“Spatializing” Interdisciplinarity. Rendering the City Urban

“Spatializing” Interdisciplinarity. Rendering the City Urban

By: Dorothee Rummel (Department of Architecture, Technical University of Munich)

“Urban living can be bad for our physical and mental health?” “City life and its spatial conditions have a negative effect on people’s wellbeing?”—An increasing number of urban environments are suspected of harming their inhabitants. Not only physically, by causing respiratory diseases because of air pollution, for example, but also mentally, for instance, by triggering schizophrenia due to negative stress caused by sensory overload. In several ways, critical assessments like these question whether the urban is a livable place altogether. This calls for scientific scrutiny. Here, the fields of urban design and public mental health join forces to address collaboratively the challenges to mental health posed by urban environments.

Urban and (mental) health issues relate to one another. How does urban design affect people’s minds and what impact do built urban settings have on a person’s psyche? Strategies for handling high population densities and overcrowding, the balance of publicness and privacy, living environments and neighborhoods, working contexts and social networks, infrastructures and accessibilities, flora and fauna, all affect the individual as well as the crowd, causing them to feel overcharged or overwhelmed, uneasy or safe, stressed or relaxed. These emotions influence usage patterns and stimulate or suppress participation, which in return affects the atmosphere of the spaces. Comprehending the ways they are linked generates benefits for both fields. Understanding the causes of diseases or distress allows urban planners to propose spatial solutions for relief. Health professionals, in turn, can involve architecture and urban planning to design prevention strategies. Vice versa, the state of mind has great impact on urban design processes, our psyche is involved in spatial decisions: Perceptions of risk, lack of knowledge, and a sense of uncertainty can shape processes of planning and political decision-making profoundly. For instance, the fear of failure and loss of control have too often led to short-term, security-driven decisions, instead of measures that would serve the long-term objective of wellbeing of the public.

Architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design are disciplines that shape cities and organize patterns of use three-dimensionally. Our tool kit consists of observation and city walks that we translate into conceptual sketches, models to scale, technical drawings, and atmospheric renderings. Research in public (mental) health is geared towards prevention and conducted by selecting apt sample groups, collecting and evaluating data, and producing charts and curves that support advisory statements. Although the methodological approaches differ, they still have a main objective in common, i.e. to ensure and enhance the well-being of people living together in cities (including their fringes or adjacent rural areas).

Figure 1. Contact. Euston Station London in 2019 (copyright: Dorothee Rummel).

For the 2019–20 “Mentally Urban” research project, run by the Chair of Sustainable Urbanism (TUM) in cooperation with the department for Public Health and Public Mental Health (LMU), experts of the fields of urban planning, psychology, risk evaluation, psychogeography, and epidemiology as well as students of diverse disciplinary backgrounds came together to explore fields of mutual interests and possibilities of working together. The following three topics were identified and now serve as toeholds for further cooperative research, and as examples of how to overcome hurdles caused by technical vocabulary and working modes in order to present strong joint solutions:

Physical contact is key. Person-to-person (also person-to-environment) contact can be a cure to or prevention of mental illnesses, triggering the feeling of happiness as it enables exchange and experience. Both, predictable and especially unpredictable encounters help people be more confident in dealing with complicated (urban) situations. “Random” contact is part of everyday life in an urban context, for instance, on public transport or in educational institutions. In paying attention to those everyday encounters, urban planning can contribute to ensure real-life involvement and participation, which are proven to help reduce the sense of loneliness amidst the masses; a feeling that cannot be compensated by “likes” on social media networks. The question to what extent contact situations can, or even need to be designed and choreographed in particular ways—if at all—is surely contested but nevertheless needs to be addressed by researchers and practitioners in both fields.

Stressing perception. Fundamental to the human experience and perception of the world, spatial orientation is inextricably intertwined with many more sensorial registers than the sense of direction. For instance, the mode and speed (pedestrian, bike, metro, car), with which we move through urban fabric, influences what sticks to our memory. Cycling stimulates our senses very differently than driving a car; we would not experience the same sensations of scents, sounds, and surfaces; the perception of passing objects varies with speed; and the mental maps produced by route-memory would differ fundamentally. Routes and routine go hand in hand. Places of daily routine can be better prepared for people of different ages (safe way to school for kids) or mental conditions (dementia or Alzheimer’s disease) through designed interventions in (floor)plans that support orientation or change the perception of proximity, density, or individuality.

Experiencing truths. Making manifold experiences in the physical world (as opposed to a virtual reality) is essential to understand how the world works. This equips us to judge and deal with unknown complex situations and helps preventing us from being easily overwhelmed and, as a result, even depressed. Another aspect of “truth” is that there are many. Consider the statement “Green makes people happier!” But, then, what is green? Which spatial qualities of the “green” exactly make people happier? Is it the color, the plants, visual or recreational aspects? Does the same green make a five-year-old as happy as a fifteen-year-old? How important is the context? Does a field of flowers trigger more happiness than a soccer field? Those questions need to be explored by experts in the fields of psychology, urban (mental) health, geographical medicine, and urban planning collaboratively.

Public Mental Health is just one example that reveals the benefits of approaching the transformation of urban environments as a collective and interdisciplinary mission. The collaboration between experts in the fields of public mental health and urban planning also demonstrates the significance of translating scientific findings into practice, that is, theoretical knowledge about human mental health into spatial consequences to improve living conditions for citizens in urban settings. Apart from innovative cooperation between scientists and practitioners, working on urban transformation as a “collective mission” requires us to rethink the urban more basically in order to be open to the views and values not only of professionals but also of those that inhabit the city and ultimately render it urban.

The possibility to connect and participate is about the strongest motivation to join city life and represents an alternative perspective to pessimistic assessments that perceive city life as unhealthy and dangerous per se. The urban is a successful mix consisting of many layers and multiple contributors who create inspiring encounters by forming spaces for society and environment. In appreciating and cultivating a city’s ambiguity, contrast and inconsistency and in focusing on inclusion, rather than exclusivity, we can maintain the urban as a winning formula.


Recommended reading

Adli, Mazda. 2017. Stress and the City. Warum Städte uns krank machen. Und warum sie trotzdem gut für uns sind. München: C. Bertelsmann.

Ellard, Colin. 2015. Places of the Heart. The Psychogeography of Everyday Life. New York: Bellevue Literary Press.

Renn, Ortwin. 2019. Gefühlte Wahrheiten. Orientierung in Zeiten postfaktischer Verunsicherung. Leverkusen: Barbara Budrich Verlag.

Rosa, Eugene A., Ortwin Renn, and Aaron M. McCright. 2014. The Risk Society Revisited: Social Theory and Risk Governance. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rummel, Dorothee. 2020 “Designing Urban Happiness.” Mentally Urban Magazine 1(1): p. 4-5.

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. 1977. Learning from Las

Cover image: Busy crosswalk in Tokyo, Japan. Courtesy of Cory Schadt via Unsplash