© 2017 Neil Stacey

The Architecture of the Healthy City – Wednesday 6th Dec 2017

On Wednesday I contributed to the last lecture in the 2017 CITY SERIES, organised by Leicester Urban Observatory (LUO).

The series opened in January 2017 with a lecture from Leicester’s Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby. The original programme of four lectures grew to six lectures and two satellite seminars. It has been a success. It has done what it intended: [1] established a lecture series in which academics and practitioners engage with one another and the public of Leicester in discussing issues with regard to cities and city living; [2] attracted audiences comprising of a mixture of academics, practitioners, students and general public, and last but not least; [3] along with the inaugural Leicester Urban Summer School, in June/July 2017, organised by Prof. Simon Gunn at Leicester University, nurtured the relationships and ways of working between the four institutes that are involved in LUO.

On Wednesday I did a 25 minute ramble around the title “Is Architecture Good for your Health?”; Ivan Browne, Deputy Director of Public Health at Leicester City Council followed, then, after some Q+A; Leicester’s Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, did a brief presentation about Leicester’s Local Plan consultation.

The fact that Sir Peter closed the series, having opened it in January, gave the City Series a tidiness that all involved in LUO appreciated, and also gave the series a gravitas; the involvement of the City and the Mayor’s support is key to LUO going forward.

So what of the content of Wednesday evening’s event?

I did not enjoy my presentation, in that I tried to say too much, in what was a short period of time, and ended up not saying much. However, it did offer much to ponder.

Architecture is a difficult term. For many people, the term ‘architecture’ refers to the design, and in particular the visual language, of a building or buildings.  Therefore “Is architecture good for your health?” was a question that required clarification; the subject matter, that of health and the city, demanded a broader definition of architecture which I did not provide.

If the definition of the ‘architecture of the city’ is as broad as ‘the spatial organisation, material reality and temporal & socio-cultural manifestation, of all the functions, activities, actions and behaviours of both the processes and citizens of a city’, it follows that the ‘design’ of the ‘architecture of the city’ is the responsibility of, and the result of the actions of, politicians, policy makers, engineers, planners, landscape architects, architects, traffic engineers and the citizens themselves.

The role of architects in this is clearly limited – important, but limited. Based upon the first question from the floor, i.e. “I don’t agree that architects don’t have much to offer to improve the health of people ….?, I think that simple idea got lost in my scatter gun presentation. Had I clearly established that aspect of my argument early in the brief presentation, I might have better used the remaining time to offer some information, opinion and evidence for the limited but important contribution that architects can contribute. I touched upon this. I referred to the need to design cities that offer walking and cycling as the travel of choice. I referred to the need to define and demand quality of design with ‘health’ and ‘wellbeing’ as key determinants, and the very important role architects can play in this.

Possibly the negativity and cynicism I brought to bear on the subject dominated my presentation. But informed critical opinion, which I caricatured as cynicism, is important. The spatial design of buildings, spaces and places does affect behaviour, but it does not determine behaviour. This is very important. The recent past has witnessed the perils of ideas of architectural determinism, most notably in notions of ‘designing out crime’ (see previous post) Architectural determinism re-emerging as ‘designing out obesity and poor health’ is not a good outcome of the recent attention being paid to the role of the built environment in health and wellbeing. The issue is significantly more complex.

Intuition tells us – most if not all of us – that good design is good for you. It is.  There is  evidence to support the details of this intuition and help with a definition of ‘good design for health and wellbeing’. We have all experienced the delight of being in, of using, of experiencing a beautiful, building, garden, park, square or street. There is evidence that ‘delight’ improves your sense of wellbeing. If aspects of that delight include connections with nature then evidence suggests the improvement in wellbeing will be greater.

Yet the evidence that good design is good for your health is not such that the effect is reliably quantifiable. The evidence that poverty is a determinant of poor health and wellbeing is much more compelling, is quantifiable and therefore measures to eliminate poverty will yield much more success than measures to improve design. Of course the reality is that poverty begets poor design and wealth begets good design – a point I made with reference to ‘Conservation areas’.

Occasionally a project, a development shines light on this. Elemental’s Quinta Monroy housing in Chile, is a fantastic example of how excellent design, and excellent architects (and one assumes excellent “everyone else involved”), can cut through the crap and deliver design quality in spite of the poverty of the situation. Perhaps my presentation should have championed this and projects like it.