by Tracy A Marciano
Urban Planning as a means to organize people, places, concepts and practices has an interesting history. As civilization progressed, urban planning followed a parallel trajectory, reacting to practices that outlived their usefulness. With each era, large scale redesign was at the forefront of change with small pockets of improvement on the periphery.
Contemporary discourse about urban health is primarily focused on green spaces and walkability. While both are important in the urban fabric, they are not absolute measures of ideal public health and their results are hard to quantify against the variations in symptoms and treatments for mental disorders. Introducing concepts from other fields and recalibrating them into plausible urban design initiatives is a potentially interesting approach to improve mental health in cities. In particular, as urban areas gain momentum, exploring concepts from eastern medicine such as acupuncture, aromatherapy (or horticulture therapy), directional alignment with the sun and the moon, nocturnal gardens, botanical soundscapes and energy balancing might be applied to exert a positive impact on mental health in modern cities.
Map developed by Sir Ebenezer Howard, urban planner, 1850 - 1928. This shows his vision for improving the conditions of the poor through combining the best aspects of town and country and allocating space carefully. Read more here.
As populations migrate towards urban centers at an accelerated rate, advancing improved health strategies - rather than utopia - is often being achieved through incremental improvements.
A recent movement is New Urbanism, or tactile urbanism, which seeks to align with sustainability, preservation of existing buildings and walkability. However, as with past attempts at planning perfect cities, such as The Garden City movement, individual experience, public mental health and most importantly, the causation and impact of mental health problems have been largely excluded from the dialog.
Jamie Lerner, who served three terms as the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil uses urban acupuncture as the philosophy behind his successful initiatives. Urban acupuncture is the mature cousin to tactical urbanism, which has suffered a bit of backlash lately as a trendy, high-concept practice of questionable long-term impact. Lerner writes in his book “Industrious mediocrity is gaining ground, along with merchants of complexity: the bean-counters and the inconclusive, never-ending researchers. But sometimes, just one stroke of creativity is acupuncture powerful enough to make progress.”
In 2007 University of Minnesota published a paper about their collaboration with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. This paper highlighted key findings about how to increase accessibility to nature to address mental health problems. Their research also found that social networks are important and that mental health is connected to fundamental public health issues but did not offer developed solutions with measurable results.
In most cities, areas that create tension and erratic energy and areas that can exacerbate anxiety, depression and isolation are evident. If cities are viewed as a biological system and receptive to holistic wellness plans, the philosophy of urban acupuncture may be an ideal platform to improve heath. For example, if obstructed walkways and clogged streets create tension and anxiety, a small area, such as an acupressure point along a vertical meridian line, could be addressed rather than attempting a complete urban redesign.
Green space is prevalent in urban planning. However, an actual plan for the green space is often missing. Green space can mean a small strip of grass, or a few trees added as an afterthought. Applying other eastern principles, such as aromatherapy would be a progressive addition to the design phase. For example, if there is a lack of people using a public space where there is ample seating, adding a vertical garden with aromatic herbs may draw people to the area. Aromatherapy, or a fragrance garden, on a large scale could enhance individual experiences while reducing stress and anxiety. It also gives purpose to a vertical garden aside from aesthetics.
Incorporating vespertine gardens (night blooming) would help understand that urban areas have enormous potential after sunset; and would also align with solar and lunar lighting during the design phase. Nocturnal plants are more fragrant and assist visually impaired individuals when combined with other sensory plantings. Using balance between day/night, light/dark can create enough stability to reduce tension and anxiety.
Urban acupuncture is an intriguing starting point to reconsider conventional urban planning and design. It highlights that we are at a critical moment in time when all stakeholders can think about long term plans and how those plans will have a positive impact on mental and public health in urban centers.
Caixa Forum Museum employing concepts of urban acupuncture and aromatherapy to urban design. More details.
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Sanity and Urbanity: