The launch of The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH), and the publication of A Manifesto for Conscious Cities occurred almost simultaneously in the summer of 2015. Both are reactions to the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.
In co-authoring the manifesto, I intended to highlight that despite the complex problems many cities are facing, there is a greater opportunity than ever to make a positive impact in people’s lives through design. The smart city revolution brought with it many gains, but is also an augmentation of an arrangement that brought ills to our cities today: performance above experience. Conscious Cities gives a name and definition to a new field that differentiates itself by proposing to replace our focus on efficiency with a focus on well-being. We can now direct well-developed expertise beyond the streamlining of services, and into the creation of better built surroundings.
The renewed interest in the behavioural sciences from urbanists might arise from discontent in the general nature of urban development. All too often, it is a vehicle for quick profit rather than the pursuit of building long-lasting, well designed environments. Although architecture exists in the sacrifice of efficiency, it has ironically become a field that is asked to prove its worth through return on investment. Therefore, architects have fluctuated in their commitment to understanding the psychological implications of their work partly because it must come at their own expense rather than being an integral part of commissions received.
One goal of Conscious Cities is to highlight the feasibility and benefit of conscious design – that which has an awareness of, and responsibility towards its users. The challenge is twofold and symbiotic: to empower and facilitate designers to use this approach, and to convince policy-makers, and through them, also market-players that a new set of priorities is essential. To this end, a Conscious Cities website is now online, including CC:LAB; a platform and network for the research, design, and construction community to connect and collaborate.
This edition of the UD/MH journal is part of that effort to give a platform to novel methods of observation and analysis, drivers for design, and methodologies for the production of space. The intersections of mental health and urban design are addressed in this journal through the lens of Conscious Cities. Firstly by way of sourcing data from digital forms of expression (Sophie Gleizes on Traumascapes, and Georgina Hosing on Smartphones and Apps). Secondly in understanding the impact of our environment on mental health (Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe on Scenicness), and how we might plan our environment to our benefit (Barbara Pani on Dementia, and Jan Golembiewski on Mental Illness). Finally, the role of policy, and our responsibility to be proactive with new knowledge (Rhiannon Corcoran and Graham Marshall in Planning for Wellbeing, Paul Mackie on car culture, and Amelia Taylor-Hochberg on the future of architecture education.)
The pieces featured in this issue represent an approach to urban planning that contemplates the intricate connection between the individual and collective experience, and that this interrelation is the focus of efforts for improvements.
Itai Palti is a practicing architect, educator, researcher, and Fellow of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. A graduate of The Bartlett School of Architecture, Itai has previously worked alongside the late Jan Kaplicky at his practice Future Systems in London. His built and theoretical work has been published internationally, including ‘A Manifesto for Conscious Cities’ in The Guardian, part of research in collaboration with leading figures in the behavioural and brain sciences. He is a co-recipient of the 2015 Hay Award from the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture for ongoing research. Itai will be speaking at the first Conscious Cities conference, organised by The Museum of Architecture and The Cube, in London on 1st of March, 2016, and has launched the Conscious Cities website.