© 2016 Neil Stacey

Cross-discipline design for health – a research beginning

In the previous academic year, 2015-16, as studio leader for the design studies of Leicester School of Architecture’s third year students, I contextualised design learning within the theme of ‘Healthy Cities’. The introduction to this theme culminated in the words: in summary, the theme (for the year) might have been Happy Cities, Architecture of People and Place, Liveable Cities …… all of these terms embody the idea that a well-designed urban environment can significantly improve the health and well-being of its inhabitants. They all support the statement that the well-being of people, the whole health of people, is ultimately the focus of architectural design: good architectural design improves the quality of our lives.

All students had to design a ‘Health Station’, an imagined brief in which Leicester City Council, DeMontfort, Leicester and Loughborough Universities, pooled their resources to create a series of small buildings. Each building, each health station, offered passers-by opportunity to enjoy the River Soar and also check their BMI, blood pressure etc. and access advice. It echoed the recent switch of public health from NHS to local government. It also captured some other elements of reality; I and others from Leicester City Council, Leicester and Loughborough Universities are meeting regularly to benefit from one another’s expertise and enthusiasm and thereby better understand all things urban. This small group, Leicester’s Urban Observatory, has some interesting plans  – more on this another time.

After the design of the ‘Health Station’, students were placed into one of several studio pathways. Transect, a studio pathway I developed and delivered with Nils Feldmann (Feldmann Architects), considered another imagined future, one in which Leicester City Council commits to delivering a walking-cycling super highway from Highcross, the epicentre of Leicester’s retail offer, westwards to the city’s periphery and junction 21a on the M1. This route offered students opportunity to understand and tell the story of Leicester -historically and socially. Leicester already has an exemplary walking super-highway: New Walk runs from Victoria Park north-wards (roughly) into the city centre. The students were instructed to consider the new route, the Transect, as a new New Walk. The studio referenced Enrique Penalosa’s ‘dignity’ cycling-walking routes in Bogota. Students considered the new sites and new opportunities that arose from the construction of the new route and (hopefully) recognised that the architecture of buildings is a small part of a much more complicated architecture, that of the city and the everyday lives within it. It is the architecture of the city – which is social, political, economic and cultural as well as formal-physical – that determines health and well-being not simply the quality of its buildings.

The studio was developed with the intention of constructing architecture + well-being research around the notion within it, namely the construction of bold pieces of walking-cycling infrastructure master-planning. This is not a statement that bold walking-cycling infrastructure is per se good, merely that the notion of such a project enables me to respond and build knowledge and understanding around it. Like most architects I am wired to think spatially and to develop my knowledge spatially; I will be focussing on the spatiality of the imagined Transect to pull together seemingly disparate research/ ideas ranging from utility and subjective well-being (SWB) to notions of wellness audits, hopefully with public health data, economic modelling tools and formal analysis of neighbourhood morphologies.

Recent meetings with potential collaborators – very positive meetings – have brought this research idea to life. Sounds like a plan.