough. And maybe then we will take part in the building of the community that we all need to thrive and flourish as human beings.

A Measure of the Future

I was reading an article on Friday that stated a question like, what type of Australia do we want to live in? I thought great an article about values, human rights charter, creating the nation that we can all call home, inclusion, hope for the marginalised. To my initial chargrin the article referred to the impending release of the 4th Intergenerational Report (IGR) These reports have taken place on average every 3 – 5 years, starting in 2002 and seek to project our economy 40 years into the future. They are essentially a treasury report focusing on whether we can expect to be financially better or worse off in the future, based on current Government policy projections.

Key issues relate to the 3 P’s of population, participation in the work force and productivity. Population obviously refers to the amount of people living in the country, their ages as well as their relative needs. Of course one of the key concerns raised in the report is the amount of ageing Australians vs the amount of people in the work force to pay for their pensions and increased health bills due to longer life expectancy. Participation refers to the number of people in the workforce between the ages of 15-64. Productivity refers to our ability to work more efficiently or produce better quality goods and services with the same level of resources.

The report shows how each of these factors play into what the future will be like in 2055. By then the population is estimated to be at 37.9 million, with 2 million Australians aged 85 or over, we currently have only 80,000 in that demographic bracket. The report predicts that in 2055 the participation rates for people over 15 will fall slightly, however the rate of people aged over 65 in the workforce will increase to 17.3%. This, according to the IGR will give us the opportunity to learn from the wisdom and experience of the older generation. Couple of issues here, one we’ve got to want to learn and two, the older generation has to want to teach. I see plenty of reluctance on both ends of the scale.

According to an article in the Conversation, whilst focusing on the contribution of the older generation, the report lacks a focus on the younger, which is where the future of work is really headed. It states that unemployment of young people with tertiary qualifications is up, whilst those without yr 12 are doing slightly better comparatively. Authors, Churchill and Denny conclude that this suggests education – workforce transition is more complex than originally thought. According to Brotherhood St Laurence CEO Tony Nicholson, youth unemployment is a key intergenerational issue and needs to be addressed in order to secure future economic prosperity.

However is future economic prosperity the benchmark or sign of a healthy nation? Or could it be the by-product or outworking of a set of values that we adopt and live by as a nation. A set of values that inform policy at all levels of government, helps structure business, provides a guideline for media reporting, sets an agenda for social services, incorporates the highest good of religion and promotes human flourishing?

Can you imagine an Australia with a values statement? A statement that incorporates the best of who we are. Not a statement that is then enshrined in law, but something that’s aspirational, that gives freedom for people to grow and flex. A statement that is open to interpretation but is geared towards the common good.

Richard Eckersley an Australian sociologist and researcher into youth issues believes that young people are the canary in the mine shaft for a nation. For those not familiar with the metaphor, in Britain in the early days of coal mining the miners would send a canary into the shaft. If it survived they believed there was enough oxygen in the shaft for the miners to survive. Similar if young people are able to thrive and flourish in a nation it is doing ok. Eckersley sees that reports like the IGR and for the most part the wellbeing indicators look at the economic health of the country, whilst there are concerning aspects, for the most part that comes out ok. But if you look at indicators like youth suicide, young people’s sense of the future, their sense of wellbeing, the lack of relationship with significant adults, connection to meaning and purpose, then there is room for concern.

One thing the IGR does is help to lift the political gaze beyond the news cycle and even the next election, but does it help politicians focus on what’s really important for our nation? If we look at young people as part of those who are vulnerable in our communities then we can include them in the ancient adage that says a test of a nation is how it cares for the orphan, the widow and the stranger. How would we go on that scorecard?

Could we establish a set of values that guides us as a nation to create a truly great place for generations to come to call home? If we can then there is work for all of us to do. Are you prepared to dream a little, move outside the box of the expected economic norms and begin to live as if there is another way. Australia was seen as the place of the fair go for the battler, could we recapture that for today’s battler, today’s vulnerable and include them in the conversation towards creating an even better community.

Changing the Game for Drug Addicts

What comes to mind when you think of drug addiction? Spaced out people, down and outers, alley ways littered with tags and needles, mental health issues, violence, the drain on society, people experiencing a lack of purpose and meaning, runaways. I guess for the most part the term conjures up fairly negative images and causes us to hold people suffering from drug addiction at arms length or further.

