Streets account for the majority of our calculated urban space. Defined loosely, the ‘streetscape’ refers to the natural and man-made elements of our streets. The Torbay Streetscape Guidelines elaborates on this simple definition to include: “design quality of the street and its visual effect, particularly how the paved area is laid out and treated. It includes buildings, the street surface, and also the fixtures and fittings that facilitate its use – from bus shelters and signage to planting schemes.” One of the determining factors of a prosperous city is the sustainable design of its streetscapes. However, this prosperity is mostly focused on functionality and often fails to fully leverage the mental impact of design elements on pedestrians and passengers.
When looking at the visible landscape, humans can be affected in many ways that encompass aesthetic appreciation, health and wellbeing. Personally I feel more calm and at ease during a walk or drive alongside a stretch of trees and greenery as opposed to towering buildings, blank facades, grey sidewalks and seemingly endless armies of lampposts. Research exploring the health effects of viewing landscapes confirms my experiences, observing that in some instances, the built urban landscape can indeed pose a negative effect on our mental health and wellbeing. For instance, exposure to monotonous features in streetscapes have been associated with sadness, stress, and even addictions. On the other hand, research consistently finds natural landscapes to be positively correlated with mental health and wellbeing, an effect that can be achieved in the urban environment. A recent cross-sectional study examining urban tree density and anti-depressant prescription rates in London, UK identified a decrease of 1.18 prescriptions per thousand population in areas with a per unit increase in trees per km of street. The study suggests that street trees seem to be a positive urban asset that may play a role in preventing and mitigating mental health problems, and a body of research corroborates this finding. Increasing arbor planting can increase sidewalk functionality, but of course it can have practical implications, including the risk of making roadway functionality more difficult. Thus the choice of whether to install urban trees in streetscapes often falls into the hands of citymakers – and lawmakers. Ensuring that these designers, planners and decisionmakers are aware of the population mental health implications of their decisions is important.
Streetscapes also have an element of auditory interaction with our senses. Our body is wired in a way in which the function of our auditory reflex is somewhat dependent on the tranquility of our immediate environment. Therefore, when considering soundscape, the visual scene is likely to be an important modifying factor in our auditory perception. An evaluation of the effect of natural sounds in conjunction with road traffic noise and visual components in urban streets concluded that the “acoustic comfort factor related to soundscape quality considerably influenced preference for the overall environment at a higher level of road traffic noise.” The most popular of 'nature sounds' was found to be birdsong. On the other hand the sound of falling water was actually found to reduce the soundscape quality if the road traffic noise level happened to be too high. A mixture of functionality and auditory-visual street features, such as artistic acoustic highway noise barriers will serve well to promote mental wellness as well as providing a system of transport from one location to another.
It’s time to recognize that the immediate environment including the often-unwavering streetscape, which we have become involuntarily accustomed to, plays a vital role in shaping a significant part of our mental wellbeing. Along with having street elements, such as road signs, to guide and protect our physical body, we also need to have streetscapes that nourish our mind.
This proposal for an environmentally-friendly acoustic barrier (“Forest Corridor”) in Hong Kong was designed by Bread Studio to meet three conditions: masking the sight of the highway from nearby residential buildings, improving the view of the highway’s underside for people in the park below, and relieving drivers from any claustrophobic impressions as they cruise through the de facto tunnel. - from weburbanist.com
Last winter I had an experience that changed the way I saw urban design.
It was mid-February. It was one of those days that was so cold that the city seemed to be blanketed in a mist of ice. Certainly not a day one wanted to spend outside for too long. I was on my bike, waiting to cross an intersection in downtown Edmonton. That winter was the first that I had decided to participate in winter cycling. I bought an old beater mountain bike and outfit it with some studded tires. It was the best decision I had made in a long time. Winter cycling is a lot of fun.
So, there I was waiting at the light, which seemed to be red for an eternity. To my right, there was a pedestrian waiting for the light to change as well. He wasn’t wearing a winter jacket, or gloves for that matter. He appeared to have mobility issues. He was pushing a shopping cart which I later realized was doubling as a makeshift walker. We looked at each other and had a moment of shared frustration as we were patiently waiting for the crosswalk man to appear. The delayed crossing allowed us time to share some small talk, so I decided to jump off my bike and stand with my new acquaintance, who I’ll call John.
