A Fractured, Lonely City Looks to People as Infrastructure to Create Mindful Change

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 22. I didn’t move to become an actress or to pursue a career in entertainment. Instead, I moved because I met a boy on the internet six weeks earlier and swore it was true love. The feelings towards him (now classified as infatuation) – coupled with a growing restlessness to not become that girl that had only in lived place all her life – got the best of me. I sold all my possessions, packed two suitcases and nine boxes of books I could not live without, and bought a one-way plane ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles.

When I disembarked that United Airlines flight at LAX in January 2002, it was 62 degrees, a sheer contradiction from the -13 degree weather I experienced only six hours prior. I couldn’t believe it; I was here and I ready to take on the city of Angels. Little did I know that only two months later, the supposed “love of my life” and I would end our relationship in a way only fit for the most epic of soap operas (reality TV had not yet taken it’s sadistic hold on Hollywood).  Sure enough, it happened, and I found myself suddenly truly alone. At this point, I knew I had to make a decision – retreat or persevere. I could either moved back to Chicago (much to the satisfaction of my family) or I could cut my losses and put my all into making a new life in Los Angeles. I chose the latter, venturing on this unfamiliar path mostly alone, but fueled by a new sense of independence.

Los Angeles, 10 Million Lonely Souls?

Over a decade later, despite the many friendships I’ve made or opportunities to network, Los Angeles is still a fractured city. Our cracks aren’t caused by earthquakes that shake our grounds; they’re caused by geographical and cultural silos that create great division within our neighborhoods.

Fun Fact: Geographically, Los Angeles is 502.7 square miles and extends for 44 miles longitudinally and for 29 miles latitudinally. Los Angeles County is divided into 16 regions with approximately 237 neighborhoods that house over 10 million residents. Nevertheless, many Angelenos feel lonely, but not because they live alone in an overpriced apartment building. Rather, people feel disconnected from the environments around them, and they don’t know where to begin to find a remedy for such loneliness.

Did you know that it’s estimated that 66% of people will live in cities by 2045? That statistic, when overlaid on Los Angeles, frankly frightens me. How would a city, with two thirds of its citizens living in densely populated areas function if the residents felt disconnected, alienated, or ostracized? Well, it wouldn’t work. The city would be a place of socio-economic turmoil with high crime rates, lacking critical social services with transportation issues ridden logistical nightmares from poor urban planning. Most likely, I’d think my chances of surviving an alien invasion (as we saw in Battlefield: LA) would be more plausible than attempting to make a go of sifting through the urban mess I am envisioning (even if Michelle Rodriquez had my back).

A City of  ‘Me’ Becomes A City Of ‘We’

In the past two years (early 2012) though, my thoughts about leaving Los Angeles altogether have stopped. I’m noticing a shift in the way Angelenos tackle loneliness. Businesses and individuals are operating under the idea of people as infrastructure, a topic extensively written about by Abdou Maliq Simone, an urbanist and sociology professor at the University of South Australia. LA’s “me” agenda has been replaced by the “we” agenda. The city’s residents use collaboration as a tool to solve our city’s wicked problems, leveraging the collective intelligence of groups of people to solve our most complex issues in the areas of poverty, education, civil rights, business growth, cultural arts, water, and food. From the work of larger entities like LA 2050 and Good Corps., to smaller groups like Ciclavia and i.am.angel, innovation is seeping into Los Angeles from all directions. In November of 2013, I participated in a week-long exercise with the LA Makerspace, The Skirball Center, LA 2050, Reboot Stories, and the Hub LA for a week-long event called DIY DAYS. The problem that we came came together to address was the following:

Los Angeles is a region of tremendous talent. It has a thriving creative community, innovative businesses, and nonprofit organizations, a burgeoning tech and startup scene, and infectious civic energy. Despite all this, the Los Angeles region has one of the highest unemployment rates and the lowest graduation rates in the country. Our air quality is the poorest in the U.S., and over one million Los Angeles County residents confront hunger or food insecurity every day. What are we doing wrong? And more importantly, how do we change it?

DIY Days brought together individuals (kids through senior adults) and civic organizations from all around the city to address these questions. Participants worked together to discuss how we could build systems throughout the city in order for LA’s inhabitants to thrive. Through a series of collaborative experiments, we designed a “future city,” where all inhabitants could thrive. The results of that storytelling and design behind this project are still forthcoming, but there’s one idea that is beginning to make it’s way into real life – “The Buke.” “The Buke” is an idea developed by a young man named Chamo,  a student at Youth Build Boyle Heights, an alternative school for students who have dropped out of a traditional public school system. Chamo and many of his classmates miss school because they don’t have a ride to school (they’re household does not have a car) and they cannot even afford to take public transportation. If these students take the bus without paying, they’re given citations they cannot pay. As a solution to this transportation issue, Chamo presented his idea of a people-powered bike bus that would provide his classmates a low cost transportation alternative. After the DIY Days, Chamo went back to his school and created a design team made up of three of his peers and adult mentors. Together they prototyped the bike bus and are moving forward with turning this idea, born on the back of a napkin, into a living, breathing bike bus. They will be presenting the BUKE to LA2050 for funding consideration.

No bridge over troubled waters, thats okay, i can walk on over it anyways. #santabarbara #beaches

A photo posted by Macala Wright (@macala) on

People Need People. Period.

Groups like LA2050 and Reboot Stories have renewed my faith in Los Angeles, a city built for its people. Activities like DIY Days and Learn.Do.Share. will serve as the catalysts for great change in the city.

In order to continue to successfully use people as the infrastructure, we must expand our understanding of our residents’ desire for social connectedness. Furthermore, we must explore the dynamic between the social and psychical infastructure. Camaren Peter, a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, articulates that a dual understanding of the dynamic inter-relationships between social infrastructure and physical infrastructure in a “people as infrastructure” situation requires “a focus on the interstitial, in other words, on that which connects and distributes rather than disconnects and accumulates.” Peter’s philosophy pushes for city organizations “to understand how sociocultural factors and behaviors meet these infrastructures and to understand how these relationships converge to produce systemic effects in different local contexts.”

Peter’s grand ideas may sound slightly esoteric to any reader,  so let’s break it down. In layman’s terms, in order to build the thriving metropolises of tomorrow, we need to learn to think much more deeply and critically. As agents of change, we must understand that our actions don’t just affect us, they affect many. We have to think of that impact on both macro and micro levels. In order to design better programs, systems and plans, we have to adapt a long-term point of view,  requiring much more consciousness and mindful thought processes.

Mindfulness is Key to Creating Sustainable Urban Ecosystems

We need to take the time to learn about the concerns of the constituents involved in the choices and decisions we make. We have to be mindful of all parties involved. When we’re mindful, we become catalysts for positive impact and change. Mindfulness encourages us to step outside our “self” and look at our “collective” view. We can only work mindfully when we put our ego aside and adapt a dual focus to bring about new ways of working.

John Caswell, a design thinker and visual theorist who designs programs for future cities, believes that mindfulness and conscious thinking allows us to collectively generate better ways of coexisting together, especially in densely populated areas. According to Caswell, there are always a number of ways to approach a complex issue such as creating a more mindful city, which, at first glance, appears utterly intangible. Caswell writes:

How much mindfulness can we afford? As a city dweller my consciousness of my own situation, my context is an ever present daily concern, my drivers are experiential and largely based on my ability to live my lifestyle the way I want. As a city planner my consciousness is likely preset at a meta level. It’s highly compromised by reality, conditioned by different – and probably competing – interests and politics. Naturally enough, they will need to cover efficiencies in spend and be focused on energy, transport, commercial and revenue creating driver. With such varying ‘altitudes of interest’ involved, the smarter city will work to design sensitive/highly conscious ways of accommodating both where they can. And when crucial social policies are involved, we’ll need to recognize that we need to do nature’s work and create sophisticated/caring solutions more akin to the living systems of coral reefs than the horrific exploitation of the floor plans of convenience and alienating urban wastelands.”

Caswell’s and Peter’s philosophies focus on designing great urban cities on a global scale. As Peter writes, “Realising this dual focus will require new ways of thinking and doing. Urban theorists and practitioners hold the keys to a new world: it is difficult to predict what kind of future they will ultimately unlock. Will it be a world where more of the same urban development continues, or will new innovations be actualised in the urban fabric that guide us towards a more equitable, inclusive urban environment, ushering in a different kind of world from the one we live in today? Only time will tell.” I know I’m excited to see what the future of Los Angeles holds.