polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Runners, Running and Mutual Aid (Even in the Harsh City)

by Min Li Chan

Runners in cities are a ubiquitous phenomenon -- be it in the vastness of Beijing shrouded by the early morning rush-hour smog, on the streets of Paris by the Seine, or in the fish-tank gyms of New York. Ivo Gormley of the design consultancy ThinkPublic started with a dislike for the model of the contemporary gym -- too wasteful for the yearly subscriptions that we fail to honor, and fundamentally an isolating endeavor that he believes doesn't lend itself to opportunities for mutual aid. In scenarios of mutual aid, segments of humanity that may otherwise never intersect can forge relationships and help each other out. The arrangement rarely inconveniences the helper, as the assistance is often easily incorporated into the existing flow (so there isn't the added friction of inefficiency).

Gormley then started an experiment known as The Good Gym:
The Good Gym pairs runners with isolated less-mobile people in their area. Runners jog to their house, deliver something nice, have a brief chat and are on their way again.
It helps people get fit by providing a good reason to go for a run and it helps the person being visited by providing them with some friendly human contact and a newspaper or piece of fruit.
(abstracted from www.thegoodgym.org) 
The Good Gym operates on the principle that if you're held accountable to someone else's happiness, you'd be better at keeping commitments to yourself ("I want to run and be healthy...and there's someone who's expecting me at the end of the wretched 12-miles"). Imagine if participating runners in The Good Gym were responsible for deeper tasks beyond delivering the paper, such as helping deliver insulin injections to older citizens in their community. At the moment, the Good Gym is operating only in Tower Hamlets, London -- but just a little bit of a global groundswell could scale a social innovation like this to other cities.

Gormley believes that there are ways to design formats for mutual aid into contemporary life, particularly in cities. Some examples he cites include couchsurfing, pervasive gaming in cities, and community-based tools on the Internet (think Craigslist).

Here's Gormley on mutual aid at the Lift conference this past summer in Marseille:

Credits: Photo from thegoodgym.org. Video from dailymotion.com.