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Spontaneous Fantasy: the Relationship Between Urban Historic Environments and Mental Health
Jeremy Wells is an Assistant Professor in the Historic Preservation Program in the School of Art, Architecture, and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University, USA and a Fulbright scholar; he created the Environmental Design Research Association’s Historic Environment Knowledge Network. Here he writes on the links between historic places and mental health.
Since the 1970s, environmental design and behavior researchers have looked into the relationship between the design of places and their impact on people’s health. This emphasis on “evidence-based design”, or the use of social science research to understand the person-place relationship, is perhaps most commonly seen in the creation of health care facilities that links the design of hospitals to decreasing patient recovery times and increasing the efficiency of nursing staff (McCullough 2010). Similar evidence exists that links health and urban places as well, which is often centered around the role of nature (e.g., gardens) in urban places (Souter-Brown 2015), but also on a wide variety of other variables, such as transit/walkability, social factors, and epidemiological characteristics (Moughtin, Signoretta & Moughtin 2009). Many urban design theorists also carefully examine historic towns and cities across the globe and how they developed over time. What’s survived to the present has been through a kind of Darwinian evolution, where only the most useful urban design principles are repeated through millennia, while others are discarded because they didn’t work. This is essentially the empirical platform upon which the “new urbanism” movement rests—“old” urbanism.
The fact that urban environments are often associated with “historic” places should be of no surprise. Whether officially recognized by law as historic places or accepted by people as such, most people associate downtowns, or urban cores, with the location of the oldest buildings and places in their community. To date, there has been little interest in disentangling the physical age of a place from its design, if only to provide empirical evidence to support the conservation of the historic environment. As a result, there is very little research that addresses how the historic environment—differentiated from other types of urban environments—is perceived, valued, and utilized by people. There is even less literature that looks at the relationship between the historic environment, health, and wellbeing. The studies that do exist offer a tantalizing glimpse at the possibility that historic places have additional, bona fide, positive effects on health, centering on overall mental health, such as creativity/imagination and wellbeing, and physical health.
My own research (Wells 2009; Wells and Baldwin 2012), for instance, has established a link between the appearance of patina (or decay) in an urban environment, the experience of “spontaneous fantasies”, and an increased level of emotional attachment to a place. Even when there are two urban residential neighborhoods with essentially the same urban design, people who live in the authentically old place (i.e., with the patina) have higher levels of place attachment, which seem to be related to the ability of this patina to spontaneously create vignettes of the past in people’s heads. These fantasies are often not connected with any real, concrete facts, and are not at all like daydreaming. People do not seem to have any direct control over their appearance—they either happen or do not, based on direct environmental stimulation. This association with increased levels of place attachment is important, because there is an association with increased mental health and wellbeing for people who are more strongly attached to the places in which they live (Brown & Perkins 1992).
Photo by Alessandro Ciapanna
Clearly, the experience of spontaneous fantasy is a creative and imaginative act, which other researchers have also found to be true, such as when handling museum heritage objects, as Ander et. al (2013) investigated as part of the “Heritage in Hospitals” program in the United Kingdom. When hospital patients handled ancient archaeological artifacts, they experienced a similar kind of spontaneous fantasy that linked them emotionally with the past. This experience also was associated with a higher degree of wellbeing and even reduced pain levels in patients.
Jane Grenville (2007) argues that built heritage provides a kind of “ontological security” for people. In other words, the familiar, known, and stable qualities of heritage environments provide understandable psychological cues that lead to improved mental health. This concept is closely related to how the historic environment provides people with a sense of identity, a phenomenon that the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) arguably first explored in the 1970s, but which has become a much more common theme of built heritage conservation, such as Ned Kaufman’s (2009) work on conceptualizing the historic environment as a series of evolving “storyscapes”. In archaeology, there is evidence that a community’s participation in archaeology—conceptualized as people working as peers with archaeologists—leads to significant social benefits and improved overall wellbeing (Neal 2015; Thomas 2014).
And, of course, we know that pre-World War II, pedestrian-oriented environments are synonymous with built heritage. These urban areas were created for the benefit of people, rather than automobiles (which didn’t exist or were marginal factors at the time), so it is natural that they contain the mixed-use and density characteristics that encourage physical activity—especially walking. One issue with this perspective, however, is that the heritage of Modernism, in which anti-pedestrian orientation and single uses are character-defining features, offers a challenge for heritage conservation in terms of health. Do we conserve/preserve places that clearly may not be so good for the health of people? Are there ways to ameliorate these issues without negatively impacting the authenticity of Modernist buildings and landscapes? These are all questions that will need to be answered in the twenty-first century.
Barring the issues with the heritage of the recent past, there is a growing body of evidence that links built heritage and heritage landscapes to mental and physical health. These benefits need to be made more widely known in arguments for urban design and conservation, which also happen to fit very well within another concept linked to health: sustainability. The reuse of existing buildings reduces energy use, pollution (e.g., landfill waste), and is even linked to more vigorous local economies. If we add the health benefits of heritage into this mix, an argument for the conservation of built heritage and cultural landscapes becomes even stronger.
DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEAS, EXPERIENCE OR QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS? PLEASE COMMENT BELOW.
Ander, E., L. Thomson, G. Noble, A. Lanceley, U. Menon, & H. Chatterjee. (2013). Heritage, health and well-being: Assessing the impact of a heritage focused intervention on health and well-being. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19(3), 229-242.
Brown, B. B., & Perkins, D. (1992). Disruptions in place attachment. In I. Altman & S. Low (Eds.), Place attachment, pp. 279-304. New York: Plenum Press.
Grenville, J. (2007). Conservation as psychology: Ontological security and the built environment. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 13:6, 447-461.
Kaufman, N. (2009). Place, race, and story: Essays on the past and future of historic preservation. New York: Routledge.
McCullough, C. S. (2010). Evidence-based design for healthcare facilities. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International.
Moughtin, C., P. Signoretta, & K. McMahon Moughtin. (2009). Urban design: Health and the therapeutic environment. Boston: Elsevier/Architectural Press.
Neal, C. (2015). Know your place? Evaluating the therapeutic benefits of engagement with historic landscapes. Cultural Trends, 24(2), 133-142.
Souter-Brown, G. (2015). Landscape and urban design for health and well-being: Using healing, sensory, therapeutic gardens. Abingdon, Oxon : Routledge.
Thomas, S. (2014). Making archaeological heritage accessible in Great Britain: Enter community archaeology. In Public participation in archaeology, S. Thomas & J. Lea (eds.), pp. 23-33. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
Tuan, Y. F. (1977). Space and place: The perspectives of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wells, J. C. (2009). Attachment to the physical age of urban residential neighborhoods: A comparative case study of historic Charleston and I'On. Ph.D. dissertation, Clemson University.
Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384-400.
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