Laudato Si and livable communities

OK, so this post isn’t a central theme in Laudato Si, but it’s getting bumped to the top of my list to mention because it intersects with my work, which includes advocating for better communities for all ages to live in. While Pope Francis doesn’t deal specifically with aging in the encyclical (other than grouping the old with other vulnerable people on a few lists),* he talks at length in two different places about what makes a city livable, or not.

Early in the encyclical, Francis outlines the problems our neglect of the environment and each other have created, and starting in paragraph 43 he discusses the “Decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.” He has this to say about cities:

“[W]e are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.” (44, emphasis mine)

Also, “the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty.” (45) and he also lists “social dimensions” such as “employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity.” (46, emphasis mine)

Those bolded items relate to the World Health Organization’s Network of Age Friendly Communities, which analyzes eight domains of livability – transportation, housing, public spaces, civic engagement including employment, social engagement, diversity and inclusion, health systems and communication.

Later in Laudato si, Francis gets to a vision of what “better” looks like and in the section “Ecology of Daily Life” he returns to community design. Paragraph 148 includes a great distinction between community and physical space – that in really horrible settings a strong social community can still thrive, and in 149 he talks specifically about the importance of public spaces or the lack thereof: “The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking harmony, open spaces or potential for integration, can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation…Nonetheless, I wish to insist that love always proves more powerful. Many people on these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome, the experience of a communitarian salvation often generates creative ideas for the improvement of a building or neighborhood.”

Even so, physical space matters: “Given the interrelationship between living space and human behavior, those who design buildings, neighborhoods, 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….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.” (150)

“There is also a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging…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…Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a ‘we’ which all of  us are working to create. For the same reason…it is helpful to set aside some places which can be preserved and protected from constant changes brought by human intervention.”(151)

He moves on from public spaces to housing: “Lack of housing is a grave problem…Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home.” (152)

Transportation, the third leg of the infrastructure troika of the age friendly domains, comes next. “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 the,. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the system themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions dues to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.” (153) City planners, take note. That new urbanism you aren’t serving well may go on to be pope!

The other domains, especially civic engagement/employment (a central theme of more than a century of Catholic social thought), social participation, diversity and inclusion, health systems and communication all draw mentions, but these two nuggets are the most direct guidance toward livable communities in any encyclical I can remember.

*He speaks at length and often about the importance of valuing the aged in his addresses and homilies, so he gets a pass here.

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