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Built environment - urban designing for mental & physical wellbeing

How we design our living places bears enormous impact on both physical and mental health. How can we create improved conditions, through design of the built environment, for human habitation and wellbeing?

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Where we live has an enormous impact on our health - physically and mentally. Growing scientific evidence demonstrates that how our cities and towns are designed and built can cause serious health problems - including mental health issues, as well as even impact on levels of crime and violence, which again tie back into mental health problems. Poor quality housing also increases pyschological distress (you may rightly consider this obvious!) Indeed, Dr. Gary Evans from the Department of Design & Environmental Analysis & Department of Human Development at Cornell University, has found that "Personal control, socially supportive relationships, and restoration from stress and fatigue are all affected by properties of the built environment" while poor environmental conditions tend to be concentrated in poor and ethnic minority communities. He also found that "neighborhood quality" has mental health impacts on individuals, where diminished social support increases psychological problems. Crowding, noise, air quality, light, access to open and green spaces and pesonal controlability - these all impact on human health, mentally and in turn physically.  

So what role does urban planning and design have in creating improved conditions for human habitation and wellbeing? City planning was born out of a desire and need to improve public health - and now there is growing recognition once again that the way we construct and create our dwelling places has far-reaching effects on human health. The WHO has said that "at last there is a new recognition that the health and well-being of people is perhaps the fundamental purpose of planning." We have read about the poor housing conditions affecting the residents of Caldas. We have also read about the way in which Bogota's inspirational former mayor transformed city living with his innovative approach to planning and design, improving the health and wellbeing of residents as he did so. Accoridng to author Charles Montgomery, this is the reason why Colombia came second in a University of Michigan survey of the world's happiest countries. (Although simultaneously, Colombia also has high mental health problems too... Is this contradictory..?) 

How can we apply urban design thinking to our approach in Caldas? Can we design out negative urban effects? Or use social business to re-design communities and spatial relations to give more control to those living in these spaces? Should we be thinking about 'happiness'/wellbeing, as many economists now are, alongside our view of health?? (Side track.....:Are the two the same thing...? If Colombians can be both extremely satisfied/happy and extremely poor and lacking access to healthcare at the same time - what can we deduce from this.......?? At the same time, in the west we live longer, are in many respects healthier, with better healthcare access, and yet we are miserable....statistically... Hmmm...)

One aspect which is extremely inspiring is thinking about ways to enable favela-dwellers to take ownership and pride in where they live. Consider the 'Favela Painting' project in Rio di Janeiro - two Dutch artists have dreamt up an initiative whereby they train local residents in the slums of Rio in professional painting, then employ them to create amazing, colourful make-overs of previously drab, grey, lifeless and decaying infrastructure - their own homes. (Have a look at the pics - they are great!) The artists' ultimate goal is to paint an entire hillside favela in the center of Rio. "Visible from the center of Rio, ‘O Morro’ will draw attention to the city’s deplorable social situation, while instilling pride and joy in the at the bottom of the social hierarchy." - say the team.

While it is true this does little to address many of the core issues and causes of poverty and health aspects, appraoches like these do and can have a tremendous impact on social inclusion, dignity, mental attitude, self-belief and hope for individuals living in these communities, in turn impacting on their mental wellbeing and strength. ("Where we are heavily influences who we can be") It is also a great example of an employment and skills-generating initiative.

Hopefully, some food for thought...!


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Great provocation on the importance of housing & community environment, as well as the sometimes paradoxical relationship between satisfaction/happiness & absolute living conditions (I think perceptions-- influenced by expectations, beliefs, & value--plays a significant role in this as well, as also illustrated in a sense by your "Favela Painting" example).

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To comment on the statement quoted above: "Personal control, socially supportive relationships, and restoration from stress and fatigue are all affected by properties of the built environment" , but in a slightly different light. If these fostering these social characteristics is among the goals of this challenge, I suspect we must start with them in mind.

The world is littered by the ruins wrought by the efforts of the well intentioned, imperfectly informed; so it seems to me that a three part learning process must be conducted before social business can safely begin helping the people of Caldas, or others in similar circumstances. Any intervention into the lives and circumstances of the powerless by the powerful must be controlled by the former, less it exacerbates the underlying problem, which is precisely that power differential.

The learnings must be:
1. the benefactor, in this case social business, must learn how to facilitate this transfer of control/power shift (that is, they must learn how to listen to and learn from those they would help, without prejudice or patronisation, and how to be guided by their advice even where it conflicts with received wisdom)
2. the recipients, in this case the disadvantaged of Caldas, must learn how to determine what they need and how it should be best delivered (that is, they must know how to clear-headedly analyse their own situation, design the programs to address their problems, and how to measure, communicate and celebrate the successes of such programs)
3. both parties must learn how and when to disengage, each with the other, and how to ensure such disengagement takes place regardless of the rewards of ongoing relationship. New relationships may develop, but must do so on the basis of the new circumstances of all concerned.

The goals of every intervention of this nature must be explicit, realisable, measurable and, most importantly agreed by all parties, so that all parties might emerge with their identities and dignity intact.