Monday, July 6, 2015

Human Dignity And Building Better Cities

Pope Francis
Hello Everyone:

It is Monday and the start of a new week.  Before yours truly gets going, blogger wanted to let you all know that the South Carolina legislature has voted to removed the Confederate flag from the State Capitol.  It is a step in the right direction but blogger would like to see a more thorough and honest discussion of race in the United States.  The American Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 and that flag should have come down for by April 10, 1865, put in a box, and labeled "American history teaching tool."  Alright, on to today's subject, Pope Francis's encyclical.

Since his election on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis has proved himself different from his predecessors. Different, in this case, in a good way.  The pontiff has been taken on the role of reformer, speaking out on homosexuality, interfaith relations, and most recently the environment. Recently, Pope Francis published his first encyclical which called for a massive response to climate change.  Anna Clark wrote in her Equity Factor article for Next City titled, "Pope to Urban Planners: Build Better Cities," the pope had a direct message for urban planners: "Build better neighborhoods for the poor.  And while you're at it, find a way to integrate the natural world in city design."  The pontiff wrote in Laudato Si, subtitled "Our Care for Our Common Home," We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.  The message is quite clear, urban planners have a responsibility to create healthier cities.

Streets of Shanghai, China at night
Here is a truism: "Cities have become unhealthy places for human beings-not only because of toxic emissions, but also because of poor transportation, visual pollution, social exclusion violence, noise and even 'the loss of identity.'" Looming above all this like an ominous storm cloud, ready to burst, is inequality. The pontiff writes,

In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people's access to places of particular...In others, 'ecological' neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure artificial tranquility.  Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called 'safer' areas of cities but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.

La Pyramide Market
Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
Iwan Bann
This rather frank and thoughtful analysis has put the head of the Catholic Church in the same league as mainstream science.  The encyclical is a carefully considered document on the "...interconnectedness of the natural and built environment."  The pontiff's theme is the choices we make in creating the places we live and their consequences for human behavior.  In the encyclical, the pontiff urges, those who design buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces and cities to move beyond their comfort zones and 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.

Early morning Berlin, Germany
Specifically, the plans and projects must work to the benefit of everyone, not just a select populace.  Quoting the encyclical, Ms. Clark writes at every turn,  it is important that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.  This is not that much different from the current thinking in urban planning scholarship-include the stakeholders in community development discussions.  It is not just urban planning that is in the sights of Pope Francis, historic preservation is also on his radar.

The pontiff understands the absolute necessity to  protect the common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness of 'feeling at home' within a city which includes us and brings us together.  That very necessary sense of community.  However, the pontiff is talking about preservation for the sake of buildings and places, rather, preservation for the common good and made accessible to all.  Ms. Clark reports, "When they are well integrated into the landscapes, residents of the city will feel a deepened sense of the whole.  When they are not well integrated, they contribute to isolation and separation."

St. Peter's Square
Rome, Italy
Pope Francis writes,

Interventions which affect the urban or landscape should take into account how various elements combine to form whole which is perceived by its inhabitants as a coherent and meaningful framework for their lives...Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a 'we' which all of are working to create.  For this same reason, in both urban and rural settings, it is helpful to set aside some places which can be preserved and protected from constant changes brought by human interventions.

Another concern for the pontiff is housing.  He makes note of the fact that state budgets allocate a small portion for suitable housing across the social spectrum, "...which cuts right at the heart of human dignity that he champions throughout the encyclical."  Pope Francis quotes from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004):

In some places, where makeshift shanty towns have sprung up, this will mean developing those neighbourhoods rather than razing or displacing them...When the poor live in unsanitary slums or dangerous tenements, 'In case where it is necessary to relocate them, in or not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process.'" (

Destroyed hutong
Beijing, China
Boris van Hoytema: Flickr

Anna Clark notes, with some amusement, "When Francis turns his attention to transit, there is perhaps unintentional humor in his understatement.  The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them."  Another truism.  A third truism in this article is car culture is a major source of pollution, and road construction and parking lots wreck the landscapes. However, getting everyone to use public transportation is easier said than done.  The pontiff believes that there needs to be improvements to public transportation if you are going to convince the majority of people to leave their cars at home. The pontiff points to the obvious reasons: unreliability, crowding, and lack of safety.

Anna Clark concludes, "Collectively, the encyclical affirms how important it is to make the moral case for city design.  Whether he is discussing the need for improved utilities in rural areas of the value of beauty in architecture."  Pope Francis links his thoughts on urban planning and design to our own interconnectedness, Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make use overlook the fact each creature has its own purpose.  None is superfluous...

Yours truly's view on the encyclical is that pontiff seems to be restating urban planning scholarship. Everything stated in the article, thus far, indicates a moderate approach to building better cities. Perhaps it would be a bit much to expect the leader of the Catholic Church to take a more radical stance on urban planning however, blogger does applaud the pontiff's position.  Yours truly does not expect the powers that be to act upon the encyclical, the days of a pontiff's far reaching influence on civic matters are long gone.  Perhaps developers and planners will paid attention to the words of Pope Francis and become more conscious of the interventions they make and how they affect the populace. Blogger does agree with the pontiff that human dignity must be a fundamental factor of the choice we make.  The Laudato Si is the template for how to make human dignity an essential part of the planning and development process.

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