This webinar was part of Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19, a lecture series presented by SFU Urban Studies in collaboration with SFU Public Square and financially supported by the Initiative in Sustainable Urban Development.

A summary of Being Kind: How Much Sociability Matters

November 04, 2020

Meg Holden and Aphrodite Bouikidis
SFU Urban Studies

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Public Square or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

In this heartfelt contribution to the Pandemonium webinar series on Oct. 21, panelists from Vancouver, Toronto and London, U.K. reflected on the dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic that have affected our relationships in profoundly disruptive ways. Reaching beyond the compulsion to be “nice” to one another, panelists brought ideas, evidence and stories from their practice and research on what is at stake for the common humanity of our cities as we respond to and recover from the pandemic.

Our panelists were Helen Pineo, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, University College London; Michelle Hoar, Project Director of the Hey Neighbour Collective; Kate Mulligan, Director of Policy and Communications with the Alliance for Healthy Communities and Assistant Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto; Joan Wandolo and Anthonia Ogundele of Ethos Lab; and Jennifer Johnstone, President & CEO of the Central City Foundation.

Moderator Meg Holden, Director of SFU Urban Studies, opened the evening with her thoughts about Dr. Bonnie Henry’s mantra guiding our response in B.C. to the pandemic: “Be kind, be calm, be safe.” 

While the invocation to “be kind” stood out initially as beyond the reach of urban planning and policy, perhaps this thinking needs to change. Aside from its monumental impact in other areas of life, the pandemic also represents perhaps the largest psychological experiment in human history. Emerging results of this “experiment” are disturbing – up to 50 per cent of people in some early pandemic surveys in the U.K. who had never before experienced depression are now reporting depressive symptoms. Here in B.C. we are witnessing record drug overdose deaths. And many other signals also point to breakdown of the fundamentals of the social web of our cities.

The pandemic also amplifies trends – already present before the pandemic – away from regular human connection in our daily lives, particularly in our homes. However, whereas before the pandemic, urbanists and urbanites could always point to the urban features of density, proximity and centrality as keys to why cities are needed, the pandemic has turned these very urban features into risks and dangers. In response, we need to voice new arguments in favour of the city. The pandemic forces us to think radically differently about our neighbours and what makes the diversity of our cities essential to kindness – and vice versa – at this time.

In her presentation, “Kindness, COVID and Urbanism,” Helen Pineo began with the concept of a syndemic, defined in epidemiology as the clustering of two or more conditions within a particular context, characterized by the interaction of social, political, economic and ecological drivers. She brought a systems view to her work in the built environment and health fields, speaking to what she had witnessed in the early months of the pandemic: the remarkable displays of kindness, but also the burdens that fell on particular groups in particular conditions in unjust and uneven ways. What does it say about how we value children’s wellbeing, for example, when we close schools and playgrounds, but bars and restaurants are open for business? 

Helen presented her new framework for a systems-based approach to healthy urbanism: THRIVES: Towards Healthy uRbanism: InclusiVe, Equitable, Sustainable. She argued that practices of kindness can be inserted into urban policy by recognizing three things:

  1. that the health impacts of our choices in urban development and planning can reverberate well beyond local boundaries at different scales;
  2. that structural barriers, much more than personal behaviour choices, prevent people from realizing their full health; and
  3. that our behaviour to the nonhuman environment is part of the kindness equation, and environmental degradation makes our pandemic worse and restricts the solutions available to us.

Michelle Hoar, Project Director for the Hey Neighbour Collective, began with an etymological reflection on the limits to kindness in an often unkind world. 

Many of us suffer from chronic stressors of social isolation and loneliness as well as the shocks of very restricted social life during the pandemic. Michelle introduced the Hey Neighbour Collective, a community-of-practice-based project housed at SFU that brings together housing providers, researchers, health authorities, local governments, non-governmental organizations and others to build resilience in multi-unit housing. Community-of-practice partners include Catalyst Community Developments Society, Connect and Prepare, Brightside Community Homes Foundation, Concert Properties and West End Seniors Network.

The goal of this new project is systems change to increase social connectedness amongst neighbours and increase the individual resilience of residents in multi-unit buildings. It builds upon the wisdom that any and all social connections help protect people against health risks when we find ourselves in an emergency. As Michelle emphasized, “Who you have in your toolkit is even more important than what you have in your toolkit during a crisis.”

Michelle provided some inspiring examples of residents working together with quite modest support from housing providers to make transformative changes in the friendliness of their buildings and their grounds. She also sketched out a more comprehensive way in which the understandings and strategies of the Hey Neighbour Collective could be built into housing policies at different levels, and the benefits that deeper integration could bring.

