Where are you originally from, and where do you now live and work?
I was born in Washington, D.C., raised in its suburbs, and currently live in the Bloomingdale Neighborhood near U Street in the District. I just finished 23 years with Arlington Department of Transportation and am embarking upon private practice in my new hometown of Key West.
Which is your favorite city in the world, and why?
I love traveling and my favorite cities include Heidelberg, Vienna, Montreal, San Francisco, Seattle, the District and Key West. I’m moving to Key West in the fall because it’s compact, vibrant and historical. It’s very walkable and bikeable. And you can eat and play outside twelve months a year. We don’t own a car in D.C. and won’t in Key West.
What sort of work do you do around the intersection of urban design and mental health?
I help cities make it easy to use active transport options like bike, walk and transit instead of driving. This makes individuals, companies and places more green, healthy, prosperous and happy.
How did you end up working at this intersection?
In looking for hooks to change people’s behavior from driving cars to instead using transit, biking and walking for commutes and everyday trips, research tells us that people who use these options to car driving are healthier and happier and less stressed. So we use these facts (among others) to market these options.
What particularly interests you about the link between urban design and mental health?
The world is becoming more urban. As the population expands in the coming decades, this will only become more so. We can’t repeat the mistakes of our most recent past where here in North America we built dispersed, environmentally and economically unsustainable, un-healthy car-dependant places. We can reverse this trend. And change is starting to occur in some progressive cities. Recent work and research points out that our physical environment can influence our mental and physical health. City governments have a huge influence over that built environment. Cities control the development approval process and so can influence what and where the private sector builds. And cities control a quarter to a half of our land, depending upon how you measure it, when you account for streets, parks and rights of way. As the emerging mental health research gets better, there’s an amazing opportunity to use this data to help us retrofit and build healthier places.
Can you describe an example of good urban design that positively impacts mental health?
Streets that are built for people. That means streets that prioritize people who walk, bike and use transit rather than cars. It looks like wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes. It means prioritizing public space for plazas, small to large, where we can eat, shop and congregate. These streets are less stressful and more healthy and happy places than car-centric streets. My favorite examples here in the District, because I use them a lot, include the 14th Street Corridor and 17th Street in Dupont Circle.
What sort of challenges do you see in urban design for mental health?
Changing the status quo can be difficult. Especially if that change is seen as taking something away from people who are use to the way life use to be. So every time we prioritize people and take away on-street parking or take away a traffic lane to replace it with a parklet or plaza or for walk-bike-transit space, someone will cry foul. The biggest challenge is the political will to make these changes.
Why do you think people don't focus enough on the link between urban design and mental health?
I don’t think people focus on it because it’s an emerging science. It has only been recently that planners have realized the connection between the built environment and physical health.
What would you like to see the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health achieve?
That’s why it’s so exciting to see the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health come onto the scene. This new think tank can contribute to making the places we live better by getting us to consider more than the bottom line. In the end, we’ll all be healthier.
Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisrhamilton
Sanity and Urbanity: