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
Welcome to our Monday Meeting series, where we interview people working in, and thinking about the links between urban design and mental health. Today, meet Sandro Galea.
How did you become involved in working in urban mental health?
I have been interested in how cities influence health throughout my academic career, motivated by a recognition that the urban environment was rapidly becoming the most ubiquitous context shared by many of us. Cities shape how we think, feel, and behave, the water we drink, food we eat, air we breathe. It has long seemed to me that cities represent the classic driver of population conditions (including health), which, if understood, can result in the improvement of human health.
What are some of the more interesting pieces of work you have done on urban mental health?
We have long investigated how the urban environment influences common mood-anxiety disorders, showing for example that quality of the built environment is associated with greater incident depression, independent of individual-level factors. Other work has focused on urban social networks, violence, and mental health for example.
Why is making the link between mental health and urban design important?
Designing urban environments to maximize the potential for healthier populations presents an extraordinary opportunity to improve the health of millions who live in cities worldwide.
What's one of your favorite examples of urban design efforts to improve mental health?
I quite like the illustrations provided by Jan Semenza in my book Macrosocial Determinants of Population Health (Chapter 23) about the Sunnyside Piazza project in Oregon.
Where do you see the main opportunities in leveraging urban design to improve mental health?
I think a clear understanding of the elements of urban design that influence health, paired with intervention efforts can be key
What are you currently working on with the World Health Organization?
Our group is leading an analysis of the World Mental Health surveys, working with collaborators worldwide, on understanding how cities and mental health are linked. Data from this project should be emerging shortly.
Do you have a message for those who work in urban design?
I think the link between urban environments and health is promising and could, if well understood, result in improvements in population health that is matched by little else.
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
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