Cities have unique and challenging issues today that constantly evolve and become more complex. Unsafe road conditions cause thousands of deaths each year, vast gaps in wealth cause drastic living conditions, and reliance on cars is contributing to changing climate. It is now expected that planners address all these issues today in their project designs and plans while keeping their budgets low and not straying too far from the existing culture and status quo. So what can planners do? “Meditation is not what you think” provides a potential answer:
Planners have an opportunity to lead our communities by making mindful decisions about the physical, cultural, and financial environment of our cities.
So, what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as full presence, acceptance of what is, and awareness of emotion. It’s an innate quality of mind that is refined through meditative practice. How can it help planners and designers who want to improve their cities? Well, before we begin to force change in the world, we must look at ourselves and change ourselves first to expand our capacity to make a positive impact around us. Inner awareness, empathy, and clarity of mind are some of the many qualities mindfulness can help us improve our cities.
If we wish to change the world, perhaps we might do well to tackle change in ourselves alongside change in the world…Jon Kabat-Zinn
Here are specific areas that mindfulness can help planners and designers with their desires to make a positive change in their communities.
Engaging with the Public
Engagement with the public is quite challenging. Angry community members are difficult to get focused on the subject matter, communicate with, and listen to. Diverse communities have different values that cause conflict and divide and planners are left being pulled in two different directions.
Mindfulness ensures we are mentally and emotionally present in whatever situation we are in. This helps us really listen to what the community members are saying and being attuned to their circumstances, rather than get resentful that they are angry or upset. We react in different ways, some of us get angry back, others numb our emotions and lose our empathy. Both of these strategies create undesirable outcomes and mistrust. Meditation helps us see the emotions that arise, and accept it for what it is, without needed to act upon them. It helps us be present with whoever is speaking, which builds trust and cooperation.
Working in Teams
Planners must work in teams. Although many attribute Robert Moses as putting up freeways in New York, he didn’t do it alone. He had a whole team around him. Planners work with diverse people in their teams such as engineers, architects, elected officials, public members, advocacy organizations, lawyers, traffic specialists, and economists. These groups of people all have diverse ideas, perspectives, and priorities, creating conflict within the teams that make it challenging to work together effectively.
Mindfulness helps us be open, attentive, and curious about diverse ideas, perspectives, and priorities from various stakeholders.
Mindfulness helps us see the grand possibilities of working with such diverse perspectives. It also helps planners be mindful about who is missing in the team, and to take action to gain their perspective.
Dealing with Uncertainty
Mindfulness practices can be described as accepting what is, as it is, without trying to control it, avoid it, look past it, or react to it. Uncertainty is more apparent than ever in this time. It’s a struggle for most people and our desire to control a situation, outcome, or action takes us away from what we can control: our attitude, focus, and energy.
Mindfulness helps us to embrace uncertainty as a gift that provides opportunities that we would have not had without it. If you’re stuck figuring out a solution to a project, remember this:
It may be when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.Wendell Berry
Thriving on Complexity
Planning for cities, towns, states, and regions is a complex expedition because of the limitless forces affecting how we live: intense storms, culture, local and global economy, diseases, emigration, immigration, existing built environment, technology, and so many more. We also have many priorities to prioritize like sustainability, economic growth, equity, livability, and health; and so many different movements, strategies, and tools: vision zero, placemaking, new urbanism, strong towns, etc. While this makes it an exciting time to be a planner, it’s also overwhelming.
A mindfulness practice grounds us to be okay with the complexity, embrace it, and see the opportunities that come from it. It helps bring us to the here and now, rather than be caught up in the clutter of our minds. This results in clarity and allows us to know what is most important in our daily work.
Fadel Zeidan and others found that just “4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention”. This is significant for planners because it helps sustain attention even with so many distractions and priorities in today’s world.
There are many guidelines, standards, and sets of knowledge that help us become better planners. We can look at these as “scaffolding” that help us grow and learn to successfully plan and design our cities.
However, to build something greater through creativity and innovation, we must let go of the concepts, standards, guidelines, and best practices. Mindfulness helps us see what we wouldn’t have seen with this “planners” lense that shades what is right in front of us. It helps bring clarity to our mind so there is room for moving beyond the confines of our existing understanding of what makes a great place.
Mindfulness frees us from “our limited self-oriented views and tendency to grasp and cling to what we desire and to push away what we fear.”
This freedom cultivates our innate creativity.
Reducing Racial Bias
Adam Lueke and Bryan Gibson found that mindfulness meditation caused a decrease in racial bias. This makes sense because the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to suspend all judgments. Obviously, we will still judge (ourselves, others, any situation), but meditation makes us aware of those judgments and why we are making them. This is a profound insight to know what false beliefs we have. As Planners and designers, we will be working in communities that are racially different from us, and it’s important we remain impartial to who we are serving and serve them because they are really just like us, human.
Breaking it Down
Everyone finds their own way to bring mindfulness into their lives. Sometimes it can just be walking through a park, sitting in a parklet, or running on a trail. As urban planners, we must bring mindfulness in our lives to more effectively plan and design sustainable cities and communities. With all the stress we can experience throughout our day, meditation can bring us an inner peace that brings joy to our work, and in turn joy to our cities.
Mindfulness is “an openhearted, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness, the direct, non-conceptual knowing of experience as it unfolds, in its arising, in its momentary lingering, and in its passing away.” And it helps planners and designers to…
Engage with the Public
Work in Teams
Deal with Uncertainty
Thrive on Complexity
Reduce Race Bias
Thank you Crain’s New York Business for the top photo.