by Katarzyna Klijer, UD/MH Associate
The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health's second dialogue took place in London with five diverse speakers each talking for five minutes about their particular perspectives and experience at the nexus of urban design and mental health.
Layla McCay, the Centre’s Director, launched proceedings, and also launched the new Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, on the theme of conscious cities, including a rather delightful video to introduce the topic.
Wendy de Silva, Architect and Mental Health Lead for the design and technology practice IBI Group was first to the stage. With extensive experience in designing facilities for mental health care, including awards for innovation and best in class design, Wendy discussed what the design of healthcare facilities to support the mental health of people in hospital can teach us about how to to leverage urban design to support mental health in the wider urban environment. With a focus on the recovery model of care, she emphasized the importance of creating places in which people feel safe, relaxed, in control, and part of a community. She proposed a range of design opportunities to support mental health such as creating free access to outside space, and empowering people to participate in useful, ordinary daily activities.
Lucy Saunders from Transport for London discussed the mental health opportunities in transport, specifically the Healthy Street Approach in London. Lucy emphasised the strong connection between physical activity and mental health and with 80% of London's public space being streets, she made the case that streets should be designed to provide a more conducive environment for people to socialise and be more physically active. She discussed whether we need to think about the monetary value of doing so, to help understand and demonstrate the benefits, and enable comparisons with values already ascribed by planners to moving traffic.
Graham Marshall discussed the Prosocial Place Programme, which he established in partnership with researchers at Liverpool and Middlesex Universities. The objective of this programme is to develop an integrated evidence based approach to urban planning, design, development and stewardship. In particular, they seek to find ways to create spaces that promote positive social interaction and belonging to improve wellbeing. Graham made the case that cities must be designed for wellness rather than only focussing on ensuring they are "well designed", and good stewardship is integral to good urban mental health and wellbeing. He called for us to switch from discussing the 'built environment' to talking about the 'living environment' to refocus priorities in architecture, planning, and other placemaking activities; to shift from an objective of 'survival' to that of 'thrival'.
Dinesh Bhurga, professor of Mental Health and Cultural Diversity at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and President of the World Psychiatric Association discussed the opportunities for urban design in addressing public health. Professor Bhurga highlighted that the rates of people with anxiety, depression and addiction are much higher in urban areas compared to non-urban areas, and that urban design plays a role in developing an environment that is supportive or detrimental to mental health. He proposed that key risk factors to be addressed to improve urban mental health are unemployment, poor parenting, and overcrowding, and with half of mental health disorders emerging before the age of 15, he identified schools as an important opportunity for positive impact - including through good design. He concluded that "mental health is far too important to just be left to the experts", and encouraged the citymakers in the room to take action.
Georgina Hosang, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and London Mood Project lead shared her experiences representing the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health at the Unites Nations Urban Thinkers event in Kuching, Malaysia, and how mental health is currently fitting into wider Habitat III thinking. She led a participatory session of international participants that identified key barriers to the systematic integration of mental health thinking into urban design as being stigma and lack of knowledge.
After the presentations, the diverse audience from academia, architecture, interior design, transportation, urban planning, mental health, and a range of other professionals provided some energetic discussion that extended over to the reception, and lasted until the lights were turned off at the venue. Topics included whether attachment theory could apply to cities (the verdict: yes, probably); mental and physical health are two sides of the same coin and must be addressed together; positive social interaction is a key component of urban design to improve mental health, and that all the professions involved in designing and developing cities have a responsibility to talk about mental health to help reduce stigma and discrimination and drive positive impact.
Coming soon to the website: more photos of the event and videos of the presentations.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: