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: