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  1. Q&A with Steven Koller, Neighborhood Design Fellow

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    In 2021, Van Alen Institute launched our Neighborhood Design Fellowship, a paid, six-month program for 11 Gowanus residents — designers and non-designers alike — to work toward the future they imagine for their community. Months later, many of the fellows continue to collaborate with each other on Gowanus-based projects, including the Gowanus CSO Installation, an upcoming light installation that will raise awareness of water quality issues in the neighborhood. We spoke with Steven Koller, one of our Gowanus fellows, about the challenges facing Gowanus due to combined sewer overflow (CSO) and what the project aims to achieve.

    Hi Steve! Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you ended up joining the Neighborhood Design Fellowship.

    I’m Steve Koller, I’m in the third year of an environmental science and policy PhD Program at the University of Miami. My research focuses on flood risk and how to assess it, how to respond to it from a policy standpoint, knowing that climate change is elevating sea levels and intensifying storms.

    Before going down to Miami, I was an analyst based at the New York City office of the Environmental Defense Fund. At the time, I was living in the Gowanus watershed just up the road from the canal, and got interested as a resident, less so as an environmental scientist. In 2020, I got involved with some local NGOs who were working on water quality issues in the canal, tracking the Superfund cleanup, and engaging with the community on water issues.

    I got plugged into the Gowanus environmental community there and heard through the grapevine that Van Alen Institute was doing a neighborhood design fellowship. It was a really great, great opportunity to get to know some folks with design expertise — which isn’t my expertise, as I’m coming at things from a flood risk and water quality lens — and to engage with people with very different expertises and interests in the neighborhood when Gowanus is in this moment of pretty substantial change.

    What was your experience of the fellowship?

    It was really nice to meet residents from different networks within the neighborhoods. All of the fellows intimately know the neighborhood, but have very different professional backgrounds. There were architects, artists, people with communications experience, and I was this random person coming from an environmental science grad program. That clashing of perspectives around a common place was a real learning experience every time we met.

    The fellowship was really eye-opening and a valuable bridge-building opportunity. A profound experience for me was collaborating with residents of the Gowanus Houses who are leaders in their community, and learning about the issues that they’re dealing with in relation to the rezoning. Without those lines of communication with your neighbors, you can be residents in the same community but have very different experiences of it.

    In my experience with Van Alen Institute, there’s a real sense that the organization is listening. That’s not always the case. An organization might say they’re listening, but the programming doesn’t feel like they’re listening as hard as they’re marketing themselves. With Van Alen, the Neighborhood Design Lab fellowship truly was fellow-driven, and our projects are snowballing in a really organic, authentic way. It’s awesome.

    Tell us about the Gowanus CSO Lights project and how that idea generated among the fellows.

    Early on in the fellowship, there was a lot of brainstorming going on. We were a disparate group of people who didn’t know each other that well at first, and were coming from different professional backgrounds. We didn’t really know what mattered to one another or what we all brought to the table, skillswise. It was an iterative process as we figured out what we care about as a group and what we could do based on our skill sets.

    The fellows galvanized efforts around the community center at the Gowanus Houses. There was unanimity that this was a very important issue for the community. What’s more important than giving hundreds of residents in the neighborhood a community center that’s sorely needed?

    [Editor’s note: Over the course of the Fellowship, the fellows collaborated on an action campaign to bring attention to an underinvested, underutilized community center part of the Gowanus Houses NYCHA complex. With Dark Matter University, the fellows drafted and assembled a pamphlet outlining the history of disinvestment that has plagued the community center and their visions for the future of the space. The fellows are now currently planning the next phase of their action campaign.]

    One of the other project pitches was around water quality and the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue. One of the fellows, Bahij Chancey, had originally floated the idea of a light installation that alerts people in the neighborhood that there’s overflow going into the canal. Now, months after the fellowship has formally ended, a bunch of us are still working on it.

    The idea is to simply inform the community about this issue. There are tens of thousands of people who live in Gowanus, but my guess is that a good portion of them couldn’t tell you exactly what combined sewer overflow is, and what’s going on in their backyards every time it rains.

    The first goal is raising awareness about this issue so that people in the community are empowered with that information. Once you have that information out there, that can activate action in the community or motivate people to get more involved in improving water quality. My guess is a good number of people will say, “What? There’s poop going into the canal? On a weekly basis? We should do something about that.”

    Ick. Yes. For the good portion of us who don’t know what CSO is, can you explain it?

    New York City has a combined water management system, partially due to the fact that it’s quite an old system. 60% of the city’s water management is combined, meaning that when you flush the toilet, take a shower, or wash your dishes, all of that water gets combined into the same pipe as the water that’s flowing off the street via grates. Most of the time, that’s not an issue. But when you have a rain event — and it doesn’t need to be a big one — the system gets overloaded.

    And this water is normally tied to a wastewater treatment plant, of which there are quite a few around the city. But during these rain events, the system can’t pump it all to the wastewater treatment plant. And so it’s released to roughly 700 outfall points around the city in all five boroughs, including at the head of the Gowanus Canal at Butler Street. On average, the canal receives roughly 270 million gallons of CSO annually.

    And how does CSO impact the neighborhood?

    For close to 200 years, the canal has been used as a dumping ground for human wastewater and industrial waste. As long as you’re not drinking that water or being immersed for too long, CSO is probably not going to harm you. That said, there are some transmissible diseases that you can get from contact with waste water. There’s also the wildlife aspect. All these elements going into the canal can create dead zones that make the canal unable to support wildlife that would naturally be there.

    And just think about your senses. If you walk past the Gowanus Canal after a rain event, it’s going to have quite a stench coming off of it and you’re going to smell it. It doesn’t look good, but in addition to this brownish hue, it can have plastics and other solid waste materials that people flush or that travel down into the sewer from the street.

    Thankfully at this point, it’s mostly an issue of the canal not meeting its full potential as a neighborhood amenity. Right now, you might not want to get out on the water on a canoe or go fishing. It’s a shame that if you want to actually enjoy water in an immersive way, you might have to actually get out of New York City’s bounds to do so. That’s a sad state of affairs.

    Can you give us a quick overview of the canal’s history? 

    A caveat: I have dug into its history quite a bit, but I’m not a historian. To really get into the history of the canal and related policy, there are several experts who have written books on this, such as Joseph Alexiou’s Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal.

    With that said — the canal is now obviously a canal, but before that it was a [naturally occuring] tidal creek. The drainage area that feeds into the canal is about 1800 acres or so. Rainwater from surrounding neighborhoods like Prospect Park, Park Slope, and Carroll Gardens drains down into the canal, which connects to New York Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. 

    During the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the mid-19th century, industrial businesses and residents dumped their waste into the canal — essentially using it as a big outhouse. Since then, the canal’s been polluted. But in recent years, its water and sediment quality has gotten much better, in part due to environmental regulations brought on by the Superfund designation. 

    Before European colonization, the Lenape were the first people to inhabit that land. I think it’s safe to say that it was not nearly as polluted then as it is now. While we’re not at the low point of the canal’s water quality, we’re by no means at that pre-industrial, pre-European level of water quality and wildlife robustness. But many local NGOs and residents have grand, ambitious visions for the canal that are informed by what it was before all the pollution.

    Most folks in the neighborhood have heard the terms “Superfund” or “cleanup” many times over the last few years — but what’s actually going on with the canal right now?

    I’ll caveat again by saying that I’ve been involved with community groups in Gowanus since 2018, but many people in the neighborhood have been tracking and working on water quality issues for years, including the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Dredgers.

    So in 2010, the EPA designated the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site. Under that designation, the canal has additional environmental regulations around it, and the EPA has authority to tell certain parties what to do to remediate the site. In 2013, the EPA issued its Record of Decision, which charts out how they’re making the canal cleaner and safer. There are a couple of different aspects to that: there’s pulling out the contaminated sediment, capping off certain parts of the canal to control the migration of contaminants, and putting in two multi-million-gallon sewage retention tanks, which I believe are still in the design process.

    I wish more people knew that despite these big investments and big projects, the end goal is not zero CSO. These two tanks are supposed to retain CSO before it gets dumped into the canal during those rain events. But even once they’re installed, the EPA’s goal is to reduce CSO to roughly 100 million gallons (down from 270 million) entering the canal every year. It’s much better than what’s happening now, but it’s not zero. Those tanks are meant to be completed by 2029 — I’d be pleasantly surprised if both of those are up and running on that timeline.

    How can residents in Gowanus get more informed and involved?

    I’ll plug the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, or CAG, which is made up of volunteers and members of the community. When there’s a Superfund designation, the EPA has to provide information to the community on how to set up a Community Advisory Group. The group is meant to act as a check on the EPA and other financially responsible parties to ensure that the cleanup process moves in a way that aligns with the community’s vision.

    That said, the community is not a monolith. While the people on this committee are from the Gowanus community, they aren’t necessarily fully representative of the community. For example, I’m 32 and usually am one of the younger people in the Zoom room. Some people have literally been working on canal issues for decades. It’s a somewhat significant time commitment, so it’s understandable why there are more, say, retirees joining these meetings as opposed to others who might have a lot of work obligations. 

    But more community input would be great. I’d encourage anyone who might be interested to pop into meetings, which happen once a month. There’s always good info from the people at the EPA, DEP, or city and state environmental agencies. And there are a lot of great people who are really engaged and knowledgeable — I’m blown away by the amount of historical and local knowledge in those meetings.

    Neighborhood Design Fellowship: Gowanus

    Gowanus residents work toward the future they imagine for their community.

    Gowanus CSO Installation

    A light installation to inform Gowanus residents about water quality in the neighborhood.
  2. Q&A with A.L. Hu of Dark Matter University

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    A.L. Hu (left) with Fellow Imani Gayle Gillison (right). Photo: Alisha Kim Levin

    Intro

    Our Neighborhood Design Fellowship: Gowanus is a paid, six-month program for up to 12 Gowanus residents — designers and non-designers alike — to work toward the future they imagine for their community. The Fellowship is a collaboration with Dark Matter University (DMU), an anti-racist design justice school collectively seeking the radical transformation of education and practice toward a just future. Since May 2021, the Fellows have investigated local inclusion and equity challenges by talking to neighbors, business owners, community groups, and public officials, among others. They’ve also learned from DMU faculty about ways to support social justice through design. They’re currently developing a culminating project that will utilize Van Alen’s storefront windows at 303 Bond Street for a community-oriented purpose.

    This month, we’re chatting with three practitioners and DMU faculty members who have been working closely with our Fellows: Nupur Chaudhury, Principal and Founder, NupurSpectives Consulting; Jerome Haferd, Co-Founder, BRANDT : HAFERD, and A.L. Hu, Design Initiatives Manager, Ascendant Neighborhood Development.

    A.L. Hu, Design Initiatives Manager, Ascendant Neighborhood Development

    A.L. Hu is a queer, non-binary person working in New York City. Their passion is at the intersections of the built environment and social justice, manifesting in design projects, essays, visual media, and collaborations with other architects and communities to understand and rethink the architect’s role in creating inclusive spaces. They were a 2019-2021 Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow and are currently working as Design Initiatives Manager at Ascendant Neighborhood Development in East Harlem. They are a member of as well as a conduit connecting many organizations, including Design As Protest, Dark Matter University, The Architecture Lobby, NCARB, and AIA New York. A.L. is the founder of Queeries, an initiative that seeks to quantify and qualify the multifaceted experiences, stories, and feelings of queer designers confronts discourses of diversity, equity, and inclusion within design professions.

    Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with design.

    My name is A.L., and I use they/them pronouns. I’ve been studying and working in architecture since going to UC Berkeley for undergrad. When I was at Columbia University for graduate school, I was really into organizing with the graduate worker union and got involved with the bargaining committee. And I would often do that more often than studio — people knew me as “the union person.” After graduating, I wanted to take a break from architecture and try organizing full-time. I worked for United Auto Workers for a summer, but quickly realized my organizing had to have some type of design focus. Since then, I’ve always tried to combine design and organizing.

    How did your interest in activism and organizing develop?

    After working at an architecture firm and being active in The Architecture Lobby (whose goal is to unionize architects), I received the Rose Fellowship, which matches up an architect or an artist with a community development corporation. Through that experience, I realized I wanted to do more community engagement and less sitting in front of the computer. Now I’m working at Ascendant Neighborhood Development in East Harlem, which involves a lot of building relationships around design work and doing community-based design education.

    After the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, I got involved in organizing with Design As Protest and learned about Dark Matter University from there. I don’t identify as an academic, but I actually liked DMU’s academic side. It feels different. We’re building something new, something way more inclusive and way more radical.

    In your own words, how would you describe Dark Matter University’s mission?

    DMU is making design education anti-racist. We have a wide view of education that includes studio seminars, design education, or talking in different avenues and communities. By anti-racist, I mean actions that are actively working against systemic racism. That involves identifying the history of racism, how it shows up in the built environment and design professions, how it’s impacting people now, and really taking the initiative to connect the dots and get really deep into creating and practicing pedagogies that combat spatial injustice.

    What do you hope your design colleagues take away from your experience with DMU and the fellowship?

    The team-teaching, the co-teaching aspect is super important. Coming from different disciplines and different perspectives has been really crucial.

  3. Q&A with Nupur Chaudhury of Dark Matter University

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    Nupur Chaudhury (center) with Fellows Imani Gayle Gillison (left) and Steven Koller (right). Photo: Alisha Kim Levin

    Intro

    Our Neighborhood Design Fellowship: Gowanus is a paid, six-month program for up to 12 Gowanus residents — designers and non-designers alike — to work toward the future they imagine for their community. The Fellowship is a collaboration with Dark Matter University (DMU), an anti-racist design justice school collectively seeking the radical transformation of education and practice toward a just future. Since May 2021, the Fellows have investigated local inclusion and equity challenges by talking to neighbors, business owners, community groups, and public officials, among others. They’ve also learned from DMU faculty about ways to support social justice through design. They’re currently developing a culminating project that will utilize Van Alen’s storefront windows at 303 Bond Street for a community-oriented purpose.

    This week, we’re chatting with three practitioners and DMU faculty members who have been working closely with our Fellows: Nupur Chaudhury, Principal and Founder, NupurSpectives Consulting; Jerome Haferd, Co-Founder, BRANDT : HAFERD, and A.L. Hu, Design Initiatives Manager, Ascendant Neighborhood Development.

    Nupur Chaudhury, Principal and Founder, NupurSpectives Consulting

    Nupur Chaudhury is a bridge builder and translator in the fields of urban planning and public health. Throughout her career, she has developed and implemented strategies to support residents, communities, and neighborhoods challenge power structures to build just, strong, and equitable cities. She has led coalition building efforts after Superstorm Sandy through her work with the Rebuild by Design competition, redeveloped power structures in villages in India through the Indicorps fellowship, and developed a citizen planning institute for public housing residents in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Her work has been featured in the American Journal of Public Health, CityLab, National Public Radio, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

    Van Alen Institute: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with design.

    Nupur Chaudhury: I am a public health urbanist, so I’m trained in both public health and urban planning. I stumbled upon urban planning when I was an undergrad at Bryn Mawr. I was looking for a way to connect with and learn more about my homeland, about India. I found some really supportive professors in the Cities department, where I learned how cities formed, functioned, and grew through the lens of urban planning and architecture, but also through anthropology, literature, and history. I was always thinking about cities in this multidimensional way — not necessarily just the buildings and the spaces, but also the people that inhabit the cities, who they are, what motivates them, and how they take up space within these geographies.

    After I graduated from college, I went to India and worked on the border of Bangladesh doing a lot of youth empowerment work and health work. Working in rural India, I understood how intrinsically health and space were intertwined — both the challenges of accessing health, but then also experiencing specific health episodes myself in India and not being able to get care, and how that was so spatially related. When I got back to the US, I tacked on a public health degree to my urban planning degree.

    Out of grad school, I got a job as a health coordinator in Brownsville, Brooklyn. And I understood very quickly that I may have a masters in public health or a masters in urban planning, but I don’t have a masters in Brownsville. And I understood that we needed all three of those pieces of knowledge, three legs of that stool, if we were going to achieve what we wanted. So I spent a lot of time thinking alongside residents about what health meant to them, how they wanted to implement it, and what the steps were that we needed to take. I then leveraged my privilege as someone of color but isn’t Black, and as someone with the right letters next to my name to open doors to the city’s Departments of Health, Transportation, Housing Preservation and Development, and City Planning, and to get them to listen to what residents were actually saying. I could facilitate a space in which people who already knew what the answers were could actually play them out and implement them. That’s been my grounding mantra, centering people closest to the issue in every aspect of driving the solution. This year I opened my own consulting firm for folks who are willing to think about this work in new and different ways — who are willing to focus on the process and not just the product.

    How did your interest in activism and organizing develop?

    I come from a family of agitators, investigators, and protesters. On my father’s side, my grandfather was one of the young people that protested the British occupation in India and was actually incarcerated for that for a couple of years. And my mother comes from the state of Gujarat, the state that Gandhi was born and raised in. It’s interesting — my mother and my father think about Indian independence in completely different ways. On my father’s side, it’s thinking more about protesting more violence and agitation. And on my mom’s side, it’s thinking about nonviolence and changing systems in subtle and nuanced ways. So that’s the household that I grew up in.

    And when the murder of George Floyd happened, I really took some time to think. I’m doing all of these things. But is it enough? Is it the right stuff? Is there a way that I could actually be amplifying the knowledge that I have, the experience that I have, the doors that I can open to a larger scale? And I’m still trying to figure that out, but DMU has been a great avenue to explore those questions.

    Wth DMU, there’s real comfort in seeing people that look like me that are thinking about things and asking the right questions. For lack of a better word, we are the trailblazers, and we are also very isolated and alone in this work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to conferences as a presenter and people thought that I was the waitstaff. In the DMU space, we came together and asked: If we are joining forces, what can we create? How can we push the field? How can we be thinking about this work in new and different ways? How can we legitimize each other’s work in a field that ignores and delegitimizes us? DMU is genuinely thinking about how to improve the field so the people who come after us don’t have to feel the way that we felt.

    How are you bringing that approach to the fellowship?

    I found it really heartening that while the fellows are geographically differentiated across the neighborhood, many of them are linked through the Gowanus Mutual Aid network. They’ve already been thinking about ways to make Gowanus better, to change things, and to support each other. I was excited to see that because it means that these are the right people around the table.