Some of the outcomes can of course be very scarey. People addicted to Ice for example can become violent at the slightest (perceived) provocation and the researchers are saying that the drug even begins to change brain chemistry. Currently they are not sure if this is reversible. All of this paints a pretty grim picture.

Enter into this dark landscape an article by Johann Hart, featured recently in The Huffington Post ( ). Based on the research for her book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, she “learned… that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.”

For Hari the journey has been a very personal one, beginning as a child trying to wake up a relative and not being able to. From that time she has mulled as I’m sure many of us have on what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? Learning from friends who have first hand experience, the pain of seeing a loved one battle with the ups and mostly downs of addiction and attempting to loose themselves from it and falling over and over again is excruciating. And in no way to blame them, for self-protection, eventually most family and friends remove themselves from the lives of the addicted person. Unfortunately this tends to have the effect of further cementing a lifestyle of addiction.

Hari writes, “if you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: ‘Drugs. Duh’” As you would be aware drugs have a strong chemical hook and so if we were to take them for a period of time and suddenly stopped the belief is our body would crave them. This theory was established through tests on rats, carried out in America. A rat placed in a cage on its own with two water bottles, one plain water, the other laced with heroin or cocaine. Time and time again the rat would become obsessed with the latter bottle till essentially it killed itself.

In the 1970’s some alternate experiments were run by, Vancouver Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander. ( ) He built what came to be known as Rat Park. This cage had coloured balls, the best rat food, tunnels and friends. And again the two bottles were set up. This time the results were significantly different. The rats residing at Rat Park mostly shunned the drug laced water bottle, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. None of the rats living in the second happy environment became heavy users.

According to Hari and the studies she uses as evidence, returning soldiers from the Vietnam war provided a useful human equivalent. Many soldiers on deployment (20%) understandably used drugs to combat fear etc. When they returned 95% of that 20% simply stopped without the use rehab. What was different? They’re environment. From being terrified everyday the soldiers returned to relatively pleasant home lives which left the need for the drug redundant.

Professor Alexander made a fascinating observation challenging the view that drugs are a moral failing as well as the more liberal opinion that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. He argues that addiction is an adaption. It’s got more to do with your environment than what is going on inside you. Of course your reactions to your environment may be another story. He re-ran the old experiments with the isolated rats, they became hooked, then he placed them in Rat Park and after a few twitches they got on with a happy life, addiction free, with no desire for the drug.

A further case for this theory of addiction is pain relief in hospital. For severe pain, patients effectively receive heroin at a much higher purity and potency than addicts on the street. After months of use hospital patients can simply stop. It virtually never happens that a patient then transfers their addiction to the street and they leave hospital trying to score on the way home. But the same drug wreaks havoc in the lives of users on the streets.

Hari points out, “…the drug is the same but the environment is different.” The hospital patient for the most part is going home to an environment where they are loved and cared for. The street user suffers continual isolation and rejection.

The issue then, according to Professor Peter Cohen, is not the drug but human bonding. We are created to bond to others, to form attachment, relationship. If these essentials go missing then we will bond with other things. For some this includes drugs of all sorts and others gambling and alternate addictive behaviours.

If we accept this theory of addiction then it is a huge challenge to the way we work with addicts. By in large the social services are not equipped to adapt to a relational approach to service delivery. Professionalisation of care and the perceived need for professional distance has meant in some cases a de-personalisation, particularly around people with complex needs, which are often compounded by drug addiction.

If we are to believe the points that Hari raises and take on board people’s need for bonding relationships, then as service providers the concern will not only be for the individual but for their network of relationships, their community if you like. Now many of these might be burnt but focusing on their relational web will be a starting point in the recovery process. Quite often people addicted to drugs will find themselves homeless and in boarding houses. How can housing providers work to ensure positive environments where relationships and attachments will form, which will negate the need for the drug. In Melbourne there are an increasing number of rooming houses that focus these concerns. Servants of Hawthorn ( ) and Magpie’s Nest ( ) are two examples.

This approach to working with people addicted to drugs also provides a window for churches, Rotary, Lions and other welfare minded community organisations. People with addictions often need new networks of relationships, opportunity to connect with people who will share life and journey with them. Obviously if there are family and friends left in the addict’s life who can provide these relationships in a positive environment that is a better option. But if these relationships have been burnt alternate connections are needed.

As humans we have an innate need to connect meaningfully with others, why then do we seem to have the propensity to deny this connection to people who it could be argued need it the most?