It has been said that traumatic incidents dislocate “the lived and imagined landscapes” of a city’s emotional ecosystem. This theory feels especially palpable as we approach the precipice of the post-COVID city. Scarred by decades of car-centric infrastructure and festering social divides, our already wounded urban landscape, along with its services and amenities, has been further threatened by the global pandemic.
This public health crisis was worsened by civil unrest spurred by spatialized anti-Blackness on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, anti-Asian attacks and the revelatory discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children lost to Canada’s residential school system. The very foundations that our cities are built upon are traumatized, poisoned by blood and colonial conquest. They are yearning for healing – the kind that can come only from integrating a trauma-informed placemaking and urban policy approach that embeds deep individual and community healing into Canada’s recovery plan.
Sadly, however, the language of recovery has been co-opted and primarily applied to the economy, negating the urgent need to also invest in both population and environmental recovery. This is particularly concerning because when Statistics Canada released a survey that asked how mental health has changed since physical distancing began, 52 per cent of respondents indicated that their mental health was either “somewhat worse” or “much worse”; 88 per cent said they had experienced at least one symptom of anxiety two weeks prior to completing the survey; and 71 per cent reported “feeling nervous, anxious or on edge.”
Much like COVID-19 itself, individuals from equity-seeking and sovereignty-seeking groups face disproportionate impacts of related adverse mental health impacts. One-quarter of women indicated experiencing moderate to severe anxiety, which is significantly higher than their male counterparts. While COVID-19 is a significant challenge for all young people, Indigenous youth, disabled youth, gender-diverse youth, racialized youth and youth living in rural areas were most concerned about confinement- induced family stress. Essential workers in close proximity to daily death in health-care facilities, as well as those carrying out precarious, unfairly low-paid work, are also weighted down by mental and emotional duress.
It’s irrefutable that COVID is not simply a threat to physical health, it’s also a threat to mental health, and the latter cannot be quickly resolved with a vaccine or by reviving the economy. For example, a report examining mental health and SARS found that 64 per cent of SARS survivors continued to show signs of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress one year after the crisis. The same study found that 33 per cent of SARS survivors had at least one diagnosable mental illness, primarily post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, 2 years after the crisis ended. Urbanism practitioners and policy-makers must understand that it is entirely possible to “recover” from, or survive, a crisis from which we have not fully healed. Much like how the biological wound-healing process consists of four phases, post-pandemic place-based healing is a delicate process that requires appropriate phasing and time to be effective. Equally important, rushing to superficial recovery instead of healing deeply leaves people and places more vulnerable to future crises. To avoid these cascading adverse impacts, we must employ a mutually reinforcing, holistic approach that includes community-based mental health investments, trauma-informed placemaking and a trauma-informed urban policy review across all Canadian cities (figure 1).
While traditional urbanism practice and policies tend to be technocratic and are often unresponsive to complex socio-spatial challenges, research shows clear correlations between urban design and cognitive respite and healing. Additionally, urbanism scholarship provides a growing number of definitions and theoretical frameworks for advancing a trauma-informed placemaking approach. An example of this is the growing recognition of community trauma, sometimes referred to as collective trauma, defined as “an aggregate of trauma experienced by community members or an event that impacts a few people but has structural and social traumatic consequences.” As Lauren Weisner notes, the definition of “community” can vary. She says “community” can be defined in many ways – “geographically (e.g., a neighbourhood), virtually (e.g., shared identity), or organizationally (e.g., a place of worship).” There is evidence that this form of trauma is rooted in historic and ongoing structural inequities such as racism, gender-based discrimination, poverty, forced displacement, place-based divestment and cultural erasure – the very same issues impacting individuals disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a placemaking practitioner and researcher focused on urban equity, I have encountered tremendous community trauma when addressing serious place-based issues such as transit-oriented displacement, gentrification, development disrupting Indigenous burial grounds, racially fraught Confederate monument sites in the United States and parks stained by gender-based violence. Through continual professional development and inter-disciplinary collaborations with elders, mental health practitioners and community care leaders, I’ve been able to ensure that the design and development processes I lead integrate healing, witnessing and healthy expressions of grief.
As a professional from a group that has faced considerable community trauma, I’ve learned a lot about the permeability of this form of trauma, and am continually developing strategies to safeguard my own wellness. This line between the personal and professional has never been more blurred for me than it was during COVID-19. I lost a friend and her late-term unborn baby girl. Three days later, a young man with whom I had collaborated in the southern U.S. drowned. Then, my dear friend and colleague suddenly died amid a project we were collaborating on, and, finally, my partner was the victim of an anti-Asian knife attack less than a block away from the entrance to our loft. The urgency of addressing the multiple dimensions of community trauma, among communities and among those of us on the frontlines of the crisis, has never been more salient for me.
