Myself, like many colleagues and friends I have spoken to "migrated" pre-lockdown out of London and have taken refuge in greener areas. Which has prompted some of my thoughts for this post. Would our wellbeing in cities be better right now if mental health played a larger part in designing cities? I believe, some urban design took this into consideration, but more could have been done.
The BBC article linked below provides some examples of this, "therapeutic gardens" in Singapore, wider pavements (which not only helps with social distancing measures but also shown to improve wellbeing) and, as we know in the UK, the decision to keep open private green spaces during lockdown.
But below are some of my thoughts with examples in practice of when wellbeing has been effectively considered when building cities:
- Access to green space and natural settings is likely to improve mental health. Regular exercise improves self-esteem and wellbeing and is also shown to reduce anxiety and stress. An example of access to nature and space in a modern way is Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. Created in 2012 as part of Singapore’s government strategy of making Singapore into a “City In A Garden” and to increase the quality of life with trees, plants and flowers, it is an enormous futuristic botanical garden.
2. Compact, walkable cities provide opportunities for natural social interaction on a regular basis. Mixed-land use is a good way to encourage social interaction with nearby amenities. Having different residential, commercial and industrial services close together promotes interaction with others along with surroundings. Examples of where mixed-land have been used include Kreuzberg (Berlin), Fitzroy (Melbourne), Subiaco (Perth) and Pyrmont (Sydney).
3. Feeling secure in your surroundings can benefit mental health. There are also studies to show when economic disparities are obvious this can result in frustrations and feelings of inferiority. A key example of this was apparent following the Grenfell fire 2017 which highlighted the disparities within Kensington and Chelsea. Affordable transport and housing available for everyone to take advantage of what cities have to offer is key.
4. Tech and data influence placemaking. In New York, smart sensors are being place throughout the city to collect data and help with things such as waste management, traffic control and public transport. City planners and businesses can then use this data to help make more educated planning decisions. We are also now at the stage where you can give a user a headset and we can see how their brain reacts in various settings.
Modern cities weren’t designed to cope with life during a pandemic, and this upside-down way of living has turned them into “a disorganised array of disconnected bedrooms and studios”, says Lydia Kallipoliti, assistant professor of architecture at The Cooper Union in New York. This layout might have made sense when cities were internationally connected hubs filled with millions of people working, commuting, sightseeing, drinking, dancing and hugging one another without a second thought. But that world seems a long way off now. The 21st Century has so far seen Sars, Mers, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu and now Covid-19. If we have indeed entered an era of pandemics, how might we design the cities of tomorrow so that the outdoors doesn’t become a no-go zone, but remains a safe and habitable space?