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A Model for a Healthier, Adaptive Approach to Community Development

The Healthy Cities movement is a strong but sometimes underappreciated planning concept with its roots in the complex structure of the human body. Formed in the 1970s, it transcends the current paradigm of building, roadway, and open space planning to address a more complex and systemic view of community life. The movement was pioneered and co-founded by Dr. Leonard Duhl, who was both an urban planner and medical doctor. I was lucky to have him as a planning mentor. 

Len was on my mind recently, when I visited the Smiling Gecko project, a 370-acre site located about 40 miles northeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in the delta region of the Mekong River. The purpose of the project is to provide relief to the many at risk children and families who live in the region. Founded in 2015 by the noted Swiss photographer Hannes Schmid and Cambodian attorney Ngon Sokleap, the project engages some 350 staff members, along with many guests who stay at its on-campus four star hotel. 

The site includes a wonderful collection of structures designed by Swiss architect and professor Dirk Hebel and his students at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich (Department of Architecture and Construction). Each building is assembled from a simple kit of parts that facilitate ease of construction, operational proficiency, energy efficiency, and user comfort. Key features include a heavy timber frame and clay tile roof with suspended bamboo mats that trap heat and amplify air flow. The same basic structure was applied to the design of buildings that serve a variety of needs: hospitality, agriculture, animal husbandry, manufacturing, even a K-8 school.

Smiling Gecko operates a variety of programs that cut across multiple domains of community life. For example, the site’s four-star luxury hotel, with its fine dining and health spa, is also an economic engine that supports a wide range of activities that combine to improve and elevate the quality of life for the whole community.

 The project’s agricultural assets include expansive open fields, along with hydroponic gardens and fish farms with enough production capacity to serve not only its hotel guests, but an additional 10 tons of food that is delivered to residents in the surrounding community every week. 

There is also a woodworking shop where local residents are trained to produce elegant furniture designs. The site also has a music facility that is currently expanding to incorporate a new world-class recording studio where a cadre of international musicians can assemble in its quiet, private, and luxurious spaces to cut their next albums.

The Smiling Gecko’s K-8 public school is designed to support not only strong academic outcomes, but also the physical, social, and cultural needs of its 460 students. For example, students arrive in the morning in their school-supplied “home” uniforms. Their first task is to shower, de-lice, and change into a more colorful “school” uniform that they wear to classes during the day. In addition to academic instruction, each student is also served three healthy and nutritionally balanced meals. At the end of the day, students change back into their freshly laundered “home” uniforms and return in vans to their families.

This complex set of community assets, which includes not only physical, but social, cultural, economic, and educational policies, programs, and placemaking, operates as a self-organizing system, where the income from the working farm combines with the revenues produced by the luxury hotel, spa, and other resources to support more than 350 local workers who receive above-average wages and benefits, as well as healthy organically grown food—and, in some cases, housing.

Within the complex adaptive system of elements at Smiling Gecko, there may be a blueprint for a more symbiotic and sustainable model of community planning. Its ecologically centered ideas could also be important to planners who seek to apply more nature based solutions in response to the impacts of changing weather patterns that could reduce the availability of arable land, compromising both local and global agricultural production and food security.

Meanwhile, it’s also important to remember that our own bodies are also a part of this complex natural ecosystem. As Len Duhl described it, healthy cities are a lot like healthy bodies. In our bodies we have veins and arteries that carry life-sustaining nutrients from one place to another. In our communities, roads and highways serve some similar functions. The illustration below juxtaposes a human body with a map of New Orleans, where arteries and veins, streets and roadways are all delineated with the same red and blue colors, and where the curves of the Mississippi River mimic the sinuous lines of the body’s lower intestine. 

Similarly, our body’s central nervous system transmits electrical impulses in ways that are similar to a city’s power and telecommunications infrastructure. All of our organs are tied to these life-support systems, and when any one fails, the whole system falls ill, or ceases to operate. No matter how good your heart or lungs are, for example, if your liver malfunctions, your life ends. Cities function in similar ways: if you have a lousy educational system, then don’t count on your economic system to be productive (and vice-versa). The health of our cities and communities depends not only on the success of each independent component, but also on the success of the components working together as a whole.

In addition to the physical side of healthy bodies and cities, there is another dimension of community life that is more aligned with emotional and spiritual assets. I remember walking with Len through the French Quarter in New Orleans when he stopped to remind me that cities have emotions and feelings too, so when things like filth, noise, crime, or other negative influences pull things out of alignment, it’s the whole community system that suffers. Likewise, as in other parts of life, when the city is projecting a healthy vibe, everyone wins. 

At the Smiling Gecko, a self-organizing learning community, the vibes are generous, caring, creative, natural, and hopeful. It felt really good to be there.

All photos by the author.


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