Kate Mulligan brought the wisdom of a community health approach that flips the way in which people interact with the health care system from being a question of “What’s the matter with you?” to being a question of “What matters to you?” 

She encourages viewing community health as “local but structural kindness.” From a community health approach, health is relational as well as individual. Community health depends upon structures and set-ups of options for engaging at least as much as it depends upon curing diseases. 

She illustrated this from her home in Toronto, where the neighbourhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 are also the neighbourhoods already known to have the highest levels of deprivation along a host of lines. Testing was not made as available in these neighbourhoods as it was elsewhere in the city, but also, community members were less likely to take advantage of testing when needed because of histories of discrimination and other bad experiences interacting with the health care system. 

The creative and empowering response from the Alliance for Healthier Communities was to convene testing services in these neighbourhoods that were culturally friendly, cognizant of the colonial and disempowering legacies of conventional health care approaches. This approach met multiple goals at the same time, from increasing COVID-19 testing rates, to increasing understanding of what is needed to protect oneself and one’s community from infection and spread of disease, to empowering and building relationships of trust, kindness and belonging in these communities. 

This work fits within the practice of “social prescribing” that the Alliance advocates for, elevating the kind of advice that leads people to prioritize good habits (which could include a range of things, from joining a dance class to making a plan to ensure food security during the pandemic) to the same level of importance that we conventionally ascribe to a drug prescription from the doctor. 

After discussing some of the programming elements that they have found necessary and beneficial to make social prescribing work, Kate addressed the important question of why government agencies tend to treat matters of kindness and social conscience as unserious and immaterial, when they are in fact so central to health.

More information is available in the reports that Kate mentioned, including:

Converge3 Guidance Report 
Rx: Community - Social Prescribing in Ontario

Two social innovator panelists, Joan Wandolo and Anthonia Ogundele, spoke on behalf of the Ethọ́s Lab, their creation based in Surrey. 

Ethọ́s Lab emerged as an emergency response to a critical lack of representation of Black youth in STEM fields in school and in tech disciplines in the workplace. Ethọ́s Lab aims to disrupt this status quo in the interest of a new kind of kindness, where teenagers aged 13-18 are brought together in physical and virtual space as a community of impassioned technologists and innovators. 

Together, beginning at a hackathon, they have created a virtual world called Atlanthos, which Joan and Anthonia demonstrated with a video tour and an accompanying poem that was also written by the group. As a form of kindness, this space creates opportunities and spaces to centre the humanity of the Black experience in Surrey, to co-create, foster their own ecosystem and rhythm, and establish an online culture in which they can feel protected, valued and visible. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened reliance on the digital realm, the practices and spaces within Ethos Lab were presented as a model of kindness and integrity for youth seeking to find places of meaning in the city.

Jennifer Johnstone, President & CEO of the Central City Foundation, closed the panel with a report from her work to mobilize emergency responses to save lives and reduce harm among the most marginalized Downtown Eastside residents during the pandemic. 

This community found itself largely abandoned during the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with closures of many of the neighbourhood services and spaces that people depended on daily. Jennifer wanted to make clear that to exercise kindness in this context was an act of solidarity and profound resistance to the fate to which, it seemed, these people had been relegated. She provided inspiring examples of efforts led by local organizations and community philanthropy to provide 140,000 meals to residents in shelters, single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, and on the streets, and to erect a massive tent to provide respite, warmth and safety to women who no longer had anywhere to go. 

All of the efforts that transpired were the result of cooperation and collaboration, and an insistence upon kindness as a common love of humanity.

In the discussion, panelists and audience members both brought forward their own definitions of kindness. Not only in B.C. but internationally as well, a host of leaders can be seen making appeals to a politics of kindness in the pandemic, and this sense bolsters and justifies increased spending on emergency social supports. 

At the same time, these politics cast shade on the gendered, colonial and racialized ways in which politeness and protocols can sideline challenging conversations. Several speakers voiced perspectives about the different demands for individuals and for institutions to act with courage to enact kindness. In both scenarios, kindness implied a relationality that simply being “nice” did not require or expect. But that relational notion of kindness could grow into solidarity, resistance, and disruptions to the status quo necessary to lift up others. This need not be a pipe dream. An example was given of counties in California, in which preconditions of economic reopening included the demonstration of equitable provision of health care services in all neighbourhoods in a county.

What this kind of policy work demands is a recognition that rectifying inequities and injustices supports common community goals, even for the privileged. In a conversation about how much kindness we should expect in conditions of austerity and resource scarcity, when there is never enough to go around, the need to create city structures that make clear that “we are all in this together” was mentioned. The fact that the wealthiest places are not the places to have escaped with the least harms from the pandemic was raised, too.


Related resources

This new report was released by the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer for Canada shortly after this webinar.


Listen to the recording of this event as a podcast:

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