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An increasingly factious, mentally disrupted, and confused age needs to find a path to clarity and hope -- and it may be right in front of us, grounded in our own local neighborhoods



EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is part of a series of discussion topics for the upcoming 61st International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference in Cortona, Italy, October 29-November 1, 2024.


The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has reported deeply troubling news: the kids are not alright.


In his new book The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, he describes the rise of what he calls "phone-based childhood," marked by the widespread adoption of smartphones and social media in the early 2010s. This shift coincided with significant increases in anxiety, depression, and self-harm among adolescents, particularly girls. Haidt notes that girls are more affected because they spend more time on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, which emphasize appearance and social validation, leading to increased stress and anxiety.


This trend has coincided with the decline of what Haidt calls "play-based childhood," a trend that began in the 1980s due to increased (and largely irrational) parental fears of kidnapping, the decline of safe walkable and bikable neighborhoods, and the resulting decline in opportunities for unsupervised outdoor play. Haidt argues that free play is crucial for children's brain development and social skills, and its reduction has led to increased anxiety and difficulty handling normal childhood fears and risks.


Haidt describes the importance of "antifragile" traits, making it easier for children (and later adults) to cope with stress. The idea of antifragility, developed by statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, refers to systems that actually benefit from shocks and volatility, as opposed to those that are merely robust or resilient. Examples include muscles, immune systems, and ecologies. In each case, the systems grow stronger in the presence of stressors (exercise, pathogens, or periodic wildfires, say). When we over-protect these systems from stress -- preventing exercise, isolating from all germs, or snuffing out small manageable burns -- we actually make these systems weaker.


This, Haidt believes, is what has happened to a generation of children, as they have lost the daily "exercise" (not only physical, but also mental) of childhood play, with all its minor dangers and stresses. In its place, they now experience an artificial world of online interaction, at once overly protected and overly threatening. Caught between these extremes, children have no opportunity to exercise their coping skills in controlled doses. The result is that they become the opposite of antifragile.


Crucially, children naturally develop healthy coping traits when playing outdoors in their neighborhoods, interacting with others within the public and private spaces of the city. They learn how to explore, test boundaries, adapt to consequences, and form bonds with others, even as they experience occasional (controlled) dangers and hostilities from others too. Unlike in the online world, with its artificial, placeless forms of contact, their explorations within the networks of places around them allows them to build up practical skills and real-world judgments.


This is not the only problem with social media and the Internet, of course. The replacement of "play-based childhood" with "phone-based childhood," with all its disturbing consequences, parallels other troubling Internet-based phenomena: the rise of fake news, surging conspiracy theories, and increasing online bullying, by both children and adults. There are worrisome repercussions for political divisiveness, the decline of faith in institutions (and their integrity as a result), and the erosion of interpersonal trust, often translating into growing social isolation at the neighborhood level.


It's worth remembering that many people once thought the Internet would bring about a kind of golden age of knowledge, a leveling of expertise and a growth of capabilities. But too much knowledge, it turns out, is not knowledge -- it's noise.


Moreover, reliable knowledge has a crucial feature: it's deeply embedded in a relational network of other knowledge, verifications, test outcomes, and evidence. This network grows out of one's personal knowledge and judgments, and it extends into the more institutional forms of knowledge on which we all depend (say, weather forecasting, medical prescriptions, and so on). As this "deep net" structure grows, our knowledge builds up its confirmations and the confidence in its reliability. It is this reliability that enables us to fly in jets, cure many diseases, land on the Moon, or perform many other routine marvels.


By contrast, the Internet we experience lacks this deep-net structure. While "surfing" (i.e. only skimming its surface), we are regularly inundated by clickbait messages like "You won't believe the five stupid things you'll click on, number three will shock you!" (Says who? Where did this come from? Why am I being told this? Probably to sell you something, or to make you angry -- or to manipulate you in some other way.)

We suppose that we are in control, choosing what we view and where we go next. This is an illusion, of course: it is the algorithms that control us, expertly doing so in ways that maximize profits and other benefits for the manipulators. We are being fed a regular diet of very shallow-net structures indeed: titillating videos, enraging memes, provocative posts. We have no way of sourcing their claims, or checking citations, or reviewing evidence.


Contrast this "shallow net" structure with, say, the structure of Wikipedia. Although perhaps not perfect, it has become the go-to reference guide on myriad topics. It is certainly vastly more reliable than most Internet material, and evidence suggests it is remarkably accurate and useful on an impressive range of topics. That's in large part because it has a structure of required citations and hyperlinks -- the same "deep net" structure of knowledge that allows us to land on the Moon, or put up a telescope a million miles from Earth. If a reader believes a Wikipedia article is wrong, they can trace the source of the claim and view the evidence for themselves. If they have more correct information and can demonstrate that to the editors, they can even correct the article.


This "deep net" structure of knowledge illustrated by Wikipedia is also a feature of artificial intelligence. Its "neural networks" mimic the processes of the human brain, evolving remarkably intelligent outputs based on so-called "large language models," and other deep-net repositories of information. The technology is indeed powerful, and for that reason, dangerous. It is also enormously promising in a number of ways. The challenge for AI is the same as the challenge for the Internet three decades ago: how can we harness this structure to truly increase, and not decrease, human well-being? This will be a daunting and sobering challenge for the years ahead.


Interestingly and importantly, the structure of Wikipedia grew out of the structure of wiki, which in turn was developed by software engineer Ward Cunningham as a tool to share so-called "pattern languages of programming." Pattern languages, in turn, were developed by the architect Christopher Alexander, as a way of capturing the web-like interconnected structures of the best human environments. (Deep nets, it seems, have an important counterpart in the world of human environments.)


Patterns describe the essential relationships between the elements of a design, both within the design and outside of it. In both the built environment and in software, each pattern is hyperlinked to others and to citation sources, just as a Wikipedia page is hyperlinked to others, and to citations. This network of patterns and citations forms a deep-net structure, potentially vast depending on the depth of connections. Alexander intended pattern languages to be capable of capturing the more profound interconnected qualities of the best human places -- including the "deep nets" of evolved human traditions.


Ward Cunningham has said that wikis are, in fact little pattern languages, with each wiki page hyperlinked to others. In both cases, the deep-net structure is capable of capturing an essential aspect of the realm at hand. In the case of software, as in the case of the built environment, it is the web-like essence of a design problem, or how its structure of elements relate to each other and to other external elements.


The idea that pattern languages can capture the real deep-net structure of human places is certainly Alexander's great insight -- and it's all the more remarkable that this insight later became the basis of a highly useful innovation in the software world... and then yet another highly useful innovation in the world of knowledge and information.


The deep-net structure of human places also has a relationship to other biological structures. For example, ants and other social insects lay down information in their environments through chemical scent markers, enabling successive insects to build up highly complex and sophisticated structures. Examples include termite mounds that are capable of regulating their temperature and performing other functions. This phenomenon, known as stigmergy, likely plays a critical role in human environments too, as we form patterns of information that others build on successively. Perhaps a true "smart city" will need to take advantage of this phenomenon.


Moire fundamentally, the deep-net structure of human places, while often overlooked, has critical implications for human well-being. We can choose to enhance these web-like interconnected structures within our neighborhoods, fostering connectivity, enjoyment, adventure, exercise, and social contact. Or we can create neighborhoods that cut us off from one another, and leave us with little to do but retreat indoors to our screens.


For adults as well as children, this is an avoidable tragedy.


 

Below is a 20-minute summary of many of these ideas, in a February 2024 talk titled "Confronting the Age of AI: Wider Lessons for Settlement, Technology and Culture."



- Michael Mehaffy

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The next IMCL conference, in Cortona, Italy, October 29-November 1, will bring together international allies to explore and learn from great urbanism past and present


ABOVE: View from Cortona's Piazza Garibaldi to its agricultural region.


Cortona, Italy, may seem idyllic, but it faces many of the same challenges as other towns and rural regions in other countries: the need to provide viable economic opportunities, especially for young people; the need to build a healthy and resilient urbanism in the face of growing climate threats; and the need to promote urban walkability, healthy living, food security, and quality of life for all. 


Italy, like other countries, is developing promising innovations to meet these challenges. Its rural economic development is refocusing on sustainable local agriculture and uniquely local products for export (emphasizing the “terroir” or unique qualities of each place and its products). The country’s celebrated “slow food” movement now has a global urban counterpart in “slow cities” (or CittaSlow), a movement to savor the low-resource, low-carbon delights of walkable cities with abundant urban squares and public spaces. In many small cities, public markets are thriving, supplied by agricultural co-ops and innovative new forms of business. New digital technologies are supporting the viability of remote businesses and their workers in smaller towns, and also providing new modes of healthcare delivery, as well as other critical resources for local residents. Formerly declining and even crumbling towns are being revived by young entrepreneurs and placemakers, eager to revive and rebuild (often lured by tempting real estate bargains). These developments are bringing a new generation of innovations and methods, offering much for others to learn.  


Cortona’s leaders are eager to learn from other cities and regions. In late October, the city will host the 61st International Making Cities Livable (IMCL), with partners including the Congress for the New Urbanism, The King’s FoundationUN-Habitat, Seaside InstitutePlacemakingXPlacemaking Europe, and other international urban partners and allies. The conference will gather urbanists, city leaders, researchers, and innovators, sharing the latest tools and strategies for a more sustainable urbanism. 


“The Ecology of Place: Learning from Nature, Culture, and History,” will examine Cortona and other cities of Italy and Europe, including regional history, urban patterns, natural ecology, cultural traditions, and innovations. Other partners may include the World Farmers’ Market Coalition, the Council for European Urbanism, and the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU), as well as universities and their leading urban researchers.


ABOVE AND BELOW: Cortona, Italy, with its many lessons for urban morphology, regional agriculture, markets, food, public space, resilience, walkability, and much more.


Mallory Baches, President of the CNU, noted the importance of partner collaborations. “Along with UN-Habitat, INTBAU, the King’s Foundation, the Seaside Institute, and many other fantastic organizations doing important work to improve our built environment, CNU partners with IMCL on this regular symposium.” She notes the importance of “turning research into coordinated communication and strategic action.”   


Representatives of The King’s Foundation, King Charles’ charity dedicated to sustainable urbanism, will explore work across the Commonwealth to plan for rapid urbanization and the transition to a new generation of more livable cities and towns. They will be joined by representatives of Oxford University and its Sustainable Urbanism program, developed by Foundation members. Representatives of UN-Habitat will share work on the New Urban Agenda, and work to “localize” the Sustainable Development Goals in cities and towns across the globe. Other partners and participants will explore more frontier work on urban challenges in Italy and beyond, and inspiring innovations to meet them.  


The IMCL was founded in 1985 by a Viennese medical sociologist and a British architectural and urban scholar, Henry and Suzanne Lennard, who were passionate about sharing the best evidence-based lessons of great cities and towns to improve livability, well-being and health for people and planet. In the years since its founding, the IMCL has become a unique peer-to-peer gathering of city leaders and researchers, typically hosted in beautiful, intimate and instructive case-study locales. Cortona marks the return of the IMCL to Italy, after previous conferences in Venice and Rome. 


Interested researchers and practitioners can submit an abstract for a presentation on a wide range of topics, including climate resilience, ecological cities and towns, great public space design and placemaking, transportation reform and walkability, and the lessons of great urban spaces that are on offer in this remarkable part of the world.    


Conference website (with videos of the venue and travel logistics): https://www.imcl.online/2024-cortona


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in CNU Public Square (https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2024/05/31/thinking-globally-building-locally); our thanks to editor Rob Steuteville.

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Executive Director Michael Mehaffy provides a tour of the venue as well as travel and accommodation details; conference set for late October

Above, the main square of Cortona, and a view of the beautiful countryside from a winding lane.


CORTONA, ITALY - The 61st International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference is set to take place here this year in late October, an ideal time to travel in Italy. Crowds are thinner, costs are lower, and weather is generally excellent. Cortona is easily accessible by rail from Florence, Pisa, Bologna, Milan or Rome.


The City of Cortona has generously offered to host and partner on the event, making available its beautiful Sant'Agostino Event and Conference Centre, a new facility in a historic convent here. Cortona has many hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts, most within easy walking distance of the venue.


Partners in the conference will be The King's Foundation (UK), UN-Habitat, the Congress for the New Urbanism, Seaside Institute, HealthBridge, The Urban Guild, and others to be announced.


The theme of the conference is "The Ecology of Place: Learning from Nature, Culture, and History." We will examine the particular challenges and opportunities of smaller cities like Cortona, particularly in relation to their regions, their remarkable urban form, their agriculture, food quality and security, markets and public spaces, placemaking and place management, walkability and low-carbon living, urban resilience and climate readiness, affordability, equity and opportunities for all, and other topics of urban health, well-being and livability.


We will focus in particular on the lessons of historic regions like Tuscany, with its remarkable polycentric structure of cities and towns, and its combination of planned and informal urban morphologies. Using Cortona as a case study and inspiring locale, we will examine similar regions' deep cultural roots as well as their ecological relationship to the land. We will consider the challenges for smaller cities and towns like Cortona, including the need to provide viable economic opportunities, especially for young people; the need to build a healthy and resilient urbanism in the face of growing climate threats; and the need to promote urban walkability, healthy living, food security, and quality of life for all.


The conference will gather internationally prominent policy leaders, practitioners, community leaders and top scholars, to share lessons and discuss potential collaborations. A major aim of the conference will be to serve as a “springboard” toward new research, new collaborative action, and new ways of communicating and driving the necessary transition ahead.


IMCL Executive Director Michael Mehaffy recently traveled to Cortona, exploring the city and our venue, as well as mapping the opportunities for hotels, travel and other logistics. His reports are below. As he notes, Cortona is surrounded by wonderful and inspiring examples of nature, culture and history, including Florence, Siena, Pisa, Bologna, and many other amazing cities. While we have many challenges for our urban and human future, and much difficult work ahead, it's important to take time to share, reflect, and enjoy the beauty of our world and its resources.


Call for Abstracts (no obligation): https://www.imcl.online/cfa-cortona


We hope to see you at a fantastic conference in Cortona, Italy!


Video tour by IMCL Executive Director Michael Mehaffy


Guide to logistics - hotels and travel

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