by Layla McCay
Director, Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health
What exactly is public life, and why does it matter to mental health? That is the question I sought to understand when I participated in the Gehl Institute's Act Urban conference in Philadelphia, US last week, focusing on ‘public life’.
Jan Gehl himself presented an argument of ‘urban invitations’. His premise is that people interact with their built environments based on the invitations that our environments extend to us. Great, continuous bike lanes invite us to cycle to work. Wide, attractive sidewalks invite us to walk. Benches invite us to sit, rest, and interact. Parks invite us to play and run. And roads invite us to drive. When it comes to strategically designing cities, the question Gehl poses is: who do citymakers really want to invite… and to do what? The answers enable more strategic planning for the cities we want.
Gehl describes his utopian city as safe, democratic, friendly, healthy, beautiful, livable and lively, a city that would prioritise pro-social interaction, where city dwellers feel part of communities, exert positive agency on their environments, and participate actively in so-called ‘public life’.
Many of his aspirations have important parallels with the growing research on how to design better mental health into a city. Here at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health we recently developed an evidence-based framework called ‘Mind the GAPS’ that helps consider opportunities for urban design for better mental health, where GAPS stands for green, active, pro-social and safe places. Good public life, as envisioned by Jan Gehl and the Act Urban delegates last week, has much in common with these principles: prioritising access to parks and green space, delivering opportunities for exercise and learning, developing communities that foster good social capital, and improving a city’s safety can all have positive impact on a city's mental health.
As part of Act Urban, UD/MH held a workshop on urban design for mental health where delegates from such diverse provenance as Google, AirBnB, architecture firms, Kaboom! children’s play organization, and public art projects assessed a local city street for the feelings it evoked – and proposed intuitive improvements to reduce stress, depression and anxiety (recognising that spaces are systems, and addressing one element in isolation is of course not always the most helpful approach). The results were varied: better use of design and building materials to reduce unpleasant sound, reduction of confusing visual ‘clutter’ in streetscapes, installing street benches to invite sitting and socialising, and introducing colour and ‘adventure’ opportunities to engage children as they walk along a busy street. Workshop participants cited lack of eye contact as a potential inhibitor of pro-social interaction and wondered if there might be a role for urban design in triggering eye contact in an appropriate way to help catalyze positive social interactions.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussions for me was the question of how to practically achieve a city that promotes better public life and mental health. Designers, planners and developers can help educate, create demand and produce great projects – but ultimately, practical delivery means bringing a diverse range of stakeholders on board: the community needs to demand it and contribute, the clients need to want it, and the policymakers, financers, real estate brokers, regulators, garbage collectors and even the fire department all need to be ready to facilitate the practicalities of a grand vision becoming a great public place.
Engaging these different people is important because as Gehl emphasizes, ‘half-hearted infrastructure’ is not enough to persuade people that our city genuinely means the invitations it seems to extend to us. Inviting us to bike means system changes to make biking a fast, cheap, safe option, integrated with other public transit systems. Inviting us to walk means ensuring there are pedestrian walkways and good sidewalks that continue across small side streets, wide and shady, with safe crossings. And inviting us to participate in public life needs to be an invitation extended to whole communities, inclusive of diverse socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, mental or physical health, sexual orientation, and any of the other myriad differences that make up every great city population.
UD/MH notes from the various Act Urban sessions
Sanity and Urbanity: