The Social Infrastructure of Healthy Cities

This post is part of our Thriving Cities discussion series, following the sixth edition of the NewCities Summit in Incheon Songdo, South Korea in June 2017.

Urban density and our close proximity to fellow residents within cities makes them hubs for interaction. The importance of these interactions cannot be underestimated as evidenced by the consequences of communities that fail to promote it. Studies show that social isolation can lead to health risks as significant as smoking, heart disease and obesity.

What are the social innovations that will offset isolation, disengagement and stress? To answer this, Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand expressed that it is important to remember what is at the heart of social capital: the relationships between people that form a community. In every city, the goal should be to cultivate a culture of interaction.

The Group Director of Strategic Marketing for Bouygues Construction, François Pitti, explained that construction companies have traditionally looked at buildings and infrastructure projects themselves, but noted that building in today’s world should be people-centric. “We need to look at contributions from the citizens. What buildings are enablers for caring and for linking people together?” he said.

Senior Health Adviser in the Department of Ageing and Life Course at the World Health Organization, Alana Officer pointed out that as people age, social isolation only gets worse, a paradigm that urgently needs to change. Officer leads a global network of age-friendly cities and communities in 381 cities and 37 countries and looks to creative solutions to change this scenario. She shared the case of Deventer, Netherlands where students live in a nursing home rent-free. Officer sees hopeful opportunities for intergenerational solidarity with this kind of initiative.

Francis Pisani, journalist at the French newspaper Le Monde, who moderated the panel, brought forward the idea of “third spaces,” outside the boundaries of home and work. Panelists discussed how this space would be most used and, therefore, most effective if it were to be “co-created” by citizens and government. For Mayor Dalziel, city officials must allow their communities to explore how they want to use urban space. She mentions technology as a potential tool for co-creation but also warns about the divides it can create for generations who are not as tech savvy. “We must remember inclusivity is an integral factor in the decision-making process,” she says.

Pitti, on the other hand, expressed that social innovation is “taking small steps to increase the linkage between governance and the people.” This crucial link can help inspire healthy, social, and co-created cities.