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Insights on the future of urban design and mental health from the Tokyo Innovative City Forum
by Layla McCay, UD/MH Director
Last week I attended the Innovative City Forum 2016 in Tokyo. Bringing together designers, artists, thinkers and citymakers to imagine our future of our life in the city, I was fascinated to see what themes and ideas would emerge from my first Tokyo-based city event. Amid the talk of self-driving cars, various uses for drones, and designing for a lifestyle in space, I extracted some insights into urban design for better mental health over the next 35 years.
The most interesting theme that emerged was an understanding that the purpose of urban spaces is changing. With the increasing digitalization of our lives, our physical urban space needs to assert new roles and meanings. If we can sit in the comfort of our own bedroom and use digital and networked tools to conduct our work (emails, teleconferences, etc) and play (streaming music and movies, shopping, etc), then what exactly is the purpose of going outside at all? How do 21st century urban places need to update to deliver more relevant functions for this increasingly digital population?
The consensus seemed to be the need to nurture better pro-social functionality of space: the communal experience and face-to-face interactions that facilitate positive social connections and support our mental health and happiness. Public outside spaces and buildings alike need to be designed in ways that extend better invitations to draw the public into them and encourage social interactions. New technologies like augmented reality to create communal public experiences that engage people with place might emerge as part of an evolving approach to delivering place-based entertainment that cannot be obtained at home.
The other main function of public spaces that was recognized was the opportunity to access nature. There was some discussion of integrating more trees and grass into the exteriors and sightlines of building design (including the design of the first human habitat in Mars!), as well as the design opportunities offered by trees and nature to help bring taller buildings down to the human scale.
Following on from recent thinking on the mental health impact of 'boringness', I was intrigued to hear from various speakers opposing the trend of ‘faceless perfection’, where homogenous, unchanging materials are used to create boring, sterile urban landscapes which people struggled to connect with. There was much discussion of the potential benefits of exposing and embracing imperfections as part of the design, rather than trying to correct them, and using new technologies like 3D printing to expand our design paradigms.
Associated with that theme was the question of urban identity in a world where cities are becoming increasingly homogenous. With chain shops and restaurants dominating many city center, the speakers argued that urban design needs to better reflect and promote the intangible culture of a place to help people feel part of a shared local identity, and the question of how to build a city’s heritage into its new developments (while remaining dynamic and avoiding the trap of getting trapped in a particular era of a city’s heritage). The surge of shopping centre popularity came up, and with it, a question: since people’s wellbeing benefits from pedestrianized, walkable, pro-social, safe green spaces, how can we better design shopping center to deliver these components, and can they promote better mental health as much as similar design features within a city center?
Technology advances Hiroo Ichikawa (pictured) believes will drive changes to our urban life by 2035.
Photo by Layla McCay
At the start of the event, the 365 participants were asked what would make Tokyo the best city in the world. Almost half (48%) voted for improved cultural power; a fifth called for infrastructure improvement; technological power was next, and economic power was the least voted-for option. This sentiment was reflected throughout the forum. And yet technological power was at the heart of many of the presentations. It is perhaps more helpful to think of technology as a tool for delivering the other improvements. Since technology is driving an evolution of our habits, lifestyle and what we need from physical places, we must evolve our traditional thinking around designing cities. One of the Forum's most interesting conclusions: as technology matures, we need to recognise that optimising for efficiency does not mean optimising for happiness. Even though it was not a primary theme of the event, is encouraging that the Tokyo speakers recognized that at the heart of this design revolution is the opportunity for design that promotes mental wellbeing and happiness.
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