what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Health and .....the pursuit of happiness

An article based on a new book invites us to identify what elements of city design might make a difference to resident happiness and then seems to suggest that bike lanes and pooling are the answer. 
That does seem a bit simplistic since, patently, the basic layout of a city is a crucial factor – things like densities, patterns of movement and physical structures - let alone the frequency (and price) of facilities such as public transport, parks, bookshops, galleries, theatres, swimming pools and restaurants....Not much use -trying to cycle if you are boxed in by dual carriageways and multi-stories!!
I blog quite a lot about Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, the structure of whose centre consists of narrow streets and tiny shops run by individuals - old and young. Walking around them (and the neighbouring parks) is a great joy - people carry their coffees or drink them on the doorstep, chatting over a cigarette to their neighbours; all key institutions are in walking distance and restaurants are cheap, healthy and tasty. People take care of the stray cats
It is a city like no other European one.
Mayor Yordanka Fandakova is doing a great job of clearing cars from the pavements and many of the streets. What a contrast with Bucharest whose power-mad Mayor Sorin Oprescu has new dual carriageways running through the city and is outdoing Attila the Hun in his (illegal) destruction of so many lovely old houses.
The article finishes with an important message -
By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone's experience, we can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active and more free. We just have to decide who our cities are for. And we have to believe that they can change.
I was once very active in the WHO Healthy Cities network which I see is still going strong.
Health….and happiness. Fundamental issues for us all. Honoured with so much rhetoric but increasingly displaced by Greed and Dishonesty…..I want to explore this disjunction in a bit more detail.
For 30 years, the WHO website tells us -
The primary goal of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network has been to put health high on the social, economic and political agenda of city governments. The Healthy Cities movement promotes comprehensive and systematic policy and planning for health and emphasizes:
  • the need to address inequality in health and urban poverty
  • the needs of vulnerable groups
  • participatory governance
  • the social, economic and environmental determinants of health.
About 90 cities are members of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network, and 30 national Healthy Cities networks across the WHO European Region have more than 1400 cities and towns as members.
Sadly, however, health and health inequalities have become much worse during this period – and I see little sign of the Healthy City literature recognising this – or exploring why this is so.
Indeed, as so often happens, a new vocabulary (expertise and bureaucracy) has taken over – that of the happiness minions of the OECD and UNDP , for example. This paper on the phenomenon of happiness research and indices is one particular (libertarian) slant on the past decade's work on happiness.

I get a bit impatient with those who tell us that happiness is about spending time with family and friends since that misses the political aspects - the nature and scale of the obstacles which those with power place on our enjoyment of public places and public goods. Equally, however, we need to be realistic about what can be achieved by political actions. Whatever, therefore, my sympathies with those who stress the importance of reducing social and economic inequalities, let us focus on the sorts of modest actions which can mobilise the support of large numbers of citizens - such as the removal of cars and cancelling of city motorways.....In that sense, I align with those who argue for more of a "nudge" approach to civic action - and also with those who argue for municipal (rather than government) initiatives.

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