by Claire Malaika Tunnacliffe, UD/MH Fellow and PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UK
Summer has arrived in London. A time of year where everyone seems just a little happier, a little friendlier, and a little more open to each other. It was under this sunshine that on Tuesday 13th June, I headed off to a seminar at University College London, funded by the UCL Grand Challenges & British Council Newton Fund on “The Built Environment, Social Networks & Mental Wellbeing: Cross-disciplinary & International perspectives”. The seminar brought together a wide variety of academics and practitioners working in the interdisciplinary fields of urban planning, architecture and public health, providing a rich platform for introduction, reflection and discussion.
Using fiction to imagine and experience urban space
Across the afternoon, several speakers introduced their work and approach to the themes. Opening the session was Amy Butt, an architect, lecturer, design tutor, and researcher. Her work explores how fiction can draw out the human, emotional complexities of everyday urban life, exploring the relationships between people and place. “Strangeness is a vital point of reflection”, she notes, “and science fiction novels are an opportunity to imagine and empathically experience urban space”. Exploring the emotional sense of vertigo experienced in high rises through the 1975 Robert Silverberg novel “The World Inside”, Butt describes the feeling as an unbearable attack on one’s sense of self, a sense of coming apart, a dislocation of the soul:
“how can you create a sense of place when their grounding is mystifying?”
A good urban space is a used space
COHESION, presented by Dr Linda Ng Fat and Dr Leandro Garcia, is a UK-Brazil project funded by UCL Grand Challenge and the British-Council Newton Fund. Set up in 2016, it explores the effects of high-rise, high density housing in various countries. In its first year, COHESION undertook a comprehensive literature review (to be published), and will continue to further review the influence of living in high-rise buildings on social cohesion and mental health and wellbeing. Professor Laura Vaughan from the Bartlett School of Architecture gave a comprehensive and quick fire introduction to the history of housing planning and social aspects. Vaughan introduced the work of Space Syntax, which seeks to understand the relationship between spatial design, the use of space and long term social outcomes. The use of mapping to reveal connectivity and patterns helped understand the role of spatial layout in community dynamics and network creation. The layout of a housing project for example, makes the difference between neighbourliness versus isolation, and a community where frequent casual meetings are encouraged is more likely to thrive.
“Spatial accessibility shapes movement, and movement leads to copresence” Vaughan notes in closing, “A good urban space is a used space, the spatial nature of human society.” Furthermore, and a recurring theme throughout the afternoon, is that more research is needed, as there is a gap in the ethnographic social studies of architecture.
Copresence: a precursor to interaction
Dr Paula Barros from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, explored the influence of physical design on social interaction within 3 squares in her native Brazil. Through behavioural mapping, her research explores the various contentions between spaces of conflict versus spaces of encounter in public spaces, and how copresence is a necessary precursor to interaction. Identifying ‘delight’, ‘comfort’ and ‘protection’ as factors into favoured spaces (such as on props or edges to sit or rest), she notes that there is a lack of cross-cultural perspectives in the field. By understanding the response to user needs will only lead to higher quality public spaces. Additionally, Barros points to a need to further understand how landmarks support social sustainability.
Schizophrenia: does where you live matter?
Dr James Kirkbride, Reader from the Division of Psychiatry at UCL, opened his talk “Mind Over Matter: Does the Built Environment Affect Mental Health” by first making a distinction between common mental disorders and psychotic disorders. Common mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are, he pointed out, very different experiences from psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, though they are often confusingly bulked under the same heading. Furthermore, there is an important distinction to be made between mental wellbeing, mental health and mental disorders, and that each have very different experiences and consequences for people.
Kirkbride’s primary expertise is the study in incidence of schizophrenia in East London, and the potential link to inequality in social environments. He found that the strength of evidence varied. The extent to which there are social or environmental causes of schizophrenia remains unknown, though urban births are associated with a higher risk of developing the disorder. As a result, Kirkbride set up Psymaptic, “a free online prediction tool for healthcare planners, commissioners and other key stakeholders who require accurate and reliable data on the expected incidence of psychotic disorder in England & Wales. The tool gives instant access to the expected incidence of psychotic disorder in different regions of England & Wales, based on their sociodemographic and socioeconomic profile”.
Injustices in access to the 'right to the city'
From Reading University, Dr Richard Nunes followed this with a more personal presentation on the journey of his research on mental health and the city, particularly in his work exploring the connection between environmental change and mental health research. Nunes noted the limits of what urban design can achieve if enduring injustices of access to the 'right to the city' persists, that there was still so much to do in terms of re-connecting design/planning with mental health, as well as the difficulties of working with people across various disciplines. The links between environmental change and mental health research remain patchy and under-explained. A strong linear-causal relationship continues to be pursued, with a gap emerging between subjective and objective dimensions of environmental change and mental health research. Moreover, Nunes states, “people are not randomly distributed into space! Remove that [idea] and we can start to try and understand the causality of mental health”. This was complemented by Dr Pedro Morais, Adjunct Professor at Uni-BH, Brazil, who gave a presentation on the height & historical meanings and contexts of high rises across three continents, Europe, USA and South America. His presentation addressed the issue of cultural associations or social preconceptions of high rises and the discontinuous city.
What if people left work feeling better than when they arrived?
Ankita Dwivedi Senior Associate from Gensler posed a closing question “What if people left work feeling better than when they arrived?” She discussed workplace design, stress and psychological well being, identifying that stress, anxiety and depression need to be tackled within the workspace as a case for action, as the potential rewards for businesses are huge. She asserted that the workplace is a microcosm of society and provides an opportunity for intervention, with the appropriate design and implementation in workplaces connecting to many further health pathways.
Research gaps and next steps
The day's discussions revealed an exciting and wide variety of work and entry points into the interdisciplinary connections of the built environment, social networks and mental health. However, what quickly became clear is that there is so much more research needed and encouraged. I walked away from the seminar wanting to do and understand more. As Nunes and Vaughan note, there is a gap in the ethnographic social studies of architecture, as well as efforts to reconnect design and planning with mental health. This, as Morias’s presentation elaborated on, needs more transnational comparisons, to understand the differences, similarities and learning curves from different contexts. Amy Butt’s creative approach to understanding high rises and their emotional experience though science fiction is an inspiring take on often invisible issues. It begs the question: what other ways of seeing and understanding the urban environment could reveal our emotional experiences of it? The afternoon was an excellent opportunity to network and hear from a wide variety of academics, practitioners, policy makers as well as the general public, and points to an ever growing interest and drive for more research.
About the author
Sanity and Urbanity: