by Layla McCay
Director, Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health
What exactly is public life, and why does it matter to mental health? That is the question I sought to understand when I participated in the Gehl Institute's Act Urban conference in Philadelphia, US last week, focusing on ‘public life’.
Jan Gehl himself presented an argument of ‘urban invitations’. His premise is that people interact with their built environments based on the invitations that our environments extend to us. Great, continuous bike lanes invite us to cycle to work. Wide, attractive sidewalks invite us to walk. Benches invite us to sit, rest, and interact. Parks invite us to play and run. And roads invite us to drive. When it comes to strategically designing cities, the question Gehl poses is: who do citymakers really want to invite… and to do what? The answers enable more strategic planning for the cities we want.
Gehl describes his utopian city as safe, democratic, friendly, healthy, beautiful, livable and lively, a city that would prioritise pro-social interaction, where city dwellers feel part of communities, exert positive agency on their environments, and participate actively in so-called ‘public life’.
Many of his aspirations have important parallels with the growing research on how to design better mental health into a city. Here at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health we recently developed an evidence-based framework called ‘Mind the GAPS’ that helps consider opportunities for urban design for better mental health, where GAPS stands for green, active, pro-social and safe places. Good public life, as envisioned by Jan Gehl and the Act Urban delegates last week, has much in common with these principles: prioritising access to parks and green space, delivering opportunities for exercise and learning, developing communities that foster good social capital, and improving a city’s safety can all have positive impact on a city's mental health.
As part of Act Urban, UD/MH held a workshop on urban design for mental health where delegates from such diverse provenance as Google, AirBnB, architecture firms, Kaboom! children’s play organization, and public art projects assessed a local city street for the feelings it evoked – and proposed intuitive improvements to reduce stress, depression and anxiety (recognising that spaces are systems, and addressing one element in isolation is of course not always the most helpful approach). The results were varied: better use of design and building materials to reduce unpleasant sound, reduction of confusing visual ‘clutter’ in streetscapes, installing street benches to invite sitting and socialising, and introducing colour and ‘adventure’ opportunities to engage children as they walk along a busy street. Workshop participants cited lack of eye contact as a potential inhibitor of pro-social interaction and wondered if there might be a role for urban design in triggering eye contact in an appropriate way to help catalyze positive social interactions.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussions for me was the question of how to practically achieve a city that promotes better public life and mental health. Designers, planners and developers can help educate, create demand and produce great projects – but ultimately, practical delivery means bringing a diverse range of stakeholders on board: the community needs to demand it and contribute, the clients need to want it, and the policymakers, financers, real estate brokers, regulators, garbage collectors and even the fire department all need to be ready to facilitate the practicalities of a grand vision becoming a great public place.
Engaging these different people is important because as Gehl emphasizes, ‘half-hearted infrastructure’ is not enough to persuade people that our city genuinely means the invitations it seems to extend to us. Inviting us to bike means system changes to make biking a fast, cheap, safe option, integrated with other public transit systems. Inviting us to walk means ensuring there are pedestrian walkways and good sidewalks that continue across small side streets, wide and shady, with safe crossings. And inviting us to participate in public life needs to be an invitation extended to whole communities, inclusive of diverse socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, mental or physical health, sexual orientation, and any of the other myriad differences that make up every great city population.
UD/MH notes from the various Act Urban sessions
By Madhavi Prashant Patil, Architect, Urban Designer and Assistant Professor, India
In any city , the city centre is the entity of social life. But the city may not function effectively as a well knit unit if it is too densely filled with people. Cities, by their very nature, tend to have high population density and heterogeneity of people driven there through economic growth and sociocultural trends, amongst other reasons. But these are demographic facts - they cannot define the experience of living in this environment.
The term OVERLOAD provides a helpful link between demographic facts and the individual's experience in the city. Overload, or stimulus overload, can be defined as a psychological state wherein scenarios and encounters are so mentally, perceptually, and emotionally arousing that they drain or even go beyond the person. It is a term coined by American social scientist Stanley Milgram in the 70s in his writing on the Experience of Living in Cities. Overload is caused by the cumulative effect of a range of environmental stressors that tend to be particularly prevalent in cities: crowding and invasion of personal space; insufficient working and living space, noise, dirty or untidy conditions, pollution, and a disorganized environment, to name but a few.
Faced with overload, people tend to adapt by starting to withdraw from scenarios that deliver high levels of stimulation. However, prolonged adaptation to mitigate the effects of overload can also diminish the physically social aspect from people's lives that is so important for mental health and wellbeing. The effects of this withdrawal can include reductions in people's social, moral and environmental interactions within the city, increased desire for anonymity (to help remove oneself from unwanted events), a search for physical and emotional privacy, and a reduced willingness to trust and assist strangers.
In addition to describing his cognitive overload model, Stanley Milgram characterized the various generators of the stimuli that contribute to overload as 'inputs'; inputs include people, vehicles, activities, and even environmental factors like temperature, noise and pollution. He proposed six specific adaptations to cope with overload:
1. Allocation of less time to each input.
2. Disregarding of low priority inputs.
3. Redrawing boundaries to social transactions, shift the burden to others.
4. Blocking of receptor prior to entrance.
5. Employing filtering devices to diminish intensity of inputs.
6. Creation of special institutions to absorb inputs/shield the individual.
In terms of the individual, this can mean:
Prioritizing: Organizing and approaching tasks based on importance.
Refusing: Identifying tasks that don’t need to be done.
Limiting: Avoiding the mindset that more is better.
Queuing: Getting tasks ready to be done later.
Delegating: Identifying tasks to be given to others.
Shifting: Perceiving situations more positively by accepting them as a part of your job.
And in terms of the city itself, and opportunities for urban design, this can mean:
Improving the task performance of individuals: Optimum usage of available infrastructure to facilitate better task delivery.
Implementation of principles of selectivity: Devise strategies to put forth important and critical points to avoid confusion and in turn save time and energy.
Increasing social interaction to reduce overload: Create opportunities to promote positive social interaction and inculcate the sense of responsibility.
To control the intensity: Control the generator of activities to reduce the intensity.
To provide a place to pause: Linking all available open pockets to the main street. Create a place from a space.
With the increase in density and intensity in cities, more and more people are at risk of overload, but even small interventions in urban design can help people cope with their inputs more effectively.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: