Forbes Magazine recently ran an article on the most stressed out cities in the U.S. Not surprisingly it was some of the most highly populated cities included in that study that topped the list. The study took into account factors such as cost of living, unemployment rate, pollution, traffic, health and more. As noted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which compiles a “Better Life Index” on a global scale, numerous factors can contribute to stress levels, such as economic and physical health, family and community networks, work-life balance, and environment, in multiple aspects. I’m sure that none of this comes as a surprise to my intelligent audience, but these are connections worth validating.
I can’t help but wonder how critical the role of community design really is. Is poor design (or the lack of belief in the power and effect of design) a considerable contributing factor in this association between stress and densely populated, largely man-made areas? I believe it is. I’d hate to downplay the power and effect of the family unit, and one’s choices and social connections to healthy living, but how much could a better designed city, one that addresses people’s needs to connect with nature, really help? Just think of what one city park provides opportunity for: rest, exercise, escape from (some) noise and pollution, can act as a meeting place, build a sense of community, and provide habitat for our animal friends. And that’s just one outlet that enhances city living. Urban gardening/food forests (check out Seattle’s new public food forest), trail systems, habitat areas and private gardens/landscapes also have numerous benefits. Urban gardens and food forests not only add to the aesthetic value of an area, but also serve practical needs for fresh, healthy food and also reduce pollution, oil consumption and traffic from the vehicles that would’ve delivered those goods. Not to mention city dwellers can become more independent, being less reliant on grocery stores, transit systems, etc. All of these benefits could aid in stress reduction.
If confinement (aka densely populated areas) contributes to stress levels, what can be done to loosen cities up? In Detroit, where droves of people have left, large portions of the city now sit vacant. There isn’t any one simple answer with how the city is to move forward, but some look at this as a great opportunity for Detroit to rebuild itself. People there have been integrating urban gardens and restoring the area to natural habitat, giving it “back to God” (Interesting article on that).
Blogger and Landscape Architect Thomas Rainer notes on one of his recent posts how landscape architecture may now be entering a golden age, with Landscape Urbanism gaining steam, promoting the ideology that landscapes, more than architecture, play a greater role in organizing and enhancing our cities.
The importance of natural areas/parks can be seen close to home at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver. The restored park is now Vancouver’s back yard and the hub of downtown. With a jolt of public investment in restoring the park, which was once a transient and crime magnet, private investment around the park has followed and has arguably been the catalyst in much more development across the city, and possibly even the downtown’s lifeline. I’m not sure what other than a natural area made more accessible and friendly to the community would’ve spurred on and anchored so much growth, and also have kept livability there at a consistent, or growing, level. Nature is important to us. Nature grounds us and gives us perspective.
But it’s not just about having these natural areas within a city’s core, it’s about integration, scope and accessibility. Do we look at landscape architecture as a means to merely decorate the outside of our buildings, or do we decorate our landscapes with buildings? Looking at the 2012 ASLA awards, landscape architecture’s prominence and influence appears to be growing strong. And as an L.A.s role grows, I believe livability, functionality, and hopefully even levels of stress, can be affected in a positive way.