Who is responsible for the future of our cities?

19/10/2023

6 min read

In October, I had the opportunity to attend the Asia Pacific Cities Summit as a Young Professional, thanks to HCLTech! Join me on this reflective journey as I share the powerful insights that reaffirm the importance of fostering connections, pioneering sustainability, and challenging the status quo in the realm of city development.


Indigenous perspectives.

Our week kicked off with an insightful presentation from Dr Candace Kruger, a Yugambeh yarrabilginngunn (song woman) and proud Kombumerri (Gold Coast) and Ngugi (Moreton Island) Aboriginal woman. Dr Kruger shared her journey of language, music and Country and set the scene for the important discussions for the rest of the week, leading with indigenous knowledges.

Something she said in response to the question - “Who is responsible for caring for Country?”  really resonated with me. She responded - “We all have a responsibility to Country”  bringing to life this idea through her beautiful voice, imitating the calls of the Currawong, or Jalwang in the Yugambeh language.

“We feel dawn before we see it”  she continued. She was able to bring to mind vivid imagery that grounded me in Country for the rest of the week, which I was greatly appreciative of. You can listen to her song, 'Morning Star and Evening Star' to appreciate her wonderful voice and connection to her language.

Cities of Connection - beyond infrastructure?

Our first topic discussed was that of connection. A question I have for you - Do you know your neighbours? I used to... and then their rent was put up, and they had to move. As hard as I have tried with my new neighbours, I have only learnt their dog's name so far. This isn't their fault, nor mine; it's a symptom of a broader issue. They might not be there very long in this rental market, so they might not want to build connections or just want to keep to themselves. I can respect that! However, I thrive on connections; if I don't know my neighbours, I feel less secure, look over my shoulder more often when leaving my house, and keep more to myself. We are living in an age of increased isolation, primarily driven by the systems we are engaged within. Digital algorithms can also cause you to be caught in an echo chamber of ideas that you agree with, and opposing views show an increased risk of further isolation.

Bo Seo introduced the importance of constructive discussion and debate and the role it may play in our connection with one another. Bo shared a personal story about feeling the societal pressure to become agreeable, which made me reflect on my past roles in disagreements. Bo’s presence was strong; with a calm, well-paced presentation, he was able to break down the concept of a debate into clear steps.

1. Agree to disagree
By that, I mean we must agree on what we are disagreeing about and be able to name it clearly. This is important to focus our debate and have a clear context.

2. Define your conclusion 
What do you want people to believe? What outcome or action might you want people to reach or do?

3. Find your why
What reasons and claims can you use to your advantage? Ask yourself, what would it take for you to be persuaded? Why? When has it happened before? Why should they care? As someone who is fairly non-confrontational, Bo’s tips have given me the confidence to make my thoughts heard and back them up when challenged.

Cities as social spaces - What makes a city happy?

Some further key takeaways from the cities of connection sessions are as follows;  

  • Cities are inherently social spaces.
  • Connecting people to and within cities is connecting them to the community.
  • Connected, social cities are happy, productive cities!

Pretty simple? We dig more into what a happy city is with a keynote from one of the defining sources on the emerging science of happy cities - Charles Montgomery – he even wrote a book on it!

Charles has 3 laws he follows to create happier cities.

1. Design dictates behaviour
In action: Everyone wins in walkable cities. Crossing busy streets can spike our adrenaline in a negative way. Drivers stuck in gridlock and stop-start traffic have escalated levels of stress and discomfort. Less cars and less traffic lead to more connections and less stress.

2. City spaces are emotional infrastructure.
In action: Resonating with salutogenic design principles, having varied, interesting, social streetscapes can slow people down and build their connections with their cities – and one another!  

I have personally seen this with the recent development of a local strip of shops. Previously you had to literally walk into a busy main road to get across the street, but then they put in an actual crosswalk, with beautiful plants on either side.

An experience I used to dread - walking to my local cafe or bus stop - is now filled with seeing people stop to take a quick snap of a flower, waving at a car patiently waiting at the crosswalk before getting along with their day - just that little bit brighter! I remember one night walking home from the bus stop when they were building it and stopping to chat with one of the construction workers.

Upon sharing my appreciation for what they were doing they excitedly shared with me some further projects in the area, showing that the joy these simple moments of connection bring is almost unanimously contributing to a happier city!

3. Housing shapes relationships
In action:Charles shared a personal quote regarding his experience with housing affordability that has echoed in my head

“It felt like the city did not want me.” 

Charles is from Vancouver, and he was having these thoughts in the lead up to the city preparing to host the Olympics, which was seeing a massive spike in housing prices. As a Brisbane native this really impacted me. Now, Charles’ solution to this feeling was spectacular and involved actually buying multiple properties side by side, alongside a few groups of people to create a multi unit community. I am not sure I am at that stage in my life, but I found solace in hearing how he felt, and inspiration in seeing how he tackled it. He left me with a fantastic quote to drive this inspiration.

“People who are collectively challenged can collectively respond."


 Sustainability - a systemic issue?

The topic of sustainability can often be frustrating as responsibility is often put on individuals (see the plastic straw debate). The discussion around sustainability amongst these city leaders involved the open acknowledgement that it is an issue that is inherent to the systems it exists within, which I found really refreshing. Issues like increased furniture waste, which is driven by high rental turnover periods, or increased tourism rates having a ‘hidden’ impact were discussed in depth by leaders that influence the implementation of solutions. While these are complex issues, what is clear is that data is needed to tackle them. Consider the ways to effectively measure the impact tourists have on our consumption, current mindsets on high rental turnovers, or what parts of the cities have the most trees to make the coolest walking routes. I am excited to work with my team to develop responses to these data gaps in the near future to help shape responses to these challenges.

Reactive Cities - What influences legacy?

Amongst all these great discussions is a clear theme. We need to hold ourselves and our systems accountable for our promises. We can utilise disruptions as they come to reshape and define norms. Bringing up the dreaded COVID Example – COVID-19 saw many people move to work from home almost permanently, leaving many city centres deserted for a long time. Are we now bouncing back from this? Or moving in a new direction? I know we are actively moving away from our city centres for myself and many of my colleagues. A key response to this, discussed with my Young Professional peers, was to focus on infrastructure and city centres as being public spaces and incentivising private spaces to open up to those in need within the city centres. If we are not using our offices, why can’t someone come sit down and have a warm coffee? Are there common spaces that would benefit people having a rough go? What would be needed to see this change? We’ve seen Covid be the catalyst for many cities opening up their streets to more pedestrians. What could future disruptions bring?

A call to action.

Public spaces deserve public ownership. Focus on your scales of influence, taking inspiration from the Park(ing) Day movements across the globe, build and test your solutions at the scale of a car park. After that, can you expand your idea to your street, see how people respond, explore the new ideas that come out of that experiment, and then continue to grow your ideas to include your neighbourhood. Soon you may be able to impact your whole city, or a car park in a different city!

However, it is important to recognise that there is not one magical solution to suit all cities. We need to identify the key issues many cities may have in common, and then engage in the diversity of solutions. From that, we work to create templates to support change within different contexts.

This is fundamentally what I work towards as a UX consultant. Learning the trends, experimenting with what works, and quickly iterating solutions to create impactful outcomes for clients that go on to live their own lives. Our work at Symplicit on Mobility as a Service Personas perfectly exemplifies this. By crafting personas that embody diverse approaches to connectivity, we've left a lasting mark on the Mobility as a Service field. It's gratifying to see others, including my fellow young professionals, utilising these personas to advance their work. This demonstrates the enduring commitment to putting people at the core of our efforts, which I will endeavour to champion when considering the future of our cities.

Images and illustration credit: Lydia Boyle.

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