Back to urban design and the RMA.
Last blog on the topic I looked at the economic rationale for urban design controls. Some helpful ideas were thrown up, but the issue of how to rate the scale and significance of 'effects' remains.
Time to switch tack and look at the psychological rationale for urban design. Social and mental well being are important concepts these days. These are issues to do with the ability of people to function in an urban environment. At base they are more to do with basic liveability than managing a negative spillover effect on an adjacent activity.
Cities may be bad for your mental health. One discussion puts it as follows:
The urban setting can affect people in two key ways: increasing stimuli, and stripping away of protective factors.
Overload: People who live in the city experience an increased stimulus level: density, crowding, noise, smells, sights, disarray, pollution and intensity of other inputs. Every part of the urban environment is deliberately designed to assert meanings and messages. These stimuli trigger action and thought on a latent level of awareness, and become more potent as an inability to ‘cope’ sets in. This can have the effect of overload: increasing the body's baseline levels of arousal, stress, and preparedness, but also driving people to seek relief: quiet, private spaces; over time this urge may evolve into social isolation associated with depression and anxiety, and also forms the basis of the ecological hypothesis of schizophrenia.
Erosion of protective factors: People who live in the city may find that they have less access to the factors that are protective for good mental health than those in rural areas. For example, they may have diminished access to nature, fewer opportunities to integrate exercise as part of their daily routines, and reduced leisure time as increased time is spent at work and commuting around the city. People may find themselves feeling unsafe, having less privacy, and even less sleep, due to factors like crowding, light, noise and stress. This may particularly be the case as urban dwellers may be reluctant to engage in social interactions, to avoid overstimulation, due to safety concerns, or because of the reduced likelihood of future relationships with each individual they encounter. As these protective factors erode, people become more vulnerable to developing mental health problems.
So is urban design bad for your health? No, if anything, urban design can help reduce the negative stimulus and improve the protective factors.
An interesting book on this topic is: Headspace. The Psychology of City Living. Dr Paul Keedwell.
As with much of environmental psychology, the basic point of the book is that us humans are not necessarily well set up to deal with urban environments, given our long evolutionary period as hunter gathers. His main point could be:
When the built environment of the city departs too much from the natural environment of our distant ancestors it becomes an instinctive, unconscious threat to our mental wellbeing.
This doesn't mean that cities should have lots of trees and open grasslands which we can roam chasing wild animals and collecting nuts and berries. Rather, it is the qualities or characteristics of the environment that we are adapted to that are important. Many of the points made about the effects of the built environment on mental well being resonate strongly with urban design ideas. Some things I found interesting:
Our homes should come with a garden or view of a green space, as we are so attuned to being in a natural environment
The survival instinct for refuge is balanced with the need to have a good view of the surrounding landscape. Living rooms should balance the two – a view out but also a refuge. Windows should be tall, but not too big, and in proportion to the walls, ceilings should not be too low. Buildings with high ceilings are inviting and inspiring.
We like some complexity and texture on the façade of a home and don’t really like featurless monochrome brick with no balconies and decorative details to break up the frontage. What we find satisfying about natural landscapes is detail and variation, and look for these qualities in buildings.
The silhouette shape and overall structure of the buildings main surfaces is less important than the amount of decoration on the surface and the detail in the trim around windows and doors.
Experience suggests that the need for security, visual interest and issues of distinctive identity extend beyond the home. Good neigbourhoods have social capital and cultural capital. We are a tribal species. A sense of ownership and history is important. The more distinctive a place by virtue of its local history the more likely the local community will become attached to it, with feelings of connectedness that we all crave in order to live happy lives. A close knit neighbourhood acts as an antidote to the sometimes uncaring wider cityscape.
Being near a thriving mainstreet is crucially important, with a variety of businesses, lots of greenery, visual interest and walkable streets, not drowned out by heavy traffic
A degree of legability to a city environment is important to our sense of safety. Complexity in terms of trees and contours might give us more options for foraging and for shelter. But if we cannot immediately understand our environment we can’t do a risk assessment to make sure we are safe from predators – can we see them approaching, and can we escape easily?
These basic points are echoed in other advice, for example the following is a web site directed at mental health and urban design. See https://www.urbandesignmentalhealth.com/how-the-city-affects-mental-health.html
Mental health and wellbeing is within the remit of urban planners, managers, designers and developers, so mind the GAPS:
Green places – There are important relationships between accessible green spaces and mental health and wellbeing. Access to natural settings in neighbourhoods and in the course of people’s daily routines is likely to improve and maintain mental health and wellbeing.
Active places – Positive, regular activity improves mood, wellbeing and many mental health outcomes. Embedding action opportunities from active transport to outdoor gyms into places helps integrate exercise, social interactions, and a sense of agency into daily routines.
Pro-Social places – Urban design should facilitate positive, safe and natural interactions among people and promote a sense of community, integration and belonging. This includes potentially vulnerable groups like refugees, migrants, young and older people, with multi-faceted engagement from passive observation to active participation. Creating interesting, flexible public places should involve citizens at each stage of design and development.
Safe places – A sense of safety and security is integral to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Urban dangers include traffic, getting lost, environmental pollutants, and risks posed by other people. Appropriate street lighting and surveillance, distinct landmarks, and people-centric design of residential, commercial and industry routes are important. A balanced approach is necessary: a safe environment improves accessibility but risk-averse city design can reduce action opportunities and people’s sense of agency and choice.
So what does that all tell us about urban design effects?
- Effects go way beyond managing adverse effects
- The effects of poor design can be subtle in their expression
- Things like active street frontages that might be judged to be 'nice-to-have' things are actually very important
- It is hard to judge the scale of an effect. Either the quality is there or it is not, trying to work out what is a minor effect versus a significant effect is not easy.
- Cumulative effects are critical. Each little bit of the city is important.
- What about personal choice? People don’t have to live in or walk past a place with no green space, with poor design? But many people have limited economic means and don’t have a great amount of choice.