A healthy habitat

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 29 September 2021

Two commemorative days – one saintly and one secular ­– share more than a common anniversary date.

It is coincidental this year that World Habitat Day and the Feast of St Francis of Assisi occur on the same day (4 October). Each day has its own distinct focus, but they complement one another.

World Habitat Day, designated by the United Nations for the first Monday of October, invites us to reflect on the way in which we live in towns and cities, and to make them more hospitable and sustainable. St Francis spent his life moving from a wealthy life in a trading city to a poor life close to nature in villages and the countryside. He is remembered above all for his ecstatic faith. It was inspired by the natural world and is encapsulated in the Canticle of the Sun. The two words that form the refrain of the Canticle, Laudato si’, are also the first words of Pope Francis’ call to care for our world and for the poor. In it he stresses the need to shape cities in a way that respects the shared humanity of people who are poor.

Both days stress the importance of a habitat that is properly human. World Habitat Day focuses on the life of poor people in the cities who often live lived in squalid, unhealthy and crowded conditions. In a year when most discussion about habitat focuses on its effect on global warming, the day also calls on a carbon free environment. This demands rethinking the way in which cities are allowed to grow. It gives priority to planning public transport, to reforming the ways in which heating and power are generated, and to shaping the patterns of work and play that create a healthy living environment for all people with minimal emissions.

The quality of the human habitat matters because human beings matter. An environment that is unhealthy, crowded, unsewered and lacking in health and educational services will seriously harm the lives and possibilities of the people who live there over many generations. The Dropping off the Edge research led by Jesuit Social Services over many years has shown how signs of disadvantage cluster together in defined local areas. Children born and raised there are more likely than children in the population at large to suffer from mental and physical illness, to have limited access to child health care, to be exposed to domestic violence, and to have less access to education and health services, to the use of internet and to regular public transport. They are also more likely to be unemployed and to be involved with the justice system. Significantly, too, they are much less likely to have access to areas of parkland and grass and the seaside both in their living area and through holidays or excursions.

These connections substantiate the urgent need, insisted on by Pope Francis, to attend to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. In a habitat where the needs of people who are poor are neglected the physical environment will also be degraded, and the steps necessary to address climate change will not be taken. The greed, whose effects are felt in the despoiling of the environment and in the degradation of people who are the victims of gross inequality, will simultaneously affect the health both of people and of the world.

St Francis of Assisi broke that chain of connection between exploitation and wealth. Born into a wealthy family he left the city to live as a beggar in the country side and later to gather others with him to live poorly with the poor and to commend the poverty of Jesus Christ. He enabled people to imagine a habitat based on simplicity of life, on gratitude for the beauty of the natural environment, and on recognition of the mutual dependence of people and the environment. Through his way of life he called for a conversion that recognised the necessary connection between the respectful accompaniment of people who were poor and reverence for the natural world. He embodied a habitat of the heart in which simplicity, generosity and reverence for the created world had a place.