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How Cities Are Using Strategic Design to Facilitate Mental Health

The flatness and sterility of Wall Street often comes across as cold and desolate. It’s not until you get a glimpse of the Charging Bull that you begin to feel relief that it’s not all gray glass and steel. The fierceness and energy of the bronze statue acts as a gate into a world away from the claustrophobic, narrow streets of the financial district. The greenery and openness of Battery Park beckons you to sit in its bubble of serenity. Even Lady Liberty, standing with confidence, seems to offer some momentary breath of fresh air.

How Cities Are Using Strategic Design to Facilitate Mental Health | Statue of Liberty

True, cities provide an infinite number of economic, social, and educational opportunities, but there are also cons to urban living related to public health. Pollution, crime, and poor pedestrian design, to name a few, have been associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and overall lower quality of well-being. And, even though green spaces, including planting more trees, and building more parks, are often touted as solutions to improve public health, they often emphasize physical well-being, raising questions about the impact these spaces have on overall mental health. As more people migrate to urban centers, municipal governments face the challenge of not only accommodating the growing population, but also ensuring that all residents are healthy, both physically and mentally.

According to Layla McCay, a Tokyo-based psychiatrist, and founder of the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health, addressing mental health is complex, but there’s a huge opportunity to integrate mental health support structures in ongoing city planning discussions. “There is a role urban design can play in helping to prevent [mental health] disorders, and helping people who already have them,” she told City Lab.

Researchers studying the effects of urban living have argued that cities have the effect of stripping away the protective factors that foster mental health, says McCay. This includes a lack of greenery, and a lack of or poorly designed spaces that promote daily exercise, and social interaction. There’s also the anonymity factor. Even though city dwellers, like New Yorkers, see a lot of people every day, meaningful interactions aren’t a guarantee. And as people move from rural places to cities — leaving behind family and friends — having to build new social networks can make people more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

But, is thoughtfully building spaces that are green, active, social, and safe the only solution to improving urban public health? Is tearing down, repurposing, and rebuilding cities the only approach to creating cities that have a more positive impact on mortality? Can existing structures provide a positive environment for improved public health?

How Cities Are Using Strategic Design to Facilitate Mental Health | New York

Researchers at the University of Warwick in England think so. According to their 2015 study, scenery is just as important as greenery in determining what makes positive environments. This can include “beautiful urban architecture, the sweep of docklands, or a gritty suburban river bank,” reports the Telegraph. The researchers asked people to rate the “scenicness” of over 210,000 pictures of Britain, and then compared those ratings to a 2011 Census report on how residents in those areas felt about their health.

One could assume that places with more green would yield higher ratings but the results show that areas rated as most scenic and uplifting weren’t often green spaces. “Just because a place is green doesn’t compel us to feel better on its own,” Chanuki Seresinhe told the Telegraph. “It seems to be that the beauty of the environment, as measured by scenicness, is of crucial importance.”

What does this mean for urban planning and public health? The Warwick study’s findings imply that how architecture and design is integrated, not just the number of greenery, matters in making cities more beautiful and improving public health.

For example, in the United States, structures such as freeway overpasses, bridges, and warehouses, are not beautiful to look at. More often than not, we’re inclined to rush past these structures as quickly as possible due to their gargantuan, brutal appearance. But some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, have attempted to blend the utility of their infrastructure with beauty by bringing together architects and designers to create works of public art that blended elements of nature with the built environment.

How Cities Are Using Strategic Design to Facilitate Mental Health | Los Angeles

The City of Angels began an intensive revitalization effort to turn the Los Angeles River, which looks more like an abandoned freeway, into an actual river. The 2014 proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers includes removing pavement, and creating wetlands, among others that not only restores natural habitats, but also provides Los Angeles residents with water infrastructure, including clean, potable water, and recreational activities. Freshkills Park on New York’s Staten Island also underwent similar efforts. Once a landfill, the revitalization plans for the park included turning the former dump site into playgrounds and recreational areas with bioswales, and a solar farm.

These examples show that urban planners are in a unique position to not only artistically integrate, large-scale infrastructure into its surroundings, but also to shape the nature of arts and culture in their towns.

According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in Massachusetts, “urban planners can encourage the continual creation of art for public spaces and inspire cultural projects within their towns.” Making cities beautiful and better for public health doesn’t have to be just about green spaces and beautiful architecture. Cities can also incorporate more art into the environment in a variety of ways.

How Cities Are Using Strategic Design to Facilitate Mental Health | Boston

In 2015, the MAPC created an Arts and Planning toolkit to provide municipal staff and planners a resource that emphasizes creative placemaking — “a planning process that places arts at the center of shaping the character and vitality of neighborhoods, cities, towns, and regions.” Cities that integrate arts and culture into their city planning, encourage community participation in arts and culture projects, and focus on the community see better overall results than when focusing primarily on attracting outside tourism.

In Slate, Colin Ellard writes about the psychology of “boring architecture” and the impact that bland structures, like the Whole Foods Market in the Bowery, can have on city residents. In his study, Ellard took participants to key areas throughout New York City, and used a bracelet to measure alertness and response to threats. When he walked his participants to a spot midway along the blank facade of Whole Foods on Houston Street, Ellard observed his participants behaving awkwardly and trying to find something of interest to talk about. The data he gathered from the bracelets also showed that the participants were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe what they were feeling and the area, they used words such as bland, monotonous, and passionless.

In contrast, when Ellard’s participants stood in front of a small, lively sea of restaurants less than a block away from Whole Foods, the results were positive. The participants were more energetic, and experienced a higher state of arousal. They used more upbeat words to describe their feelings and their surroundings: lively, socializing.

Structures with bland facades, like the Houston Street Whole Foods Market, “don’t work on a psychological level,” writes Ellard, because humans are “biologically disposed to want to be in locations where there is some complexity.” It’s more than just a preference for things that look beautiful. People, whether they realize it or not, want to be in places that actively interest them and engage them, which reduces anxiety and stress.

If boring architecture hurts public health, then why are so many new structures being built so featureless, especially at ground level? Ellard cites economic considerations as one reason, but there’s also a reluctance to incorporate design features that don’t add to a building’s functionality. Another reason, identified by Robert Venturi, is the radical shift of architectural design becoming branding sites. Think McDonald’s and its easily recognizable external structure — the bland building pierced by golden arches.

A more interesting reason that Ellard adds for the increase in boring architecture, may be the increased reliance on digital technologies and information that acts as a mediator to people’s relationship with the built environment. The idea here is that these technologies produce a virtual connectedness among people, without the proximity of real life. When you prioritize the virtual over the real, why put money into creating a physical experience when people can experience that same thing virtually?

Ellard may have a point. When you look around on city streets, most people are looking downward, at their phones. Not only is it alienating, but it shows a disinterest in one’s surroundings. This shift in behavior itself, Ellard suggests, may change the way we use city streets, and in effect, how we build them for better or worse for public health.

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