The time finally came that we were given permission to cross. I walked with John as he slowly moved one foot behind the other whilst pushing his cart over the ruts in the snowpack made by vehicles. It was a visibly taxing process for him, and difficult for me to watch. The occupational therapist in me grew agitated with the lack of accessibility this man experienced. We neared the midway point in the intersection when the menacing stop hand began to flash, and quickly went to a full stop. The lights had changed and we were stuck in the middle of the intersection. That’s when John said it.
“Sometimes I think this damn city is trying to kill me!”
Jasper Avenue. Photo credit: author
John had made a valid point. While there wasn’t an explicit intention to harm him, by virtue of the way the infrastructure was designed, John was regularly put in harm’s way.
I have, on many occasions, uttered a similar sentiment. I primarily use cycling and walking to get around the city. I’ve cursed under my breath while waiting at signaled crosswalks that seem to take forever to allow pedestrians to cross only to give them a very short time to do so. On a regular basis, I dodged cars while attempting to use a crosswalk to get across Whyte Avenue and 102 street (Whyte Avenue is a pedestrian rich area in the Edmonton neighbourhood of Old Strathcona). I had a near miss almost every day. And I have the privilege of being an able bodied person that can quickly step back as an unknowing driver almost runs over my foot.
Reflecting on these issues, I was reminded of a workshop I took this past summer given by the Stanford Design Thinking School. I see the problems I identified as primarily an issue of design, or rather the lack of thoughtful design. Design thinking helps in creating services and products that put the user experience at the core of the design process. The foundation of the approach lies in the "empathy" step - empathizing with the user and caring about how they feel. Empathizing is done through observation of the user as well as qualitative interviewing. When something is designed with empathy in mind, the result is an experience that meets the user's needs.
Assessing John's experience, I'd argue that his perspective wasn't taken into account when designing that intersection. Having significant mobility issues made waiting for excessive periods of time without moving difficult. Add to that the severe cold. When he finally had the opportunity to cross, the ruts in the road created additional challenges for him. And to top it off, the time given to him to cross was certainly not enough, and left him stranded in the middle of an intersection fearing for his life.
John's experience with using that crosswalk was riddled with anxiety. Speaking with him afterwards, he stated: "Sometimes I feel invisible here". That really sat with me.
I was quite bothered by John's disclosure. To me, (beyond it being a matter of safety) it came down to dignity. John, and many others like him are hard-pressed to be able to navigate their cities with dignity. Something as seemingly trivial as pedestrian infrastructure has huge implications on how people see themselves. Having to dodge speeding vehicles on marked crosswalks (without adequate signalling to alert drivers) could communicate that that person's particular experience is not worthy of concern. Or that their safety isn't a priority.
So, why should we be concerned about dignity? While writing this piece, I was taken back to work I did as an occupational therapist while at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Something I tried to be cognizant of was the concept of “dignity moments” – that I would make the utmost effort to support the dignity of my clients in every interaction I had with them. This was embodied in the way I spoke with my clients, the nuances of my body language, and the general demeanor in which I engaged with them. The reality was that most of the people I supported lived in abject poverty, had experienced significant oppression (i.e racism, gender-based violence, mental health stigma), and generally had negative experiences with numerous systems. The cumulative impact of these negative experiences took a toll on their sense of dignity.
I believe there is a lesson in this for cities. I’d be curious to see how built space would manifest if transportation engineers contemplated how to facilitate dignity moments for the people that used urban infrastructure.
It’s also important to recognize that people like John spend almost all of their time navigating and living in the urban environment. I’d contend that the homeless are one group who most intensively access the built environments of our cities, so should have a voice in the process that goes into building the urban environment.
What would our urban landscape look like if we acknowledged that homelessness was a pervasive issue and that people did in fact live in public spaces?
We’ve seen the opposite; in cities around the world, measures have been taken to make public spaces inhospitable to the homeless. In London, a developer installed “anti-homeless” spikes to deter those looking for a place to sleep. In Tokyo, park benches were designed to make sitting and sleeping uncomfortable. And, if we’re going to explore how urban design influences our mental health, we need to acknowledge that the prevalence of mental health issues in the homeless is higher than the non-homeless populations. We have to build cities for everyone – not just the privileged.
I think that we have some way to go when it comes to improving the pedestrian experience in our cities. I believe that it should be at the top of our list of priorities. I think street vibrancy depends on it. I also strongly believe that cities need to be inclusive in their design; this requires that we acknowledge that not everyone drives a car (due to choice or affordability) - and that this should be reflected in the design of our streets and roadways. Design of our spaces governs our lives. It determines the way we move and the way we experience the world and accordingly influences how we see ourselves. More attention needs to be paid to this as we build our cities. While these issues may seem inconsequential to some policy makers, I am convinced that dignity lies in the details.
“If you listen, you can hear it.
The city. It sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most part, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings. And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.”
It was reading those opening phrases from Jon McGregor’s novel, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” that first inspired me to think more deeply about the ways we experience urban places and the ways in which total urban sensory experience affects our lives. That was probably the exact moment that I started, consciously, to shift the emphasis of my work a little, away from conventional spatial planning and more towards urbanism and placemaking; using “planning” as just one the tools in the box for shaping places that work well for the people who use them.
Assessing the "form" and "character" of places is standard activity for planners and urban designers. The basic aim is to identify and evaluate factors that make one place different from another and contribute to each place’s identity. Various methods are used; most focus on how a place looks and - often quite superficially - how its buildings are used.
So, what is missing from conventional approaches to urban analysis? In short, pretty much everything apart from appearance and use. Urban planning and design professionals try to understand a place mostly through their eyes when, in reality, sight is only one of the senses through which places are experienced. It would, in theory, be possible to measure spatial relationships in a particular place in England, for example; to codify them and then to reproduce a similar place in the Caribbean, or in China or Africa or Australia - or just about anywhere else. It would be possible to replicate the building designs and materials (and there are examples of this having been done) and even, perhaps the uses - but it is very unlikely that the place "recreated" would be identical to the original place except in the most superficial ways. What would be missing? The smells, the sounds, the tastes, the feel of the air, the rhythms, vibrations and movements - almost everything that combines to really make each place unique.
There are already bodies of work, exploring particular aspects of this. There are studies, for example, of "soundscapes" and "smellscapes", and the ways these are perceived by people without full sight, becoming embedded in the mental maps they employ when moving around their neighbourhoods.
Research also shows significant influences of music on mood, behaviour and mental state. It suggests that rhythm plays a fundamental role in this and has strong effects on the brain. It seems logical, therefore, to assume that the sound and the rhythm of the place in which a person spends time may influence their mood and mental state. Ironically, whist this seems to be accepted with little question commercially (with a substantial and highly profitable area of business built on it - “Muzak”) the concept barely surfaces in planning and spatial design thinking and, from reactions I have received, it seems likely that many in those professions may be skeptical about the relevance of something so apparently abstract.
Research has provided evidence that people’s mental well-being is also influenced by “green” surroundings and by contact with nature; by the presence or absence of other people; by the quality of the air being breathed and by other sensory experiences.
When managing urban change, we need to understand, as deeply as possible, all the ways that places influence people and their mental well-being; the ways in which a place’s sound, feel, smell, taste... influence the experience of people who spend time in or around it - or simply pass through it. I believe that the combined sensory experience of the places in which they live or work or learn or play can have profound effects on people’s well-being – both physical and mental. Changes affecting any of those sensory aspects may have significant impacts that should be - but generally aren’t - taken properly in to account in the planning, design, development and management of the urban environment.
That, then, is the challenge: to develop methods for identifying the deep and unique character of a place as experienced through all the senses available to us, and then to make use of this - managing urban change with an awareness of the multi-stranded relationships between sensory experience and well-being.
Photo by Layla McCay at event by Daniele Quercia - urban soundscape mapping
Sanity and Urbanity: