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 Layla McCay, UD/MH Director
EVENT REPORT: an interesting research event launching a series of discussions on feeling good in public spaces, hosted by the UK's ARCC Network at the Wellcome Trust in London, 18th November 2015.
It is unusual to attend an event that is specifically focused on the nexus of urban design and mental health. All too often in discussions about how urban design can improve health and wellbeing, the focus is on physical health, specifically on active cities. Of course physical activity can have great impact on mental health, but when it comes to a specific focus on mental health opportunities, in the words of one urban planner, ‘we haven’t a clue’.
It was therefore particularly interesting that the UK Climate Impacts Programme chose to host the first in a series of discussions focused on that very question, with the inaugural event kicking off at the Wellcome Trust in London on 18th November 2015. An audience that included designers, planners, developers, academics, and health professionals gathered for a fascinating and diverse series of talks.
Georgina Hosang from Goldsmiths, University of London summarized the links between urban life and mental health, highlighting the differences in prevalence of various mental illnesses in urban versus rural areas in the UK, highlighting increased urban rates of depression, alcohol and substance dependence, and schizophrenia. In particular, she highlighted the need for for urban designers and planners to help create spaces in the city that increase social capital, a key factor that reduces the risk of developing mental disorders. She highlighted the London Mood Project, using mobile phones to map people’s mood in different geographical locations in London. If you’re in London, why not download the app and get involved.
Rhiannon Corcoran from the University of Liverpool started the discussion of how to measure and understand the implicit and explicit effects of urban places on peoples’ feelings, thoughts and behaviour (slides). She showcased the Prosocial Space Programme and introduced research that measured people’s responses to photographs of different types of urban spaces, anticipation of threat as they walked through various areas of a city, and surveys of what people felt made a positive place to live. A different method of measuring the effect of people’s interactions with the urban environment on their mental state was discussed by Panos Mavros from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL, who has interestingly been using portable EEG machines to measure people’s brainwaves as they walked around urban streets (slides).
Antonio Caperna from the International Society for Biourbanism talked us through evolutionary theories for biourbanism (slides). His theories of why humans respond positively to nature were based on the brain’s affinity to the viewing of fractal patterns (naturally occurring, complex patterns found in nature), and he argued that architecture should reflect this inherent affinity. He argued that throughout history, the body has evolved itself to its environment, and current adaptations to urban life include stress, fear, anxiety and aggression, and that we can employ principles of biophilia in urban design to enhance human interaction with the built environment.
From the perspective of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, my focus was on why mental health has been sidelined in urban design discussions, prioritisation and investment. In my view (summarised in this New Statesman op-ed) a combination of stigma, concerns about the complexity of the causative factors of mental illnesses, and a vicious cycle of non-prioritisation have led to mental health becoming the Cinderella of urban design and health integration. I highlighted key areas that we believe hold particular potential for urban design in improving mental health and would benefit from further research (for more detail, see slides):
To take mental health to the ‘urban design ball’, we must not ask just what urban design can do for mental health, but what we can do to increase the knowledge, data, profile, prioritisation, and implementation of mental health improvement as part of urban design. It must be a matter of researchers, urban designers, planners, policymakers, engineers, and public health professionals explicitly asking that question when developing their plans and projects.
One major theme from this event was the challenge of accessing and translating high quality research into practical urban design: “we need evidence to back up our hunches” when it comes to mental health promotion through urban design. We must undertake, publish and share more research and experience, and find ways to translate all this information and experience into practical, evidence-based guidelines, while guarding against a one-size-fits-all approach.
Mental health can and should be at the urban design ball. This is why the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health is planning the launch of a new journal (call for papers out now), and is publishing research, ideas, and case studies on this Sanity and Urbanity blog (submit yours) to increase the discussions, research, and people’s access to the research. We are planning discussions, consultations, and guideline development. That’s what we’re doing. As a designer, policymaker, planner, health practitioner, engineer, researcher… what will you do to help get Cinderella to the ball?
UD/MH slides from the event:
See all the slides from the event here.
Where are you originally from, and where do you now live and work?
I was born in Washington, D.C., raised in its suburbs, and currently live in the Bloomingdale Neighborhood near U Street in the District. I just finished 23 years with Arlington Department of Transportation and am embarking upon private practice in my new hometown of Key West.
Which is your favorite city in the world, and why?