    The fellows are taking time away from their families, their loved ones, sleep, work, whatever it is, to say, “I want this place to be better than what I’m experiencing right now. And I’m going to be one of the few to try and do something different.” We have to honor that. We’ve been able to have very honest conversations about what’s working in the course, what’s not working, what people understand, what they don’t understand. There’s so much to explore and investigate, and we challenge each other from both sides, both DMU and the fellows, as we’ve co-created this experience together over the past six months.

    What do you hope your design colleagues take away from your experience with DMU and the fellowship?

    I’m hopeful that other designers, architects, and planners will start to see that community engagement and community involvement in the work isn’t additive, but essential. So much of the architecture and design world is for people, but people aren’t involved in the creation of it! If design doesn’t involve people, it’s empty. I’m really hopeful that designers, architects, and planners will think about the role of their work in new and different ways, and put people at the center.

  4. Neighborhoods Now: In Conversation with Ryan Gilliam

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    Intro

    We’re excited to continue our Neighborhoods Now initiative with Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) and Think!Chinatown in Chinatown and Banana Kelly in the South Bronx. Additionally, we expanded our partnership with FABnyc in the Lower East Side. These working groups will re-energize outdoor spaces to support community programming and cultural revitalization.

    This spring, we’re chatting with representatives of each organization to learn more more about their history, some neighborhood insights, and what they hope to achieve through Neighborhoods Now. Below, catch up with Ryan Gilliam, Executive Director, FABnyc. Marvel, SHoP, and Buro Happold will be helping FABnyc expand their Neighborhoods Now collaboration with four new member organizations: Frankel Theatre, KGB Bar / Red Room, Loisaida Inc., and Performance Space New York. Together they will develop reopening strategies tailored to needs of smaller performing arts organizations, including ways to participate in New York City’s Open Culture program.


    Van Alen Institute (VA): Tell us a little bit about your organization.

    Ryan Gilliam (RG): FABnyc began as a coalition of arts and community organizations on East 4th Street working together to stay in a handful of city buildings which we’d fixed up over several decades. With broad community support, we were successful in stopping them from going to auction and instead transferred to local groups, establishing the East 4th Street Cultural District, the densest single block of arts activity in NYC. FABnyc’s mission grew and today we focus on the cultural vitality of the entire Lower East Side.

    VA: What types of work has your organization been involved in and what are some issues that this community still faces?

    RG: The Lower East Side has been struggling with the ongoing impacts of gentrification and displacement. Despite tremendous pressure, residents have organized successfully in ways that have protected affordable housing, supported small businesses, deepened resilience, and preserved the diverse cultural character of the community. FABnyc is a partner to the community, bringing artists and arts practices to creatively collaborate in addressing community issues.

    VA: What makes this neighborhood special?

    RG: The Lower East Side — which we define by its historic boundaries from 14th Street to Canal, the East River to Chinatown — has a remarkable history as a home to working class and poor immigrants, artists, radicals, and visionaries. The LES has a long history as an inclusive, welcoming place with a creative spirit and commitment to social justice. The murals, bodegas, community gardens, active social service organizations, small theaters, restaurants, political vibrancy, and street life all reflect that character.

    “The LES has a long history as an inclusive, welcoming place with a creative spirit and commitment to social justice.”

    VA: What are some neighborhood spots that are most important to people in this community?

    RG: Honestly, there are too many to name. We love our open spaces like Tompkins Square, festivals like the Loisaida Festival, hole-in-the-wall bars, tiny restaurants where they know you. We have a lot to mourn that’s been lost to displacement, so we tend to make strong attachments to those who have deep roots here — the theaters of 4th Street, the settlement houses, the entire bustling hub that is Chinatown — but also the people, so many of whom have spoken out, organized, and fought to keep the spirit and connectedness of community alive.

    VA: What are you hoping to achieve through this partnership and where are you now in your work with Neighborhoods Now?

    RG: We have not only been able to prepare more than a dozen performing arts organizations for re-opening after a year of closure, but we are now working with our design partners to celebrate FABnyc’s 20th year, by imagining the next 20. It’s a unique opportunity to create a real vision of our mission — to imagine ways to support the cultural life of a community while centering that vision in equity, access, and resiliency. We’ve just had our first brainstorm together and are excited for what’s to come.

    About Neighborhoods Now

    Neighborhoods Now emerged from the belief that every New York City neighborhood should have equitable access to design resources that support community needs. By building interdisciplinary partnerships, the initiative supports local organizations leading their communities’ recovery. To date, Neighborhoods Now has mobilized more than 70 firms to channel pro-bono resources into eleven neighborhood organizations, resulting in strategies for safe reopening of civic and cultural organizations, creative programming in public space, and customized designs for restaurants and storefronts.

    The program is a collaboration between the Urban Design Forum and Van Alen Institute.

  5. Neighborhoods Now: In Conversation with Ian Gray-Stack

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    Intro

    We’re excited to continue our Neighborhoods Now initiative with Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) and Think!Chinatown in Chinatown and Banana Kelly in the South Bronx. Additionally, we expanded our partnership with Fourth Arts Block in the Lower East Side. These working groups will re-energize outdoor spaces to support community programming and cultural revitalization.

    This spring, we’re chatting with representatives of each organization to learn more more about their history, some neighborhood insights, and what they hope to achieve through Neighborhoods Now. Below, catch up with Ian Gray-Stack, former Director of Community Organizing at Banana Kelly. Banana Kelly is leading our South Bronx working group, which aims to reactivate community gardens in Longwood, Hunts Point, Morrisania, and Mott Haven, allowing for safe outdoor activities and services that address neighborhood needs.


    Van Alen Institute (VA): Tell us a little bit about your organization.

    Ian Gray-Stack (IG): Battling city intentions to demolish every building that was not slated for renovation through a federal program, the residents on that [curved] section of Kelly Street known as “Banana Kelly” took matters into their own hands and, in 1978, “liberated” three buildings to begin the long process of rehabilitation through “sweat equity.” Over 40 years later, Banana Kelly has expanded its portfolio to around 65 affordable housing buildings across the Hunts Point and Longwood neighborhoods and continues to fight for high-quality affordable housing by organizing residents and other community members and providing the direct services and resources necessary for residents to come together and take action.

    VA: What types of work has your organization been involved in and what are some issues that this community still faces?

