February 01, 2012

My field trip to the United Nations

Health is created and lived by people within the settings of their everyday life; where they learn, work, play, and love. —The Ottawa Charter

United Nations • New York, NY

Last month, on the final day, late in the afternoon I had a chance to take in Design with the Other 90%: CITIES an exhibit at the United Nations in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and curator Cynthia Smith. A moving installation of ideas and realities in response to the phenomena of urban growth in cities around the world. These innovative projects, creative proposals and real solutions address complex issues involving a mix of civic, public and private partnerships with urban planners, designers, entrepreneurs, public health and educators. I imagine the exhibit would make a great field trip anyone interested in shaping healthier communities in the future.

Settings for health are the places or social context in which people engage in daily activities in which environmental, organizational, and personal factors interact to affect health and well-being. —World Health Organization,1998

Health depends on livable space. Place and environment matter for healthy living.  The following caught my eye:

    Mention of the KwaThema Project brought back memories of a healing and reconciliation initiative that I worked on within this community. KwaThema is in the East Rand province of South Africa where a community-driven pitch to build new soccer fields builds excitement among young people while also clearing the landscape for healthier  living.

     Abalimi-Bezekhaya community gardens and microfarming feed a Cape Town community with a cost-effective model for sustainable living. Their approach is sensitive to climate change as well as self-determination, community empowerment and sustenance for healthier living. Here's a clip of their song and movement:

     WASSUP (Water, Amenities and Sanitation Services Upgrade Project) is a large-scale project model in community development, urban design and health led by a UN Millennium Project Task Force in collaboration with Diepsloot residents, community leadership and local community developer Sticky Situations.  South Africa’s Diepsloot is a township north of Johannesburg with a diverse community including immigrants from other African nations. There is strong preference among many to remain in this setting because of the sense cultural connection and informal economic hub that nonetheless includes high rates of unemployment and substandard living conditions. WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) became a primary public health response to work for improvement of environmental conditions and health.  WASSUP applies GIS technology to locate toilets, drain pipes and sewers in need of repair and created a new rubbish-collection system. WASSUP has emerged as a business cooperative, supported with community involvement and also improving public safety.

There are over 60 installations to review, I selected these based on my experiences South Africa.  Another innovative solution Voice of Kibera applies Ushahidi tools in a global mapping project with OpenStreetMap, a GroundTruth initiative involving local youth and their communities who are taking on WASH public health strategies and safety using crowdsourcing to identify problems with water, sanitation and/or security anywhere in the community. Residents can also share posts, news, videos and SMS on the Kibera platform.

Diversity circle, holding hands for diversity and inclusion.
During my visit I was approached by a group of students from the midwest participating in a year-long bridge program. They came to New York City for a three month visit to further their experiential learning. This assignment involved creating visual symbols of diversity and inclusion while at the exhibit.  At their request, I joined hands in a semi-circle with a group of strangers to pose for a picture.

Healthier Communities By Design is a group in the Design Other 90 network offering space to further discuss health in the design in cities.

I’m now reading Dr. Richard Jackson’s new book, Designing Healthy Communities with the hope of continuing this conversation.


  1. There is a land that I can go to
    When I have time to rest.
    All the people I love are there
    And those who love me best.

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