I love traveling and my favorite cities include Heidelberg, Vienna, Montreal, San Francisco, Seattle, the District and Key West. I’m moving to Key West in the fall because it’s compact, vibrant and historical. It’s very walkable and bikeable. And you can eat and play outside twelve months a year. We don’t own a car in D.C. and won’t in Key West.
What sort of work do you do around the intersection of urban design and mental health?
I help cities make it easy to use active transport options like bike, walk and transit instead of driving. This makes individuals, companies and places more green, healthy, prosperous and happy.
How did you end up working at this intersection?
In looking for hooks to change people’s behavior from driving cars to instead using transit, biking and walking for commutes and everyday trips, research tells us that people who use these options to car driving are healthier and happier and less stressed. So we use these facts (among others) to market these options.
What particularly interests you about the link between urban design and mental health?
The world is becoming more urban. As the population expands in the coming decades, this will only become more so. We can’t repeat the mistakes of our most recent past where here in North America we built dispersed, environmentally and economically unsustainable, un-healthy car-dependant places. We can reverse this trend. And change is starting to occur in some progressive cities. Recent work and research points out that our physical environment can influence our mental and physical health. City governments have a huge influence over that built environment. Cities control the development approval process and so can influence what and where the private sector builds. And cities control a quarter to a half of our land, depending upon how you measure it, when you account for streets, parks and rights of way. As the emerging mental health research gets better, there’s an amazing opportunity to use this data to help us retrofit and build healthier places.
Can you describe an example of good urban design that positively impacts mental health?
Streets that are built for people. That means streets that prioritize people who walk, bike and use transit rather than cars. It looks like wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes. It means prioritizing public space for plazas, small to large, where we can eat, shop and congregate. These streets are less stressful and more healthy and happy places than car-centric streets. My favorite examples here in the District, because I use them a lot, include the 14th Street Corridor and 17th Street in Dupont Circle.
What sort of challenges do you see in urban design for mental health?
Changing the status quo can be difficult. Especially if that change is seen as taking something away from people who are use to the way life use to be. So every time we prioritize people and take away on-street parking or take away a traffic lane to replace it with a parklet or plaza or for walk-bike-transit space, someone will cry foul. The biggest challenge is the political will to make these changes.
Why do you think people don't focus enough on the link between urban design and mental health?
I don’t think people focus on it because it’s an emerging science. It has only been recently that planners have realized the connection between the built environment and physical health.
What would you like to see the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health achieve?
That’s why it’s so exciting to see the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health come onto the scene. This new think tank can contribute to making the places we live better by getting us to consider more than the bottom line. In the end, we’ll all be healthier.
Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisrhamilton
We are very excited indeed to have confirmed our launch event and first interdisciplinary dialogue: 7th July at 6:30pm at the British Embassy in Washington DC, and you're invited.
Join urban thinkers and doers from architecture, design, transport, urban planning, healthcare, academia and more for dynamic, diverse presentations, conversations, and drinks to celebrate the launch of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health.
Chris Hamilton - Improving population mental health through urban transport
Sara Hammerschmidt - Land use for better mental health
Jamie Huffcut - Integrating the principles of good mental healthcare design into the city
Yonette Thomas - Geospatial thinking in urban mental health
Robert Zarr - Prescribing parks over pills for children's mental health
6pm Join us to toast the launch of UD/MH with wine and cheese
6:30pm Formal Program
7:30pm Networking and informal discussions
Sign up now
Layla McCay, UDMH Director
I took the photograph at the top of this blog while visiting Medellin, Colombia, and forgot about it until I was thinking about photographs for this website. It seems an apt basis for the first post on the UDMH blog. Medellin is a fascinating place. Named the world's most innovative city, they have shifted from a setting of danger and fear to an urban environment to be proud of. On the day I took this photograph, I visited one of the city's poorest areas to experience their game-changing public transport innovations, and admire their beautiful library. I was enchanted by the 385-metre long escalator and the 2km-long cable car, both linking this previously isolated area with the rest of the city (and in the other direction, providing easy, affordable access to a beautiful mountain park). Strolling through the streets en route to the library, I noted the numerous community spaces and the beautiful use of murals. I particularly loved the mural of a bus as it combines my delight at street art and my appreciation of public transport.
To start off our blog, here's my op-ed from the Huffington Post that was inspired by that trip, musing upon the future of reading and the library as a third space: Why We Should Let Go of Nostalgia and Embrace the Evolution of Libraries.
Sanity and Urbanity: