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 http://goo.gl/tNHjjl

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 (http://goo.gl/6hK1GZ ). 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. (http://goo.gl/oy8FGQ ) 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 (http://goo.gl/ICzbJc ) and Magpie’s Nest (http://goo.gl/va9L5K ) 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?