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
Sanity and Urbanity: