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Mental Health in the City: can developing a new ‘Urban Psychology’ be an antidote to poor design and policy?

Chris Murray, Director of Core Cities UK, writes for IPPO Cities on urban psychology in advance of his appearance at our virtual roundtable on Mental Health in the City on 12 May 2022 at 2pm BST.

Chris Murray

In an article for IPPO Cities in December 2021, I set out some new ideas emerging around an ‘urban psychology’.  This could help cities take a different, person-centred approach to long-standing issues as well as the more recent impacts of the pandemic in respect of design, but also across a wider base of urban policy.

Cities have too often been seen as ‘machines to be fixed’, rather than understood as living cultural entities, composed of people first, and infrastructure second.  Yet psychology, the single set of disciplines most concerned with the emotional and mental wellbeing of people, is rarely used in the making and management of what is now the primary human habitat world-wide.

Urban psychology has two related, but fundamental differences to other approaches.  The first is using the lens of psychology and its breadth of human understanding to assess the impacts of place on people; and the second is then to take tools and ideas from psychology and apply them to improve placemaking, design and public policy.

Can we make places that support our positive development as human beings?

We know a lot about the negative impacts of poor placemaking and deprived urban environments.  People experiencing these in early life and the Adverse Childhood Experiences associated with them can be thousands of times more likely to suffer from addictions, obesity and poor mental health. Neuroscience also shows rising levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in such environments, linked to the ‘slow violence’ of deprivation which is no less real than sudden trauma.

But what about the positive aspects of place?  As well as mitigating the negative, is it possible to create places that have an active, positive impact on people’s psychological development and wellbeing?  Places of empathy, connection and anchorage, even healing?  The evidence suggests this should be possible, and certainly worthy of investigation.

Recently, Charles Landry and I worked with Coventry University, undertaking a psychological assessment of Coventry city centre and its urban design impacts, to make suggestions for its future redevelopment.

Coventry on the Couch: a psychological assessment of a city

‘Coventry on the Couch’, the first project of its kind as far as we know, used three related tools:  psychologically framed interviews and workshops;  an online ‘City Personality Test’ framing place as person; and  a ‘psychotherapist in residence’, who knew the city well.  The psychotherapist in residence undertook a ‘life history analysis’ of the city, asking, if those events had happened to a person, what would the legacy be, and could psychotherapy suggest new strategies for the city?

The project revealed a city of great strengths, many of them unsung including elements of design and innovation, but one that was somewhat stoic, trapped in a cycle of apparent boom and bust – a ‘Phoenix syndrome’, that bird being the city’s symbol.  It also revealed the city as a place of compassion, welcome and tolerance capable of weaving a new narrative.  Our suggestions included flipping the design reputation of Coventry, becoming a world leader for psychologically informed urban design, underpinned by a renewed city-university partnership.  But they also included ways of honouring the challenges the city has faced, putting these to rest.

We suggested a framework for ‘psychologically resilient’ city making, alongside a Psychological Impact Assessment of any major new development.  Law requires us to do this for environmental, economic and access impacts, but currently there is no requirement to assess design against its impact on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

A city communicates its values through everything it does and this has economic consequences

You don’t need to be an urban designer to know a city.  Everyone instinctively senses the city all the time, it communicates in everything it does, and tells us what its values really are through its design and policy choices.  These affect reputation, attractiveness, look and feel which all impact on the economy.

So, this isn’t all ‘nice to do’ and feel good as there are real economic consequences to ignoring the psychological impacts of what we do in our cities, particularly the effects of deprivation which are intimately linked to reduced productivity and increased public service demand.

By measuring the psychological and wellbeing impacts of design and policy decisions more closely, we can not only appreciate their economic consequences, but also start to understand how to make and manage places in a way that has a far greater positive impact and allows us all to live our best urban lives.

The findings of Coventry on the Couch will be published soon at www.urbanpsyche.org where you can also request further information.

IPPO Cities’ event on Mental Health in the City: how are insights around wellbeing and place being applied to boost the urban recovery? will take place on Thursday, 12 May 2022 at 2 pm BST for 60 minutes. Other speakers include Nancy Hey of What Works Wellbeing and Idoia Postigo of Bilbao-Metropoli-30.  Sign up for free via Eventbrite.