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Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing
by Jenny Roe and Layla Mc Cay
INTEREST in mental illness has grown exponentially over recent years and informs many a popular and undoubtedly progressive analysis. However, there is a noticeable gap between awareness of the devastation that such illness can bring on the one hand and insight into its origins and how it can best be tackled on the other.
Attention on origins still tends to focus on the bio-medical model which highlights genetics and physiology, emphasis in recovery being upon medication and the individual’s ability or not to engage with health services offered.
The idea that there might be a whole political and economic basis to mental ill health and that there is a consequent need to create collective problems to social problems being very rarely discussed.
And that in spite of countless studies which have argued that if you are black, poor, a migrant and live in an inner city where there are few green spaces, overcrowded housing and few job opportunities, you are far more likely to have heightened levels of stress, anxiety and depression and have a greater chance of developing a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or some variant therein.
From the perspective of the left, Marx and Engels, for example, were to forcefully argue that abolishing the divide between town and county is central to the revolutionary project. A perspective later exemplified in utopian fantasies such as that of William Morris in his remarkably widely read News from Nowhere.
Likewise, there was a distinctly socialist influence through individuals like Robert Owen, Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin on model settlements, the Garden cities movement and the ground-breaking achievements of post 1945 town and country planning.
Restorative Cities fortunately stands within this latter tradition and is a superb example of what has come to be called engaged urbanism.
One of the greatest strengths to this text is that it brings together a host of contemporary studies that detail links between the nature of the urban environment and psychological wellbeing.
It also successfully examines a vast series of international, wonderfully varied and sometimes quite ground-breaking initiatives that illustrate how urban design can create more ecologically friendly and socially inclusive spaces that are not only cleaner, safer and greener but can at the same time strengthen identity, meaning and purpose.
Some of these projects are very small scale, others less so — what they are have in common is the desire to create more liveable and healthy neighbourhoods, both mentally and physically.
Reasserting fundamental truth in an updated, attractive and detailed toolkit approach can only be welcomed and in fact the central achievement of the book is that it more than successfully delineates a convincing framework in which more restorative cities can begin to develop.
There’s a remarkable attention to detail, a really positive can-do approach and included in its grand plans is an often-underestimated attention to the importance of quietness, nearness to water and sensory stimulation as well as the more expected indices.
An approach of obvious relevance to all manner of individuals, groups and institutions, governmental or otherwise.
That said, there are limitations to this books overall analysis. Despite an apparent awareness of how social, political and economic inequalities can negatively impact on the urban arena, the outlook appears to be rather abstract, top down and apolitical.
Related to this it would have been nice to have drawn on less official, community led initiatives of which there are umpteen examples, and which have had no less an impact, if not greater, despite having overcome often insurmountable odds.
Overall, a valuable and hopefully enduring contribution and while it might not always answer how cities might best be liberated from corporate rule, cars and congestion it is certainly one central to the mechanics of how best go about restoring cities to people, culture and nature.
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