by Claire Malaika Tunnacliffe
PhD student, Bartlett School of Architecture, London UK
With billions of people on the planet, the majority of us now live in vibrant, urban centres. And every single one of us will experience our city it in a different way. There may be similarities in how we choose to move – walking, running, bus, underground, train, cycling - each of these motions creating a rhythm, but the pace at which we move, the frustrations we will encounter and how we will react to these, the people we will meet, the detours to our local shops we will make, the things we will buy, will be individually ours. Our daily flows are uniquely ours, and the constant is our mind, our internal dialogue.
Anonymous, Berlin, February 2016
Through these flows we move within a backdrop of street messages, a constant beckoning from the sidelines of our lives, occupying almost every inch of these surfaces, a cacophony of adverts to make us more attractive, more successful, to eat cleaner, leaner and meaner, to own the latest gadgets and cars, what books to read and what films to see. It can often feel, like we live in an age of distraction. These encounters foster few opportunities to pause, to be self aware and check in with ourselves, but rather create a more critical voice – why aren’t we more of something or other or everything?
Among these, there are the tags, the graffiti and street art. Using stickers, paste-ups, posters, sharpies, pens and spray cans, these straddle an illegal and legal divide. Orchestrated by individuals and communities alike, their intention and agency varies, their messages political, environmental, economic or social, individualistic or revolutionary. These moments act as retorts, a response and a confrontation. But they also forge lines of connectivity, of empathy and of dialogue. These creative sites, both surfaces that have legal permission to be painted on as those that are illegally appropriated hold an important value in our current societies – they provide a valuable opportunity to understand how a place feels.
Anonymous, Brick Lane, London, April 2015
It is in the existences of spaces which allow for expression and vulnerability that we begin to create emotional and compassionate spaces. These spaces, from the large blank wall to the corner of a bus stop, pose questions, left to be answered or simply to be witnessed. From the large murals created by artists, to the scribbling of a name, ‘i woz ere’, or a swear word, these are acts of creative place making – born out of a desire to leave a trace and occupy space. These create social interstices, pauses in our everyday routine that open up lines of connectivity.
It is in the opportunity to be allowed to state how a person feels, through the cathartic process of letting it go in a space, for it to be empathically received by others. It is in the large murals, which foster community engagement and wellbeing. It is in the opportunities to be creative, and to pause in the humdrum routine of everyday life.
Candy Chang, Regents Canal, London July 2014
Having these lines of connectivity means breaking a long standing taboo around discussing how we actually feel. When we embed this into the very fabric of our urban environment, the very fabric which is all too often a cause of our mental health issues, we can begin to see a catalyst for real change – for raised awareness and understanding, and in bridging the gap between people. Art is a powerful tool for transformation, and when its messages are taken into the streets, into the environment in which our daily lives play out, art becomes an opportunity to interact and create new lines of understanding. By grabbing a spray can, a pen, or a paint brush, we open a space for self-expression and vulnerability, but also for a sense of place and belonging, to be seen and heard. When we begin fostering these dialogues on mental health, we allow for the opportunity to heal and grow together. In this way, we move away from talking about mental health as a purely individual experience to recognise that it is also a collective experience.
Anonymous, Shoreditch, July 2015
I am fascinated by the space in between these two spaces, one which is not defined as illegal or legal but just a free flowing space, open, available. Does it really exist? The danger of having to define everything as an either/or; right or wrong. And what if things just were? There is something to be said about the importance of uncontrolled zones of self-expression in public, in being able to grab, pen, spray can or chalk and just express. With an increased number of mental health services shutting down in London, and accessibility becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, I believe that a part of this, however big or small, is creating opportunities for people to be seen, heard and witnessed. I have far more questions than answers at this stage of my research, but I believe that it is in both designing for spaces in as much leaving the opportunity for these spaces to emerge naturally, in tune with how a place feels and flows. It is a combination of an uncontrolled, free space of expression alongside opportunities to express more clearly in public spaces – needs, desires, worries, pain, that contribute to the wellbeing of our communities and our urban spaces.
About the Author
by Sharon VanderKaay
Public health hazards often hide in plain sight. Up until the early 1970s, shoe stores commonly performed foot x-rays as a sales gimmick. Smoking on airplanes was considered acceptable by the public until the 1980s. Not long ago, the odd person who expressed concerns regarding toxins, pollution and junk food was dismissed as a “health nut.” That these things are harmful to our health may appear glaringly obvious today, but I can remember when their consequences seemed either vague or invisible.
Widespread tolerance for health hazards tends to linger for decades after alarming evidence begins to emerge. We are still in the early days of asking questions about the immediate and cumulative mental health implications of dismal, soulless and energy-draining built environments. It may be many years before the full impact of consuming a steady diet of visual junk food will be known through in-depth research. Eventually we may have hard evidence that links anger, depression and crime to growing up in a visually deprived setting. It’s possible that these effects might even be measured and reported on some future Asphalt-Anger Index.
In 1982 two social scientists introduced the broken windows theory which aimed to show a link between what people see and anti-social behavior. Their theory stated that negative activities are deterred when visual signs of deterioration are replaced by signals of caring about a place, such as the repair of vandalized windows. Recent research by Sanford DeVos and Chen-Bo Zhong indicates that exposure to fast food signs impede people’s ability to experience happiness. Much urban health research at this point has been focused on identifying sources of pathology (what causes dis-ease) rather than what conditions actively cause well-being (that is, not just the absence of dis-ease or to “do no harm”). Currently, Colin Ellard is doing exciting research regarding the neuroscience of urban design in terms of both positive and negative implications. Ellard writes for a diverse audience on how the places we inhabit affect our minds and bodies.
While a critical mass of scientific evidence is being conducted, we can also take advantage of low tech, low cost approaches to accelerate public demand for places that nurture our psyche. For instance, through the use of facilitated walks, informal conversations, photo essays and short explainer videos, we can change what people expect from their public spaces. An important aspect of awareness-raising is the movement to democratize design by making urban design issues relevant and interesting to a wider range of citizens, rather than relying on dense planning jargon and remote theories.
What if signs warned us that our mental health is threatened by visual junk food? What if everyone posted “Ten Places I Love”?
Soon I will be leading my fourth Jane’s Walk on the theme of becoming a better critic. Jane’s Walks happen through volunteers in 85 cities in 19 countries. Launched in Toronto in 2007, these walks are an ongoing tribute to the memory of urban activist Jane Jacobs, building on her spirit of neighborhood awareness and advocacy. During my particular walk we analyze what we see in terms of the city's vital signs: variety, nature, authenticity, legacy and energy. Similar to art history appreciation, these inquiry-based, “moving conversations” give participants a framework that encourages them to diagnose how they feel in their own habitat.
Five “vital signs” of healthy places can be used by anyone to analyze any habitat: variety, nature, authenticity, legacy and energy.
How do these places make you feel? Do you see variety, nature, authenticity, legacy and energy?
Other approaches to raising awareness for elements that contribute to urban mental health are example-filled videos and photo essay “slide explainer” presentations. The slide explainers highlight specific elements of healthy urban places such as public seating, public markets, and street level animation.
Together these human-to-human communication efforts are aimed at cultivating better critics and citizen advocates. Their simple message is that anyone can learn to see how places make them feel.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: