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If all the city's a stage, the architects and planners are set designers - and can set the scene for mental health
In my opinion, urban design affects our mental health in two ways. Directly, because good environments make us feel good while monotonous, badly proportioned environments can make us feel bad, creating sensory deprivation and symptoms of mental ill health. And indirectly, because urban spaces set the stage for social interaction, thus counteracting the alienation human beings have struggled with since modernity. Man is essentially a social animal, a flock animal.
Urban design can influence our mental state through the distance between buildings, their proportions, the number of sensory impulses, and other physical factors: all this has been the subject of many thorough studies. And there is no lack of sociological writings about the alienation caused by modern city life, its solitude and isolation. But there seems to be a missing link between the two. More than fifty years after she wrote her Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs still remains unrivaled in the way she links community life and urban planning. But she provides few, although invaluable, indications as to urban design.
The gap between designing spaces and furthering community life can be bridged by resorting to the tritest of metaphors, that of the stage. The urban environment can be broken down into the same elements we find on a stage, and if we make these elements interact and reinforce one another when we design urban spaces, then we can literally set the stage for the play of urban life. There is nothing new to this: back in the 16th century architects tested out their designs in the theatre. If something worked on stage, they considered it would work in the street.
But the life that goes on in squares and streets is also closely connected to the aesthetic dimension of play. One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Hans Georg Gadamer, wrote about the aesthetic experience he defined as "play, game or festival", and the shared experience of parades and festivities. Any street market in any Mediterranean city is a kind of festival and just as with the stage of elaborate plays, we find all the elements of a theatre production. Consider the performance of a salesman at a market stand in Italy, or in a Turkish bazaar: both parties in the negotiations know the scene is not to be taken seriously, but to be valued and enjoyed for what it is, namely a well-performed play. And it is often the quality of the performance, rather than the arguments, which will seal the deal.
Sometimes merely watching the urban scene may make the difference between an interesting life and an empty one. But the old lady in a window in Milan is not wholly passive: she is also part of the cityscape. Photo by Jorunn Monrad
The metaphor of the theatre can therefore be used both for the urban space as stage, and for the interaction and community life that takes place on that stage. And if an urban designer uses the tools of the theatre trade or the elements present on stage - players, costumes, lighting, props, and an audience which is however never wholly passive – and finds ways to make the players and the audience interact, then he or she can create spaces which can affect the mental health of those who use them both directly and indirectly: directly because of their physical characteristics, and indirectly because they further community life.
In practice this means designing streets and squares that are not only compact enough to bring people close, with good acoustics and atmosphere-creating lighting. It also means designing or choosing all the props – signs, plants, café furniture, benches and street lamps – and ensuring the result is so elegant that people feel like dressing up a bit. But above all it means giving people excuses to gather and interact. This does not mean they have to form friendships. But sometimes being part of a crowd, chatting with a shopkeeper, complaining about a queue to those alongside can make all the difference for someone going through depression or simply feeling alone. Many such opportunities to exchange a few words have disappeared today. We hardly ever go to post offices, shop at street markets or buy tickets from real people. Machines have taken over where there used to be people. It has become more important than ever to set the stage for urban life. And this cannot be done just by designing good spaces. There must be people and they must be allowed to interact.
To create urban spaces that contribute to better mental health, we must design stages with pretty backdrops, good lighting, suitable props, and we must not only make them attractive, but actually give people reasons to visit them, spend time in them, and interact in the play that is urban life.
In Douz, a small town in southern Tunisia, work, community life and leisure have not been separated. The local shoemaker is his own boss and can take the time to have a chat with friends or customers. They are part of the urban scene just as much as the architecture and the signs. (Jorunn Monrad, 2010)
Urban design is more than buildings. We could do without the black garbage sack, but this bar i Petralia, a mountain town in Sicily, would not be the same without the plants, the ceramic pots and the vintage signs (Jorunn Monrad, 2013)
The following authors have been influential to my work and are recommended for further reading on the subject of the urban theatre:
Bauman, Z. (1995). Life in fragments. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2003a). City of fears, city of hopes: Goldsmith's College.
Cattaneo, C. (1950). La società umana. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.
Epstein Nord, D. (1988). The City as Theater: From Georgian to Early Victorian London. Victorian
Gadamer, H.-G. (1986). The relevance of the beautiful and other essays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
Gadamer, H.-G. (2012). Sannhet og metode. Oslo: Pax Forlag.
Gehl, J. (2010). Byer for mennesker. København: Bogværket.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1992 (Vintage) utg. New York:
Lozano, E. E. (1974). Visual needs in the urban environment. Town Planning Review, 45 (4): 351.
Sennett, R. (1990). The Conscience of the Eye - The Design and Social Life of Cities. London: Faber and Faber.
Whyte, W. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington, D.C.: The Conservation
Where do you work, and what exactly do you do?
I’m Assistant Professor of Urban Design at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran. I’ve taught Masters students of urban design for 7 years. Also, I’m managing urban planning and design branch of SAP consulting engineers where in a group, we are doing professional projects all over Iran.
How did you first become interested in researching the link between urban design and mental health?
My research concentration is quality of urban public spaces especially those where people can meet each other, sit, spend time and talk together. That’s why my PhD thesis title is: Finding the Essence of Sustainability in Urban Plazas. Referring to the values of urban public spaces show their direct effects on health: physically and mentally. Pedestrian-based urban spaces can encourage exercise with associated physical health benefits – for example reducing the risk of heart attack, diabetes, colon cancer and bone fractures. They provide a space for formal and informal sports and games. Also they provide opportunities for relaxing, talking to friends, reminding memories, watching urban events, happiness, etc, all of which can have effects on reducing stress and enhancing mental health. Certain quality criteria in urban spaces can introduce close relationships to mental health like vitality, safety, comfort, etc.
Also, one of my favorite courses in the Masters program of urban design which I’ve taught for 7 years is urban design methods and techniques. During these years, I’ve worked on different urban public spaces of Tehran with a number of students and I’ve found interesting local effects of urban public spaces on mental health.
How much interest is there in this subject in Iran?
An increasing interest to the subject can be seen during these two decades. It’s been accompanied with creating new urban public spaces (especially parks) in big cities like Tehran. A number of studies concentrate on the effects of green spaces on mental health which has roots in historical background and beliefs of Iranian people. Also, urban experts in Iran have started mutual research with human sciences experts which provide a new vision in this way.
Can you give any examples of projects in Iran where urban spaces have been designed to help improve mental health?
I think projects which connect urban life to nature have quick effects on mental health in comparison to other urban projects. When such a project provides maximum pedestrian space the effect is accelerating. In my idea on of important urban spaces that designed according to these characteristics is Chitgar artificial lake which opened 2 years ago and it is progress. This project is introducing a new waterfront in Tehran. The combination of water, forest and huge pedestrian area with a great view to the mountains provides a space where people can decrease stress of urban life of Tehran.
Are there other great examples of urban design/mental health projects elsewhere in the world that you find inspiring?
As I mentioned in last question, I'm interested in all projects that connect pedestrian spaces to nature, enhancing mental health. During my travel to Europe this summer I found Copenhagen inspiring in this way where creative waterfront urban spaces like Copenhagen Wave has been designed. Also through visiting Danish Architecture Center plan for creating new urban spaces, I found their organization and products far from other cities.
What research are you currently working on that relates to urban design and mental health?
My background is in quality of urban spaces, and most of my research relates to mental health. For example I published the first paper on the quality assessment of pedestrian streets in Iran 5 years ago. With the cooperation of Ms. Reisemaeili, we studied the first pedestrian street of Tehran with the name of Saf streets. A primary result of the paper demonstrates the mental security of women in this space associated with making the street pedestrianized.
Two of my current research projects are directly related to urban design and mental health. In the first one as an master thesis in cooperation of Mr.Pezeshki and Dr. Elahi (who is psychologist) we have worked on decreasing fear in through urban design guidelines in a unique neighborhood of Tehran based on criminal records. In the theoretical part of research, we have tried to introduce a bridge between the psychological point of to fear and urban spaces. The results are in progress to publish as a book. I‘ve conducted the research by qualitative and quantitative methods.
The second research in cooperation of Ms.Samavati and Dr. Naghdi ( who is sociologist) we’re working on happiness in urban spaces. The case study is the pedestrian zone of Tehran's historic center. The research is in progress and as primary results I can point a model that shows happiness in urban spaces relates to quality of life, quality of urban spaces, urban spaces amenities and personal believes of people. I hope to share the results with the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health as soon as possible.
