A Student Perspective
“While the particular [forces] that [influence and enable patterns of market disruptions] may be new, that the fates of place, people, and economies are deeply intertwined is a truth as old as time.” – Jennifer Vey, 2018
By Abigail Buta
Abigail is a continuing student in the MS Urban & Regional Planning program.
I came to Wisconsin from Northern California two years ago, pre-determined to focus my studies on issues of social justice. I visualized making sweeping federal or state policy changes that could improve people’s everyday lives. While I have only grown more committed to the importance of equity, to the worth inherent in each human life, the more I learn the more I realize how much inequity is baked into every layer of our system.
When it comes to the built environment, this is particularly heartbreaking to me. The most vulnerable among us are so often relegated to the lowest quality living environments when it comes to factors that are instrumental for our health and wellbeing, perpetuating a cycle of inequality. This has been a discouraging realization; change starts to feel impossible.
In an effort to better understand the impacts of the built environment, I enrolled in Kristín Thorleifsdottir’s class – Urban and Regional Planning 590*, Designing Health Communities — in the spring of 2020, and so these factors were on the forefront of my mind when the pandemic first hit Wisconsin. The course concepts, some of which are highlighted below, became the perfect framework for reflection as I tried to make sense of everything that was unfolding and regain my sense of purpose.
Course Concept: View from a Window
To say the shift brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic completely overwhelmed me at first, both personally and academically, would be an understatement. While I had long been grateful for the immense privilege of large, sunny windows that looked out at Lake Monona, I became cognizant of what this meant for me – and others – as our worlds shrank. No longer simply the view from my living room window, this had become the view from my office, classrooms, gym, dinner table and more. Despite the lack of variation, my own position seemed to me a wealthy one. But this meant that as my luxuries had compounded (imagine, a lake view now with every meal!) so had a lack of
resources compounded for many. And even with all the privileges I’ve been afforded, I was struggling.
Course Concept: Walkability
I narrowly missed declaring kinesiology as my undergraduate major, and academically I understand that exercise plays a significant role in maintaining health, both physical and mental. However, once my world shrank, my activity levels plummeted. As I moved less and less, I found I had less desire to move my body at all. I felt sluggish and cranky, and I put on a few pounds. Optimism became harder to maintain and getting out of bed was difficult to say the least. Supporting someone else through this pandemic seemed impossible. I could not fathom how people were still caring for aging relatives or children when even caring for myself seemed out of reach.
Despite my looming graduation from the La Follette School, homework was not registering as a concern. So, despite my body’s total reluctance to move, I forced myself to start taking daily walks. Madison is full of wide sidewalks, dedicated paths and beautiful vistas, especially in the downtown core and campus area where I’m lucky enough to live, and though initially an emergency measure to stabilize my mood and reduce stress, walking became an activity in itself. I still get enjoyment from the winding paths through Brittingham Park, the quiet bike boulevards of Mifflin and Kendall, and the varied routes I can take from Lake Monona to Lake Mendota, both stunning destinations. Though I have now thoroughly explored these routes, there remain new things to see and do along the way each time, which keeps me moving.
As we adapted further, my gym posted online group exercise classes, more people took to the streets to run or walk, encouraging me further, and I got back to a level of activity that more closely resembled my original life than I would have expected. However, without access to such a well-designed city core, to safe paths and places worth exploring, I am not sure I would have been able to renew my commitment to exercise, and the effects on my health and wellbeing would have been profound.
Course Concept: A Health Promoting Campus
Sometimes the factors that promote focus and productivity on campus are physical, and those are what we focused on during our in-class discussions. Natural light and green space were both important considerations that I maximized in my home workspace. Once I moved my desk near the windows, with some houseplants thrown in for a little natural restoration, my new office increased my sense of calm.
But we don’t always need to make sweeping structural changes to have an impact. When our classes go online, a health promoting campus can be as simple as a professor who cares about individual student health in the context of their class. Taking the time to virtually meet with me and gently suggesting this new paper topic as a way to work through my pandemic frustrations was possibly the most health promoting choice Kristín could have made, though she altered nothing of the physical landscape to do it.
Course Concept: Encouraging Healthy Social Interactions
Thinking about rebuilding social ties and interactions came later in the process for me, as the first few weeks were dedicated to sorting through the personal turmoil that comes with change. But I soon missed other people, badly, and I wasn’t alone. On my walks I started to notice the landscape changing. New footpaths are being carved into open green space, where many have taken walks with friends from 6 feet apart. Without the ability to interact like before, people are having their windows and front yards speak for them. Creative signs and pieces of art began showing up all over Madison, sending messages of support and love from neighbor to neighbor. So many in our community care about the others who share their space and want to demonstrate this compassion.
This has been a reminder that change is not always formal, planned and long-term. Change can happen quickly, with dedicated community members all working separately from their bedrooms in their sweatpants. Change now has to be on a person by person basis, as we cannot congregate. And this has been empowering.
Our health is dependent upon the built environment, and as we have seen over the last several months, in many ways, the built environment is dependent upon our evolving health needs. Thinking about health in this way, as inextricably linked with our immediate world, offers a straightforward way to make change that for once appears manageable. Lead locally. Work to strengthen connection between people and the places they live, the systems we all navigate with our daily lives. Design each community intentionally for the health of its own residents, design it to promote the wellness enhancing features that so many have lacked access to for so long, and to affirm each and every one of our places within the community. This is what I want to encourage both formally and informally throughout my career, because I believe that place matters, and we shouldn’t have to be as lucky as I have been in my life to enjoy good health.
*In the future this course will be offered as Land Arc/URBPL 621.
Vey, Jennifer S. 2018. Why We Need to Invest in Transformative Placemaking. November 14. https://www.brookings.edu/research/why-we-need-to-invest-in-transformative-placemaking/.