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Why poorly-designed cities are bad for your mental health

Unthinkable: Bad environmental design can cause stress, alienation and even depression

Bad design: metal boxes located on College Green, Dublin to service the new Luas Cross City line. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

One of the stories of the summer – for Dubliners at least – was the sudden appearance of a cluster of electrical service boxes on College Green. The metallic Stonehenge – resembling the excretions of a giant robot – caused consternation among conservationists who were blithely told by the powers-that-be that such eyesores were the unavoidable product of progress (in this case by facilitating the Luas Cross City line).

Those outside the capital might be tempted to see it as a classic case of Dubs whining over trivialities. But there’s an increasing body of evidence to show that poor urban planning can impact negatively on people’s mental health.

“We need to pay attention to aspects that make streets more appealing and walkable,” writes psychiatrist Dr Paul Keedwell in Headspace: The Psychology of City Living (Aurum Press), a timely exposition of how bad environmental design can cause creeping stress, alienation and even depression.

“The scientific study of how buildings affect our feelings and behaviours is a niche subset of environmental psychology, best described as architectural psychology,” Keedwell explains.

“There is a lot of information out there, but it is surprisingly absent from the syllabus of an average school of architecture, and there has been no attempt to synthesise it in a way that we can all understand.”

The neglect, no doubt, has something to do with the impression that good design – design which factors in the psychological wellbeing of inhabitants – is a luxury, or at least an added cost. But there’s also a tendency in architecture to make people fit around the design rather than the other way around.

Empathic intuition

“Much design and planning is guided by a kind of empathic intuition rather than any scientific evidence,” says Keedwell. “The esteemed architect might be more concerned to make an artistic statement than to design a space that people actually enjoy using. Architectural psychology is often just a secondary concern.”

One of the most offensive aspects of the robot droppings of College Green is the fact that no one in their right mind would allow something like that to be left in their own garden. It seems exactly because College Green is a public space that it can be treated like a dumping ground.

As this week’s Unthinkable guest, Keedwell provides a simple yet revolutionary idea: that urban planning and design should acknowledge our psychological heritage as social mammals who until recently spent our time as hunter-gatherers foraging in nature.

“Ultimately, the key to combating stress in the city is remembering what makes us human, dating back to our ancestral pasts.”

How does “architectural psychology” use science to explain the best habitats for humans?

Keedwell: “Psychology is essentially the study of human behaviour, but also our thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Architectural psychology measures all these human reactions to different built environments – over hours, days or months. Sometimes it uses simulations in the lab. At other times it compares the psychology of people living in situ in different parts of a city, or follows a community’s response to its changing environment – like the increase in suicide rates in Singapore when it was transformed from a low-rise to a high-rise society.”

One of the early observations you make in your book is that men and women have different psychological needs when it comes to their homes. Does this mean tension over interior design is inevitable between husband and wife?

“Yes!”

How does the gentrification of an area affect its residents psychologically?

“It has negative social effects – inequality and segregation is often followed by bland uniformity, destroying what made the community vibrant. A community with high social and cultural capital is a happier place to live. It needs a variety of small businesses serving local needs. It should have affordable rents for young, energetic and creative people, who give it its sense of place.”

If you had to choose one neighbourhood or city that encapsulates good – or humane – design what would it be?

“I think the Georgians really got it right. Georgian homes are well proportioned buildings of a human scale. Pick any neighbourhood in London or Dublin where these homes predominate: Barnsbury perhaps, by St Stephen’s Green, or Parnell Square.

“On the other hand, places like Peckham and Dalston might be less pretty, and less green, but have a great sense of community. I’ve spent a lot of my life in Clapham which has a variety of nice housing stock, but for me it is the trees and the Common that are its best assets. Brixton, down the road, is more diverse and interesting but a bit too dominated by a busy road cutting through it.”

Should an architect’s vision ever be allowed to override public opinion?

“The answer is that they should work together. Great public buildings will be the result of a dialogue between architect and local community. Social media can get the public involved early on – at the design stage. Architects can now create very detailed 3D renderings and walkthroughs which are easily uploaded for comments.

“When it comes to new residential homes, there are a set of psychological principles that should inform their design, inside and out. For example, ceilings should be 3 metres high. Too often, the local council or developer is driven by cost not psychology.”

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Ask a sage
Question: What kind of housing units should we build?

Zaha Hadid replies: “I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure. It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.”