Therapeutic planning, as well as broader ideas of integrating a therapeutic approach into placemaking processes, grapples with ideas pertaining to the role of urban design in creating communities that are both physically and psychologically healthy. This theory includes a range of concepts including reparative approaches for engaging communities that have experienced historical place-based discrimination; intentionally designing green spaces to foster enhanced mental health; and redressing social inequities caused by zoning and infrastructure. According to Leonie Sandercock, a notable urban planner and academic, this form of planning is communicative and directly engages historical and emotional aspects of challenges across diverse urban demographics. These and other trauma-informed placemaking theories and concepts employ “a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder, and multi-level approach to support and strengthen traumatized and distressed residents and communities” to address a wide range of socio-spatial challenges and “include a comprehensive set of individual-, interpersonal-, community-, and system-level efforts.” Sandercock’s translation of theory to real-world application is crucial because addressing community trauma, which is at once structural and embodied, requires the translation of theory to real life.
Although trauma-informed placemaking is a relatively emergent constellation of theories and concepts, models such as Elizabeth Bowen and Nadine Shaanta Murshid’s six core principles of trauma-informed social policy support real-life application and practice (table 1). Their model identifies and defines principles that are also applicable to trauma-informed urban policy.
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Moreover, grassroots stakeholders have a long history of implementing place-based healing rituals, both formal and informal. Take for instance, the Fletcher Street Urban Riders Club, led by Ellis Ferrell, hailed as the godfather of urban cowboy culture in Philadelphia. The club teaches young people how to ride and care for horses as a way of building discipline, confidence and community cohesion. Ferrell refers to the program as therapeutic, and asserts that it gives “a sense of empowerment to the disenfranchised and those living in communities of hopelessness.” His approach is consistent with equine-assisted psychotherapy programs dating back to when the Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, wrote about the therapeutic potential of horseback riding. Today, that has been proven to help individuals navigate depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Similarly, many of the young people who participate in Fletcher Street Urban Riders Club credit it for healing the daily traumas of navigating neighbourhoods with the highest poverty and murder rates among the 10 biggest cities in the United States, including Philadelphia. The program has been beneficial to a diverse range of youth but it has provided an alternative pathway for African-American young people from the plantation-public housing-prison pipeline perpetuated by the state’s discriminatory approaches to infrastructure development and urban policies. Despite displacement due to gentrification and lack of political will to prioritize urban programs that heal – rather than criminalizing young, racialized individuals gasping for breath beneath the weight of community traumas – urban riding clubs have persisted for more than a century. This is just one of many examples of trauma-informed placemaking initiatives across cultures and cities led by local leaders committed to co-creating spaces where healing is normal and essential.
However, given the scope and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, a purely programmatic approach to urban recovery will not suffice. This moment calls for the radical reformation of urban policy and practice to help the recovery from the situational trauma experienced by many individuals, regardless of race or residency. It should also redress structural place-based issues that have contributed to intergenerational and daily traumas distinctly experienced by individuals from equity-seeking and sovereignty-seeking groups. While both of these imperatives are ambitious in both scope and complexity, it is critical to remember that we can’t reimagine a more socially just, sustainable and prosperous future city without investing in healing past socio-spatial wounds. Five considerations for healing our traumatized landscapes and emotional ecosystems are as follows:
1. Immediately increase investments in community-based mental health programs specifically geared toward health-care professionals; social workers; low-wage essential workers; informal community-care workers; families with small children; youth; and other groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and long-standing structural inequities worsened by COVID-19.
2. Initiate a trauma-informed urban policy review across all Canadian municipalities to codify and reform zoning, housing, street enforcement and other policies that have contributed to individual, community and cultural trauma across equity-seeking and sovereignty-seeking groups.
3. Prior to undertaking a development or urban design project, conduct a trauma- informed site analysis to examine how previous placemaking interventions have contributed to community trauma, then integrate a healing strategy across the design, community engagement and construction phases.
4. Develop public-space stewardship plans whereby community members co-create terms of reference that centre equity, empathy, accountability and non-enforcement conflict resolution to create psychologically safe(r) public spaces for all.
5. Prioritize placemaking programs that responsibly create opportunities for communities to openly process and heal from COVID-19-related hardships through initiatives such as story-based community walks, public witnessing circles, commemorative bike rides and community arts making.
While the desire to move past the pandemic is understandable, if we choose superficial recovery over deep healing, our suffering will have been for naught. If collective trauma exists, then the same must be true about healing. Together, we have the power to redress historical harms and create more resilient cities that honour people, all living beings and the planet. The path ahead is admittedly daunting but not as much as the repetition of the past 18 months.
This article is part of the Reshaping Canada’s Cities After the Pandemic Shockwave special feature.