    IG: We have three main departments: property management, direct services, and community organizing. We provide tenants with wrap around services like eviction protection and rental assistance, while also organizing them into tenant associations and block associations so that they can deepen relationships with their neighbors, identify common issues, and begin to strategize possible actions that will lead to concrete changes. Several of our buildings are also connected to community gardens which serve as hubs in those areas for the work that residents are steering. Most recently, our work has focused on providing families with direct COVID-19 relief such as emergency food deliveries, PPE supplies, and virtual workshops focusing on various aspects of the current pandemic.

    VA: What makes this neighborhood special?

    IG: There is a lot that makes our neighborhood special, but in my personal opinion I think it’s the diverse mixture of people that has always made it such a unique place. So many different people from across the country and the globe living side by side has led to amazing new artistic and culinary creations that have gone on to become globally sensationalized: hip hop, graffiti, breakdancing, and salsa to name a few.

    VA: What are some neighborhood spots that are most important to people in this community?

    IG: One that jumps to mind is Concrete Plant Park, a recently redesigned stretch along the Bronx River with seating areas, a bike pathway, and diverse grasslands plants. Another important neighborhood spot is Casita Maria, which provides a wide range of youth and arts programming.

    “I hope to work with residents to design short, medium, and long-term visions for each of our community gardens.”

    VA: What are you hoping to achieve through this partnership?

    IG: With this partnership, I hope to work with residents to design short, medium, and long-term visions for each of our 5 community gardens, as well as a plan for implementation. I’d like to use the design process to facilitate the development of garden committees and tenant associations that can help design the vision for their garden and then facilitate the implementation of this vision going forward. Right now, we have conducted site visits and have begun to formulate these visions for all of our gardens and in doing so have re-engaged some of our long-standing garden leaders. Some of the pieces of these visions will be implemented before the end of the Neighborhoods Now partnership and some pieces will be ongoing organizing projects taking us at least to the end of this year.

    About Neighborhoods Now

    Neighborhoods Now emerged from the belief that every New York City neighborhood should have equitable access to design resources that support community needs. By building interdisciplinary partnerships, the initiative supports local organizations leading their communities’ recovery. To date, Neighborhoods Now has mobilized more than 70 firms to channel pro-bono resources into eleven neighborhood organizations, resulting in strategies for safe reopening of civic and cultural organizations, creative programming in public space, and customized designs for restaurants and storefronts.

    The program is a collaboration between the Urban Design Forum and Van Alen Institute.

  6. Healthy Brains, Healthy Cities

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    Intro

    We invited four leading researchers to share insights from their time exploring the intersection of science, the brain, and the built environment. In the interviews excerpted below, we asked about indicators of good brain health from cognitive performance to emotional well-being and the methods and technologies used to assess how different environments influence the brain to those ends. We also asked how city dwellers can rethink their relationship to the places they live, work, and play in order to improve their brain health and quality of life.

    Sandra Chapman
    Founder and Chief Director, Center for Brain Health, University of Texas at Dallas

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

    Frederick Marks, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Six Sigma Green Belt
    President, Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, and Visiting Scholar, Salk Institute

    John Medina
    Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine

    What is a “healthy brain”?

    Sandra Chapman (SC): A healthy brain is one that allows us to thrive, not just to survive in our daily lives. It’s what allows us to make life decisions, solve problems, interact adeptly with others and really enjoy emotional balance. At the Center for Brain Health, we developed “pillars” of brain health that we measure. One is cognition, and when I say cognition, that’s not simply IQ: It’s really the ability to innovate, to synthesize. It’s what you’re trying to do right now [in this interview]: very quickly taking divergent ideas and boiling them down to the essence, looking for a takeaway point by strategically focusing on the most relevant information. It’s more than memory, more than speed of processing. It really is the ability to think and solve the problems that we’re faced with every day.

    Another pillar is psychological well-being. If you’ve got some type of mental health disorder or you’re severely depressed, say frozen in bed, you have diminished brain health. Another area is the complexity of what you do—in other words, what is the level of productivity of what you’re doing. And another key area is socially adeptness. Being socially adept is probably one of the most important things to our cognition. It’s the most complex and most important.

    Richard Davidson (RD): From my perspective, the scientific evidence clearly shows that brain health is promoted when one’s emotional well-being is enhanced or is vibrant. Emotional well-being and brain health go together. For the brain to be in a kind of harmonious balance seems to require the mind to also be in a harmonious balance. I would say that the first and most important ingredient for brain health is really having a calm and clear mind.

    Frederick Marks (FM): I look to the National Institutes of Health’s definition of brain health, which centers on the brain’s ability to remember, learn, play, concentrate, and maintain a clear, active mind.

    I don’t like the term “brain health.” What I use is “typical functional” or sometimes “satisfactory functioning.” Because what is a healthy brain? Everybody has a psychiatric disorder—everybody! In general, though, you can say it’s usually an evaluation of two things. One is just straight-up cognitive ability, which is the ability to mobilize your IQ without external interference. The second is emotional regulation or affective stability. So when you’re looking to define what “brain health” is, the two piers are cognition and emotion.

    John Medina (JM): I don’t like the term “brain health.” What I use is “typical functional” or sometimes “satisfactory functioning.” Because what is a healthy brain? Everybody has a psychiatric disorder—everybody! In general, though, you can say it’s usually an evaluation of two things. One is just straight-up cognitive ability, which is the ability to mobilize your IQ without external interference. The second is emotional regulation or affective stability. So when you’re looking to define what “brain health” is, the two piers are cognition and emotion.

    What methods and technologies are used to assess the relationship between built environments and the brain?

    FM: What’s key is that we’re learning more. The more sophisticated these tools become, the better the reports. In the case of an electroencephalogram (EEG), you’re recording the process by which you have visual order or auditory stimuli. The EEG can be mobile, depending upon the size of it. Just in the last couple of years, one has been able to use that without the confinement of a long string of electrode wires. You can have remote devices and pick up activity on a computer. In the case of the non-mobile tools, you get an excellent resolution. That’s the benefit of something being stationary. In the case of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), you are detecting changes in blood flow. The MRI and functional MRI (fMRI) are much more stationary, and that’s true of the electromyogram (EMG) as well.

