Van Alen Report 20: Healthy Brains, Healthy Cities

This work is part of Van Alen Report, an umbrella initiative; learn more about it here.


    With VAR 20, we explore the often hidden connection between mental health and urban environments.


    Cognitive and behavioral science research is revealing more and more about how cities impact people physically, emotionally, and neurologically. With more people expected to live in cities than ever before, this growing body of knowledge is most welcome. However, knowledge alone is not enough to produce better, healthier cities. Just as new technologies and scientific approaches have provided fresh insight into how cities impact the mind and body, it will take new thinking among city-makers to harness that information and re-imagine the role that design can play in promoting mental health and well-being.

    Andrew Brown, Director of Programs


    Parks, Cities, and Mental Health

    Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, on how parks and nature influence mental health in cities.

    Learning in Urban Environments

    Building opportunities for learning and creativity on every sidewalk, bus stop, and corner. By Itai Palti

    Building for the Most Vulnerable

    How designers can make themselves better advocates for the cognitively-impaired. By Stuart Shell

    Healthy Brains, Healthy Cities

    Four leading researchers share insights on the intersection of science, the brain, and the built environment.


    For Van Alen Report 20, we invited designers from around the world to share projects at the vanguard of using science-informed practices to design healthier cities. For each featured project, we asked the designers to identify the health impacts intended, and discuss how insights from neuroscience or psychology influenced the project’s design. We also consider how each project might advance both the conversation about evidence-based design, and the greater pursuit of designing healthier cities for all. These profiles have been adapted from the designers’ responses.

    Via Verde: The Green Way

    A holistic approach to mental well-being in affordable housing.

    Living Bridges

    A proposal to transform a viaduct from a single-purpose conduit for cars to a multi-use structure.

    Happier by Design

    How can we recreate an urban core so its design is intelligent, flexible, and responsive to the needs of residents and visitors?

    Crown Sky Garden

    This regenerative project integrates healing gardens as part of the healthcare regiment.

    Special Thanks

    Sandra Chapman
    Founder + Chief Director, Center for Brain Health at UT-Dallas

    Fred Marks
    President-Elect, Academy of Neuroscience For Architecture (ANFA)

    Susan Magsamen
    Executive Director, International Arts and Mind Lab at the Brain Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University

    Sarah Williams Goldhagen
    Architecture Critic, Author of Welcome to Your World

    Hana Kassem
    Principal, KPF


    Featured Perspectives

    Dr. Michael Arbib
    Professor of Biological Sciences, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Neuroscience and Psychology at USC

    Dr. David Cantor, Director
    Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool

    Dr. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director
    Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Alexi Marmot, Director
    Bartlett Global Centre for Learning Environments, UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment

    Dr. John Medina, Founding Director
    Talaris Research Institute

    Richard Wener, Director
    Sustainable Urban Environments, Department of Technology, Culture & Society, Tandon School of Engineering of New York University

    Additional Contributors

    Hansel Bauman, Gallaudet University
    Dattner ArchitectsTye Farrow, Farrow Partners
    HLM Arkitektur
    Itai Palti, Hume
    Dak Kopec, University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Architecture
    Man Made Music
    Mikyoung Kim Design
    Perkins+Will Human Experience Lab
    Skidmore, Ownings & Merril (SOM)

    Van Alen Report 20 Staff

    David van der Leer
    Andrew Brown
    Amelia Taylor-Hochberg
    Andy Sherman
    Jessica Wachtler