Visions of a Healthy Community

health-community-17030Last week I described what people talked about when they reflected on their experience of a healthy community. This week I describe what they drew in small groups after envisioning a healthy community.  While these drawings appear childlike in their simplicity and lack of sophistication, they are actually quite profound. Both what they include and what they omit tells us a great deal about what people value when it comes to the communities where they live

If I were to sum up the hundreds of drawings I have seen in dozens of workshops I have led in North America and Europe, I would say that people depict something like a 21st century version of a European market town. There are certain themes that tend to be common across almost all these drawings.

First, in a healthy community it is always summer, and the sun is always shining! Every community has a centre, a town square or a village green, where the community gathers. Often there is a market there, or shops, and other social activities and festive events, as well as playgrounds, bandstands or other forms of shared recreation and entertainment. Clearly people value what is known as conviviality – the ability to live well together.

They also value diversity, which is frequently shown as groups of stick-figure people in different colours, often with one or more in a wheelchair, and including both children and adults, holding hands in a circle or group. Diversity is also often shown as a place of worship that has the symbols of different religions all together, showing a wish for more understanding and togetherness.

There is always green and blue – plants and water – both at the centre and around the community, in the form of parks, greenspaces, tree-lined streets and so on. This is very telling, because it shows that people recognize the importance of and have a need for contact with nature. Moreover, there are usually community gardens or even urban farms – some form of food production within the community.

One of the most striking things is that there are almost never high-rises in people’s depiction of a healthy community, even in large cities. At most, there may be buildings that are a few storeys high. Workplaces do not feature prominently, but often the presence of industry or symbols of an economy (usually a dollar sign) are shown, though seldom in the centre of the community. The economy is shown to be clean or non-polluting, with windmills or solar panels indicating that the energy system is also clean.

The most significant thing about these drawings is what is not there – cars! In the many drawings I have seen, cars are rarely present, and almost never in the centre of the community. People are shown walking, biking, using buses or trains, even horses, but not cars, except sometimes at the edge of the community. Trains are often shown as a way of getting between cities. Considering we are such a car-oriented society, this is a fairly remarkable picture to emerge.

As I noted last week, ‘vision is values projected into the future’, as Clem Bezold puts it. So what do these pictures, these visions, tell us about our shared values? First, people value community, they value the sharing and togetherness and support that comes from community – but they also value diversity. Second, they value nature and a clean and green economy. Third, they value a human-scale community; low-rise buildings, mixed use, and above all, walkable and thus car-free.

But perhaps the most important thing it tells us is that our developers, planners and politicians have failed us in some significant ways in the design of our communities over the 20th century. They have created alienating skyscraper environments and car-dependent communities where nature is often marginalized, and they have failed to create the convivial social spaces that people seek.

Fortunately, a number of urban movements have emerged to challenge this way of design and development. Whether concerned with livability, health, sustainability or safety, whether known as New Urbanism or Smart Growth or Transition Towns, they are pointing the way to healthier communities, more closely aligned with the deeper values that Healthy Community vision workshops reveal.

By Dr. Trevor Hancock

Published on July 27, 2016 in the Victoria Times Colonist

© Trevor Hancock, 2016