    We can actually use these instruments both within a controlled room area as well as on the street. We can also use it with virtual reality (VR), which expands what you can test in real time. The combination of EEG and VR can take the form of being in a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE). Even though you may consider that a static, stationary condition, [researchers] have so many opportunities within the CAVE to design the environment that subjects will experience. That is far more valuable data than you might be able to get conducting an experiment in real time on the street. And the feedback researchers get back allows them to keep making environmental changes. They can introduce many different environmental variables within a short period of time.

    Eye tracking is becoming more and more mobile, so I do see that helping in many different instances in the future. It’s not just where one is looking, but it’s what then might be happening in terms of brain function as one is looking at it. Are we detecting within certain parts of the brain an activation that applies to a reduction in stress, or just the opposite?

    We should not neglect building sensors, wearables and the development of algorithms for measurement. Each will be extremely important components of where the whole building industry goes in the future.

    RD: If we were doing experimental research, we would use modern tools with brain imaging to directly evaluate brain health. But in the absence of that kind of expensive assessment procedure, we can use certain proxies. We can look at behavioral measures of important constituents of well-being as a proxy for more direct measures of brain health. Those behavioral measures of well-being have been found in many laboratory studies to be associated with specific signatures, if you will, of direct measures of brain activity that would reflect brain health.

    At the Center for Healthy Minds, we are actually creating a toolbox of measures that will be available on a smartphone, which measure the core constituents of well-being using objective measures, including neuroscientifically grounded behavioral tasks that could be administered on the smartphone. That suite of measures is not yet available, but it will be in the next couple of years. Something like that, I think, is potentially very valuable in this domain because it can easily be scaled; it simply requires a person to have a smartphone, which everyone has these days, and it could be easily deployed at scale. I think that can be done and will be available in the near future. We’re going to be geo-tracking as well, and using a variety of different classes of measure to provide as rigorous and as valid a measure as possible for each of the core empirically investigated constituents of well-being.

    JM: If you’re interested in neurological responses, you can use behavioral, cellular, or molecular instruments. The behavioral instruments would be things like psychometric tests, processing speed, mean reaction times. If you wanted to go a little deeper you would go to cellular instruments like non-invasive deep imaging—fMRI, positron emission tomography scans (PET scans)—or we could stay on the surface and look at surface electricity. This would be instruments like event-related potential (ERP) and EEG.

    And then there are the molecular instruments. That’s measuring cortisol levels—if you want to observe someone’s stress hormones. And there are a number of other things you can get at. It isn’t just stress hormone levels. We know that green plants, for example, secrete phytoncides. And that actually has a strong impact on one part of the human immune response, “natural killer cells.” [see image/caption for definition] Phytoncides can increase the population of natural killer cells by 40 percent.

    How might city dwellers re-imagine their behavior and experience within difference environments to improve brain health and quality of life?

    RD: I think city dwellers, who may have a little less access to nature, can take advantage of what we do know about brain health and well-being. One of the most effective ways of promoting well-being is through social connection and the emotions that facilitate social connection, like appreciation and gratitude, and actions which help to also facilitate social connection, actions like acts of generosity. Those are all strategies that change the brain: we know that from hard-nosed scientific research and move the brain in the direction of a healthier baseline.

    Social connection is anti-inflammatory. There’s good evidence to suggest that one of the most powerful strategies in reducing the molecular signals that are responsible for inflammation is social connection. Practices which can facilitate social connection are ones that we know reduce proinflammatory cytokines and actually have been found to alter gene expression for genes involved in the inflammatory cascade.

    FM: Now, certainly New York City is doing some very positive things with its active design guidelines. But I think we’re going well beyond that, particularly when we talk about brain health. Health has many more dimensions than what we’ve said it is in the past, and the impact of poor health on society has become far too expensive to ignore it. We also appreciate that people are living longer, so they’re vulnerable to things in health that we never had to think about in the past.

    JM: We know that the color green focuses people. You put kids with ADHD in a room of 523 nanometers of wavelength: plant green, chlorophyll-like green. You know what it does? It focuses them. If you do a pre and post, they show focusing behavior. You need to give doctors in an emergency room a break every 100 minutes because if you don’t, the error rate climbs. It actually goes up two times. But if you give them a break every 100 minutes and they go into a room that’s green with 523 nanometers of wavelength, and there’s a plant there so they can sniff up the volatile biochemicals and change the parasympathetic system, their error rate goes back down to baseline.

    SC: In cities, what I would look for are spaces that are interactional. Social cognition is important, and people love vibrant, multi-generational spaces where you see older people coming out, not just teenagers. We’re also trying to help empower people to think about what they’re doing in a given moment and which environment they should do that in to maximize performance. Rather than think, “I need this space to do more work in,” maybe be more nimble and think, where is the best place given what you’re trying to tackle.

    One barrier to better brain health is people not realizing how much agency they have to influence their brain health. Our heart, we know that it’s under our influence. We know it’s our fault if we’re not eating properly and our cholesterol is not good. But our brain, we just think it’s a black box, even though cognitive neuroscience has shown that it changes from moment to moment. But that potential for improvement hasn’t been translated for people. Habits such as physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress management contribute to the brain’s performance: the brain is not static.

  7. Building for the Most Vulnerable

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    Intro

    For people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or autism, the built environments they occupy often compound the everyday challenges their conditions present. This environmental inequity impacts a staggering number of Americans, and it is an issue that Stuart Shell, architect and building scientist at BranchPattern, believes architects and planners should work hard to address. In this piece, Stuart suggests ways designers can make themselves better advocates while advancing a notion central to building a more equitable world: design that works for the most vulnerable among us is design that works well for all of us.

    Building for the Most Vulnerable

    Too often our cultures, along with the cities we build, assume we all have the same backgrounds and abilities. Today our buildings are overwhelmingly built on a foundation of ableism, with urban form deferring primarily to able-bodied persons. This ideology is so widespread as to make invisible the barriers in the built environment experienced by the one in five individuals living with cognitive impairments.

    The most common reason for cognitive impairments is a mental disorder: Alarmingly, over 20% of Americans have one. And outside of a psychological diagnosis, there are many reasons why people might suffer from persistent cognitive impairments—neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia affect one in five people over 71 years old, or 1.3% of all Americans. Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and conditions like migraines can also diminish cognitive abilities.

    Cognitive impairment often involves deficits in executive function: the skill required to control and coordinate all of the brain’s cognitive abilities and behaviors, like a CEO overseeing all departments in a business to make sure they progress efficiently and effectively. There are many theories about the nature and operation of executive functioning, but what might be the implications for design and planning? Take the example of ADHD. Decreased activity in the hippocampus—specifically, low dopamine levels—appears to be why individuals with ADHD exhibit impulsive behavior. Providing engaging sensory environments that promote dopamine production in the brain may be a helpful support in stimulating prefrontal brain activity.

    It’s imperative for architects to make streets and buildings more adaptable to everyone’s use. When our designs fall short of these standards, we risk making arbitrary barriers for individuals with cognitive impairments. But despite the physical environment having direct and indirect impacts on cognition, cognitive impairment is rarely considered as a design criterion, and practitioners in planning and design typically lack the lexicon to discuss inclusive design. (See the glossary below for a crash course.) From my perspective as an architect, questions about access for individuals with impairments typically go unasked, short-circuiting a design process that could remove barriers. We should ask which type of impairments people will bring with them to our buildings, streets, and parks. We have a mandate to expose and reduce these barriers so that the environment can help fulfill rather than hinder our potential. This means not only making the built environment more accessible but also increasing access to nature, providing the diversity of surroundings that humans need to thrive physically and mentally. Re-imagining our built environment in collaboration with individuals with cognitive impairments will be a step toward a more inclusive society, resulting in cities that improve the mental well-being of the entire population.

    Design for cognitive impairments is also a matter of equity. The legislative wins of the civil rights movement in the 1960s helped set the stage for those with physical impairments to advocate for their rights to access the built environment. Design improvements that address these impairments can now be thought of as universal design. Popularized in the 1980s, universal design posits that buildings, products, and processes work better the more people can use them. Undergirding universal design is an agenda that seeks to restore agency to excluded groups and to confront the ableist bias in society. This makes proponents of universal design also activists for social change.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation of 1990 is a great starting point, but despite increased awareness of cognitive impairments, designers still lack a framework for creating solutions and incorporating the tenets of universal design into practice. Removing obstacles in the built environment, for instance, such as those prescribed by the ADA, is not sufficient for creating designs that address cognitive impairments. A more salutogenic approach to mental health in the built environments—focused on promoting health and well-being rather than preventing disease or harm—provides opportunities for rich, physiological interactions, like chances to modify our surroundings to suit our mental and physical needs. Enabling people to access the built environment in this way helps exercise executive functioning skills: The choice of which path to take or which room to use provides a sense of control. This concept of manageability gives people the opportunity to create healthy outcomes while maintaining a strong sense of self. Adaptability is a hallmark of good design because it helps people accomplish their goals in a way that works for them.

    Providing all persons with options and the freedom to choose among them isn’t just a good idea—it’s also inherently pleasurable. Alliesthesia, the desire to achieve a neutral internal state, explains why water tastes better when we’re thirsty, and quiet is more desirable when we’re stressed. Providing arenas for people to exercise their executive functioning skills can create more opportunities for pleasure in the built environment.

    Encouraging agency and mental exercise within our surroundings is one way the built environment can support mental health. Attending to the ways a given suite of cognitive impairments compromise agency can help designers identify avenues for intervention. For instance, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have symptoms that vary widely, although problems with social interactions are typical. Many individuals with ASD also have trouble with sensory integration—meaning they may be overwhelmed by lights, noise, and touch. Deficits in executive function are common. Given these characteristics, some simple accommodations could improve the learning experience for a student with ASD in a mainstream classroom, for example. Having an alcove in the room available for sensory escape would help ease overstimulation. Allowing options for self-regulation can help individuals with ASD practice executive functioning skills. Increased ventilation, insulation from outdoor noises, and controllable lighting are also particularly beneficial. The resulting classroom, tailored for those with ASD, also clearly stands to help everyone focus.

    Down syndrome is the most common form of genetic cognitive disability. It is characterized in part by atypical development of the prefrontal cortex, often producing deficits in executive function. While driving a car is out of reach for many individuals with Down syndrome, taking the bus is often a viable option. Navigating a transit system, however, can be a multi-step process that taxes our executive functioning, attention, and memory skills. Viewing this as an accessibility problem, there are several ways that attending to the nuances of this population could translate into better transit design. Bus stops with clear signage, a place to sit, and dynamic arrival times would reassure riders that they are at the right place while reducing attention demands. A digital interface at the bus stop where riders can enter their destination would confirm their travel plans and arrival time. The same interface could accept payment for the trip, easing a barrier to boarding the bus and finding a seat. A transit system designed in consideration of riders with cognitive impairment has features that all users would enjoy, allowing them to focus on alternate tasks and enjoy the ride.

    Urban design is a powerful avenue for mental health interventions, but being able to escape the city is equally important. The complexity of our brains can lead to an array of sensitivities when it comes to pollution in the air and water. Exposure to higher concentrations of dust, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens may explain some differences in mental health for city-dwellers. Some research has shown that the incidence of autism spectrum disorder appears to be higher in cities. Anthropogenic soundscapes and lighting also disrupt sleep, increasing the risk of depression and other mood disorders.10 Just the stress from the pace of life in developed areas is associated with more pronounced symptoms for some individuals with cognitive impairment. This evidence supports the hypothesis that ecology is linked with mental health.

    Spending time in nature positively affects everyone’s mood, and is particularly impactful for those with mental disorders. Children who live nearby nature are also more psychologically resilient to stressors in life. A patch of wilderness can provide seminal developmental experiences for children, while also giving everyone room to breathe—literally and figuratively. Adding green space to our cities is a common-sense strategy for combating light and noise pollution, helping us entrain healthy sleep cycles. The evidence is telling us that better design for cognitive impairment means engineering with ecological principles that reduce pollution and increase our exposure to living things.

    For those with cognitive impairments, design for brain health is a civil rights issue. Neurotypical designers—those without neurologically atypically patterns of thought and behavior—have a mandate to combat the ideology of ableism and take part in the lived experience of their neighbors with cognitive impairments. This in part requires an earnest effort to include individuals with impairments—by including disability advocates as stakeholders in urban development. Recognizing exceptional projects that also meet the needs of those with disabilities will raise awareness of the damage caused by ableist development. Ultimately we could see rating systems such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) incorporate metrics for inclusive design, improving the standards of design in our communities overall.

