Contribution to the book 45 Ideas for Ukrainian Cities — and every other city in the world.
By Ole Kassow and Pernille Vedersø Bussone
For over a decade we have worked in the gratifying space between generations. Cycling Without Age has been a tool for people from all walks of life and all generations to meet, spend time together, go for adventures together and make friends. Often with someone 30-50 years your senior – or junior. We have talked with thousands of elders in over 40 countries and learned about their past, their families and dreams, but also how old age often comes with the burden of deteriorating mental and physical health.
With the increased proportion of elders in our societies, we can’t afford not to design our cities to better accommodate people with limited mobility. We have chosen to address this imperative with a person we all know: Our grandmother. And we keep asking the question: Would your grandmother thrive? If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
Cycling Without Age is now a global phenomenon with over 3,000 active chapters in 40 countries. Its concept is very simple: Volunteers take elders for bike rides in special trishaw bikes for the benefit of both elders and volunteers. We credit its rapid spread to our decentralised structure, largely driven by a set of 5 guiding principles: Generosity, relationships, storytelling, slowness and without age.
We have demonstrated the power of principled approaches in Cycling Without Age, and we propose a similar approach when rebuilding Ukraine’s villages, towns and cities after the war.
Would your grandmother thrive?
Do you remember this advice about food: if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize something as food, don’t eat it. It’s not good for you. This chapter uses the same logic, but instead of food it’s urban planning. The question today, when building a city should be: Would your grandmother thrive? There are many reasons we believe that’s the right question to ask. Firstly, grandmothers are worth celebrating. They have usually sacrificed a lot for the next generations to be functional and maybe even thriving. Secondly, when your grandmother grew up, the way cities were organised was less stressful, and thirdly, grandmothers don’t expect the living standards many younger people are now used to. She would thrive with less, which is good for humans and for the planet too. Another inspiration is Gil Penalosa’s 8 80 Cities philosophy: “If everything we do in our cities is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be better for all people”. We believe it’s important for all urban planners to include sociologists and anthropologists, as well as all generations into the decision-making process.
Our principles for cities in which your grandmother would thrive are: Slowness, smallness, relationships, equity and history.
Everybody knows how stress has a negative impact on our emotional and physical well-being. The kind of cities we’re designing here are slower and less stressful. We don’t need massive highways, promising to get people to and from work quickly. It won’t, in fact, get them to work faster, but it will lure them to accept ever longer and soul-destroying commutes, stuck in traffic.
When life slows down, your grandmother thrives, we all do. When we stop being efficient in terms of earnings, we start opening up to what else life has to offer. We may even start smelling the flowers and hearing the birds sing. Both experiences have a positive effect on you. Stimulating the senses will make you happier and let you live longer, and it is a way to drastically reduce the risk of developing dementia. A slow city is safer, and crashes are fewer and less serious.
When we slow down, we become a lot more aware of our environment, and we develop an appreciation of the areas we move through when going from A to B. On a straight road our focus is on speed and propulsion, but soft, curved streets fulfil our need to look around, they foster serendipitous encounters and make us feel safer. People might choose to take different routes to your destination, allowing them to experience new places and meet new people. They might bump into an old acquaintance and they stop for a chat. Slow cities are possible, it’s all down to design. Think about what happens when a traffic light stops working, and commuters have to communicate and treat each other fairly. The slow city does this intentionally.
We humans come in a size which is more or less universal, give or take. Your grandmother for one, is likely quite small compared to others. Architecture should take this into account. The places you feel welcome are made in a way to fit your organism. Power hunger and massive architecture go hand in hand, dictators love to show control of emotions and nature by projecting their egos onto urban planning. Huge, massive buildings can be beautiful and impressive, but they’re not where your grandmothers would thrive. It’s difficult to get an overview of huge structures, people feel belittled and lost in them. Where does one get in and out?
Smallness also refers to distance. The 15 minute city is what we dream of for the next generation of Ukraine’s cities. In the 15 minute city we don’t need big box stores in the outskirts of the cities, just the selection of shops, schools and services you need regardless of whether you’re 8, 80 or in between, and it is accessible to people regardless of their ability or mode of transportation. Within a couple of blocks, the people who live there will know each other, and the human-sized buildings will reflect the mood and philosophy of the inhabitants.
Your grandmother should have a long and happy life. The one major predictor of such fortune is the quality and quantity of her relationships. Many cities today are built without any consideration for how we create and maintain friendships. In contrast, most mediaeval southern European cities have cosy squares with permeable facades and benches positioned for optimal conversation between two or among groups of people. An urban planner cannot make people meet, but they can create the framework and the structure, which can make it happen.
In Sardinia, people live longer than almost anywhere else in the world. According to psychologist Susan Pinker that’s because of their social lives. In cultures where relationships are prioritised, people thrive. We propose that urban planners, policy-makers, property developers, architects and engineers always ask themselves this question before any new development is considered: How does this building/park/road/square/junction help people meet? And make them want to stay for conversation? Conversations and interactions are goals in their own right, and the benefits are evident.
Equity is different from equality because it takes into account how people have different starting points. Your grandmother may not be able to use a smartphone, which is one factor to be mindful of before expecting her to download any app that you may find useful. We humans have a strong inbuilt sense of fairness, and as a result equity brings so much good to a community because when we strive to be equal, we inherently trust each other and we trust our institutions.
Urban design plays a role in making equity a constant priority by giving all citizens access to shared resources. Examples of such public goods: water fountains, benches, trains, buses, toilets, sports facilities, recreational spaces, shelters etc. There are strong elements of joy and relationship-building in sharing with your fellow citizens, and the added benefit is that these places will create opportunities to meet new friends and learn something about someone who isn’t just like you. Your grandmother will thrive in an equitable community, because her needs will be taken into consideration and options will be offered to her without her even having to ask for it.
A town or a city doesn’t come out of the blue, it is tied to the people and the history of the place. Without roots, we are detached and lost. A famous quote by philosopher George Santayana goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The quote is also posted on the entrance to Auschwitz.
After a war, with lives lost and people’s lives changed forever, it is important for the inhabitants to remember. Commemoration is a sign of respect for the fallen and is an essential part of healing for the families, for the comrades, for peace, for future generations and for evermore.
Grandmothers all over Ukraine have lost their sons and grandsons to war, maybe even husbands during the Second World War and under Stalin’s regime. Give them a voice by showing and remembering the history, so that it may never be repeated.
When the war has ended, don’t erase all traces of the past. Leave scars of imperfection in buildings and in the landscape.