Where are you originally from, and where do you now live and work?
I grew up outside of Austin, Texas, and moved to DC for graduate school; I have been here since – I live in the city and work in the city and walk to and from.
Which is your favorite city in the world, and why?
I really haven’t travelled enough; but of my travels, I most frequently find myself in my Aunt’s small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, north of Boston. We visit the neighbors, pick vegetables straight from her garden and sip tea on the sun porch; it is always a pleasurable break from a downtown life.
What sort of work do you do around the intersection of urban design and mental health?
I have a Master’s Degree in Interior Design where I focus on infusing the built environment with health using research and principles of Evidence-Based Design. My focus area is the healthcare environment, both physical healthcare and mental healthcare. I have recently begun to engage with our Urban Planning group to take the elements we use on the interior scale, and expand those to the building and city scale.
How did you end up working at this intersection?
One of my first projects out of school was an adolescent behavioral health residential facility. And it was built like a jail. We take oaths as designers to protect the “health, safety and welfare of the public”. And to me that meant I had an obligation to protect everyone who needed safe and healthy spaces – especially those most vulnerable and in need of healing.
What particularly interests you about the link between urban design and mental health?
Simply the fact that designing our cities to support mental health is missing – and there is so much potential and so much need. Mental healthcare in general is still not at the preventative stage that physical healthcare is moving towards. Designing surroundings that help foster positive mental health for the millions who living in and moving to cities could create a positive mental revolution.
Can you describe an example of good urban design that positively impacts mental health?
Choice and control in the urban environment has the most potential in my mind. Individuals move to urban centers for opportunity. And that should not be restricted to job opportunity. City dwellers should have options of how to get to and from places, safe and healthy opportunities of commuting. Giving the person a right to choose their path creates a great foundation for positive mental health because it provides control; when individuals feel as though they have no control over their situation – big or small - their mental state deteriorates.
What sort of challenges do you see in urban design for mental health?
The challenge will be breaking the stigmas of talking about mental health issues; regardless that a quarter of our adult population suffers from poor mental health. I believe many urban planners are already on the verge of creating healthier cities, through physically active cities; mixed use cities; sustainable cities; but we need to embrace open conversation on what those achievements in urban planning can do for a citizen’s mental health and explore further opportunities.
Why do you think people don't focus enough on the link between urban design and mental health?
Because mental health is “easier” to discuss when it can be isolated to an individual (i.e. “well, he was crazy”) and not at a larger, societal scale. Violent tragedies go back to gun laws and race issues and not so much how we are shaping our citizens, mentally.
What would you like to see the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health achieve?
Draw attention to the issues; bring people together to find solutions. Talk, talk, talk!
Sanity and Urbanity: