The Urbanist Pope

by Editor on

Pope Francis among the people at St. Peter's Square - 12 May 2013
If we want to save the planet, we have got to change the way we live in cities.

This urgent cause requires more than peer-reviewed studies. It demands a call to action that appeals to people’s deepest values. The planet’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics got just that call to action from their Pope this spring.

June 18, 2015 marked the first bold move by the church to take an official position on the environment as Pope Francis published the encyclical, Laudato si: On Care for Our Common Home. The objective: to engage the world’s Catholics in a road-map for ethical and spiritual intervention on climate change. But the Pope offered direct messages for city-builders and city-dwellers too.

A spiritual ecology of cities

Urbanists and city-builders should pay attention to the Pope’s messages on ‘Integral Ecology.’ Here the Pope demonstrates remarkable skill at connecting complex issues like climate change, equity and the social life of cities. The encyclical affirms what we and our allies have been arguing for years: that the design of cities significantly affects our health and happiness.

In ‘The Ecology of Daily Life’ the Pope asks us to consider how the setting in which people live their daily lives influences the way we think, feel and act. He asks how we use our environment as a way of expressing our identity. He argues that when our homes, workplaces and neighbourhoods are ‘disorderly, chaotic or saturated with noise and ugliness, such over-stimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy’.

The evidence suggests the Pope is right on the mark. We have found a mountain of evidence showing that the design of our neighbourhoods and cities can directly impact our sense of social trust and connectedness. There is a psychophysiological element to this dynamic. Whenever we have trusting interactions, our brains pump out oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that both rewards us with good feelings and induces us to trust more. And design mediates these encounters.

For example, in Happy City, we tell the story of a Vancouverite who went from a solitary existence to one deeply connected to his neighbours simply by moving from a tower apartment to a small cluster of town homes. The town home environment designed more casual, trust-building encounters into his life. The Pope may not be a neuroscientist, but he clearly understands that urban environments can be designed to in ways that boost feelings of trust at exactly the same time as they reduce carbon emissions.

Wholesome, healthier, happier cities

The Pope takes a strikingly interdisciplinary approach to urban well-being, and he has clear advice for city builders:

“Given the interrelationship between living space and human behaviour, those who design buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance. Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.”

The circular addresses urban equity and poverty by making highly official Francis’ previous writing on the integral ecology of urban environments. He argues for public spaces that bring the social strata together – and he lambastes economic and social segregation that does the opposite.

“It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others,” he writes. “Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a “we” which all of us are working to create’.

The urban declaration continues with a position on the good life that sounds a lot like Aristotle. He writes: “An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”

The Pope is using what we call an integral framework. These are dynamic processes that involve a number of separate yet interconnected activities such as analyzing the problem, envisioning what we want, creating interventions, evaluating their impacts, and adjusting the strategies and tactics so better outcomes are achieved. Holistic approaches such as this are essential to urbanists as we attempt to affect the overall transformation of our cities by developing forms of infrastructure and policies that change peoples’ experience of the place they live or visit for the better.

Why might the Pope’s encyclical work?

We know that the human brain just isn’t that well-equipped to act on complex, slow-moving and intangible system challenges like climate change. No matter how urgent the issue, this complexity contributes to what neuroscientists call a ‘paralyzing resistance to action’.

That’s why the Pope’s message is so important. In this encyclical, the Pope speaks to the cultural identity of Catholics. This message gives the climate change challenge a powerful, uplifting resonance. This should produce a more immediate sense of personal moral agency and responsibility – and that’s what leads to action.

Marten Sims