What are the main challenges you have seen in improving mental health through urban design?
I think the main challenge especially in developing countries is the lack of pedestrian based urban spaces. Cities are dominated by cars and their pollution (air and sound) has bad effects on mental health. Also the lack of good quality urban spaces caused people refuge to personal spaces like houses. This phenomenon instigates internality that declines mental health.
What are the big opportunities in urban design and mental health?
Each country and each city needs healthy people for development. Urban design products like new cities, urban spaces, etc. have direct effects on citizen health. In good quality urban spaces people can feel a sense of satisfaction, central to which is their mental health. I think if urban designers all over the world added 1 square meter to pedestrian areas and green spaces, the enhancement of mental health is several times more than 1 meter, because in everyday life people can feel the effects of urban designers.
What would you like to see the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health achieve?
First, I congratulate on starting this inspiring movement which helps urban designers to be more conscious during urban design process. I like that the Center tries to create a network of specialist with this background all over the world and is publishing the results of their studies. Also this Center encourages close relation of urban designers and human scientists in the way of mutual meetings, conferences, etc.
Which is your favorite city in the world, and why?
Such a difficult question! Each city has the potential to be my favorite. From the mental health point of view I can say Shiraz is my favorite which is the man city of Persian land and also is the city of poem. Although the urban spaces of the city have not developed well during these years, you feel a unique sense in the city that in my idea relates to insight of people to the world. People of Shiraz are very easy going and friendly. They live in the moment and this can be perceived in urban life.
Spontaneous Fantasy: the Relationship Between Urban Historic Environments and Mental Health
Jeremy Wells is an Assistant Professor in the Historic Preservation Program in the School of Art, Architecture, and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University, USA and a Fulbright scholar; he created the Environmental Design Research Association’s Historic Environment Knowledge Network. Here he writes on the links between historic places and mental health.
Since the 1970s, environmental design and behavior researchers have looked into the relationship between the design of places and their impact on people’s health. This emphasis on “evidence-based design”, or the use of social science research to understand the person-place relationship, is perhaps most commonly seen in the creation of health care facilities that links the design of hospitals to decreasing patient recovery times and increasing the efficiency of nursing staff (McCullough 2010). Similar evidence exists that links health and urban places as well, which is often centered around the role of nature (e.g., gardens) in urban places (Souter-Brown 2015), but also on a wide variety of other variables, such as transit/walkability, social factors, and epidemiological characteristics (Moughtin, Signoretta & Moughtin 2009). Many urban design theorists also carefully examine historic towns and cities across the globe and how they developed over time. What’s survived to the present has been through a kind of Darwinian evolution, where only the most useful urban design principles are repeated through millennia, while others are discarded because they didn’t work. This is essentially the empirical platform upon which the “new urbanism” movement rests—“old” urbanism.
The fact that urban environments are often associated with “historic” places should be of no surprise. Whether officially recognized by law as historic places or accepted by people as such, most people associate downtowns, or urban cores, with the location of the oldest buildings and places in their community. To date, there has been little interest in disentangling the physical age of a place from its design, if only to provide empirical evidence to support the conservation of the historic environment. As a result, there is very little research that addresses how the historic environment—differentiated from other types of urban environments—is perceived, valued, and utilized by people. There is even less literature that looks at the relationship between the historic environment, health, and wellbeing. The studies that do exist offer a tantalizing glimpse at the possibility that historic places have additional, bona fide, positive effects on health, centering on overall mental health, such as creativity/imagination and wellbeing, and physical health.
My own research (Wells 2009; Wells and Baldwin 2012), for instance, has established a link between the appearance of patina (or decay) in an urban environment, the experience of “spontaneous fantasies”, and an increased level of emotional attachment to a place. Even when there are two urban residential neighborhoods with essentially the same urban design, people who live in the authentically old place (i.e., with the patina) have higher levels of place attachment, which seem to be related to the ability of this patina to spontaneously create vignettes of the past in people’s heads. These fantasies are often not connected with any real, concrete facts, and are not at all like daydreaming. People do not seem to have any direct control over their appearance—they either happen or do not, based on direct environmental stimulation. This association with increased levels of place attachment is important, because there is an association with increased mental health and wellbeing for people who are more strongly attached to the places in which they live (Brown & Perkins 1992).
Photo by Alessandro Ciapanna
Clearly, the experience of spontaneous fantasy is a creative and imaginative act, which other researchers have also found to be true, such as when handling museum heritage objects, as Ander et. al (2013) investigated as part of the “Heritage in Hospitals” program in the United Kingdom. When hospital patients handled ancient archaeological artifacts, they experienced a similar kind of spontaneous fantasy that linked them emotionally with the past. This experience also was associated with a higher degree of wellbeing and even reduced pain levels in patients.
Jane Grenville (2007) argues that built heritage provides a kind of “ontological security” for people. In other words, the familiar, known, and stable qualities of heritage environments provide understandable psychological cues that lead to improved mental health. This concept is closely related to how the historic environment provides people with a sense of identity, a phenomenon that the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) arguably first explored in the 1970s, but which has become a much more common theme of built heritage conservation, such as Ned Kaufman’s (2009) work on conceptualizing the historic environment as a series of evolving “storyscapes”. In archaeology, there is evidence that a community’s participation in archaeology—conceptualized as people working as peers with archaeologists—leads to significant social benefits and improved overall wellbeing (Neal 2015; Thomas 2014).
And, of course, we know that pre-World War II, pedestrian-oriented environments are synonymous with built heritage. These urban areas were created for the benefit of people, rather than automobiles (which didn’t exist or were marginal factors at the time), so it is natural that they contain the mixed-use and density characteristics that encourage physical activity—especially walking. One issue with this perspective, however, is that the heritage of Modernism, in which anti-pedestrian orientation and single uses are character-defining features, offers a challenge for heritage conservation in terms of health. Do we conserve/preserve places that clearly may not be so good for the health of people? Are there ways to ameliorate these issues without negatively impacting the authenticity of Modernist buildings and landscapes? These are all questions that will need to be answered in the twenty-first century.
Barring the issues with the heritage of the recent past, there is a growing body of evidence that links built heritage and heritage landscapes to mental and physical health. These benefits need to be made more widely known in arguments for urban design and conservation, which also happen to fit very well within another concept linked to health: sustainability. The reuse of existing buildings reduces energy use, pollution (e.g., landfill waste), and is even linked to more vigorous local economies. If we add the health benefits of heritage into this mix, an argument for the conservation of built heritage and cultural landscapes becomes even stronger.
DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEAS, EXPERIENCE OR QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS? PLEASE COMMENT BELOW.
Ander, E., L. Thomson, G. Noble, A. Lanceley, U. Menon, & H. Chatterjee. (2013). Heritage, health and well-being: Assessing the impact of a heritage focused intervention on health and well-being. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19(3), 229-242.
Brown, B. B., & Perkins, D. (1992). Disruptions in place attachment. In I. Altman & S. Low (Eds.), Place attachment, pp. 279-304. New York: Plenum Press.
Grenville, J. (2007). Conservation as psychology: Ontological security and the built environment. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 13:6, 447-461.
Kaufman, N. (2009). Place, race, and story: Essays on the past and future of historic preservation. New York: Routledge.
McCullough, C. S. (2010). Evidence-based design for healthcare facilities. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International.
Moughtin, C., P. Signoretta, & K. McMahon Moughtin. (2009). Urban design: Health and the therapeutic environment. Boston: Elsevier/Architectural Press.
Neal, C. (2015). Know your place? Evaluating the therapeutic benefits of engagement with historic landscapes. Cultural Trends, 24(2), 133-142.
Souter-Brown, G. (2015). Landscape and urban design for health and well-being: Using healing, sensory, therapeutic gardens. Abingdon, Oxon : Routledge.
Thomas, S. (2014). Making archaeological heritage accessible in Great Britain: Enter community archaeology. In Public participation in archaeology, S. Thomas & J. Lea (eds.), pp. 23-33. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
Tuan, Y. F. (1977). Space and place: The perspectives of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wells, J. C. (2009). Attachment to the physical age of urban residential neighborhoods: A comparative case study of historic Charleston and I'On. Ph.D. dissertation, Clemson University.
Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384-400.
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