    The brain activities that underpin success—executive function, memory, and attention—reside within all of us. Designing for these activities from multiple perspectives expands our knowledge of how our brains work, helping build empathy and, hopefully, a more cohesive community. Designing spaces for those with cognitive impairments supports neurotypicals too, building a future city that’s designed with all of us in mind.

    Glossary

    ABLEISM
    A common belief that individuals with impairments are abnormal and inferior to “able-bodied” people. Common ideas associated with this ideology are that individuals with impairments have less opportunity in life and suffer from limitations on their development as a whole person. Our buildings and streets bear testament to the hegemony of this ideology.

    COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT
    This umbrella term indicates deficit in brain function observed through behavior. This article focuses on problem-solving skills (executive functioning), attention, and working memory. Intellectual disability and learning disability are common types of cognitive impairment.

    DISABILITY
    Individuals experience a disability when they are unable to perform their intended task. Tasks with social significance such as going to work and self-care add definition to the disability a person experiences. Sometimes tasks with little relevance to everyday life such as standardized tests are used to label a person with a disability. Having an impairment does not mean a person has a disability. Accommodations can eliminate barriers to participation. Eyeglasses can give an individual with poor vision the ability to drive, just as a wheelchair can enable someone with cerebral palsy to go shopping. Social norms and the design of the environment create barriers that act on a person’s impairment, thereby creating the disability.

    DSM 5
    Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This book is the basis for classifying mental disorders. It describes differences (and similarities) in cognitive functioning for disorders.

    IMPAIRMENT
    Difficulty hearing, a migraine, and a broken arm are examples of impairments. They may be temporary, situational, or persistent. All of us will experience impairment at some time—for example, having our eyes dilated for a new pair of eyeglasses or having vision that needs correction in the first place.

    NEURODIVERSITY
    The concept that many “disorders” such as autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia are best explained as natural variation in neurology. This is supported by the evidence that individuals on the autism spectrum may be high-functioning, such as Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein. Neurodiversity is also a social movement.

    SALUTOGENIC
    This term was introduced by Aaron Antonovsky in 1979 to describe how health is created through interactions with the social and physical environment. It is distinct from the dominant model in medicine, which presumes that health is the absence of pathogens. Comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness are the key components of a sense of coherence that ultimately determines health.

    SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE (SSDI)
    In the United States, many of us think of disability in the context of federal assistance. In fact, only one in five individuals with a disability receive SSDI. Of those who do, psychiatric disability is the largest group receiving benefits.

    References

    1. B. L. Plassman, K. M. Langa, G. G. Fisher, S. G. Heeringa, D. R. Weir, M. B. Ofstedal & R. B. Wallace, “Prevalence of cognitive impairment without dementia in the United States,” Annals of Internal Medicine 148, no. 6 (Mar. 18, 2008): 427-434.
    2. “Executive Functions,” UCSF Aging and Memory Center, accessed April 18, 2019, https://memory.ucsf.edu/executive-functions.
    3. For a detailed review, see S. Goldstein, J. A. Naglieri, D. Princiotta & T. M. Otero, “Introduction: A History of Executive Functioning as a Theoretical and Clinical Construct,” in The Handbook of Executive Functioning (Springer, New York, 2014), 3-12.
    4. For an overview of mental health and design, see G. W Evans. “The Built Environment and Mental Health,” Journal of Urban Health 80, no. 4, (2003): 536-555.
    5. J. A. Golembiewski, “Start Making Sense: Applying a Salutogenic Model to Architectural Design for Psychiatric Care,” Facilities 28, no. 3/4 (2010): 100-117.
    6. For a detailed discussion of alliesthesia, see M. Cabanac, “Physiological Role of Pleasure,” Science 173, no. 4002 (1971): 1103-1107.
    7. For a detailed discussion of classroom design for ASD, see M. Mostafa, “An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User,” International Journal of Architectural Research: ArchNet-IJAR 2, no. 1 (2008): 189-211.
    8. For example, see J. A. Ailshire & E. M. Crimmins, “Fine Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cognitive Function Among Older U.S. Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology 180, no. 4 (2014): 359-366 and L. G. Costa, T. B. Cole, J. Coburn, Y. C. Chang, K. Dao & P. J. Roqué, “Neurotoxicity of Traffic-Related Air Pollution,” Neurotoxicology 59 (2017): 133-139.
    9. A correlation between ASD and degree of urbanicity is shown in M. B. Lauritsen, A. Astrup, C. B. Pedersen, C. Obel, D. E. Schendel, L. Schieve & E. T. Parner, “Urbanicity and Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44, No. 2 (2014): 394-404. A correlation to air pollution is shown in T. A. Becerra, M. Wilhelm, J. Olsen, M. Cockburn & B. Ritz, “Ambient Air Pollution and Autism in Los Angeles County, California, Environmental Health Perspectives 121, No. 3 (2012): 380-386.
    10. For a discussion of urban lighting and mental health, see R. Chepesiuk, “Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution,” Environmental Health Perspectives 117, No. 1 (2009): A20.
    11. E. Gullone, “The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: Increasing Mental Health or Increasing Pathology?” Journal of Happiness Studies 1, No. 3 (2000): 293-322.
    12. For example, see J. Barton & J. Pretty, “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis,” Environmental Science & Technology 44, No. 10 (2010): 3947-3955 and P. Grahn, A. M. Pálsdóttir, J. Ottosson & I. H. Jonsdottir, “Longer Nature-Based Rehabilitation May Contribute to a Faster Return to Work in Patients with Reactions to Severe Stress and/ or Depression,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, No. 11 (2017): 1310.
    13. See N. M. Wells & G. W. Evans, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children,” Environment and Behavior 35, No. 3 (2003): 311-330.
    14. See G. N. Bratman, J. P. Hamilton & G. C. Daily, “The Impacts of Nature Experience on Human Cognitive Function and Mental Health,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249, No. 1 (2012): 118-136.
    15. For a foundational article on the role of culture in creating disability, see R. McDermott & H. Varenne, “Culture as Disability.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 26, No. 3, (1995): 324-348.
    16. M. B. Mittelmark, “Introduction to the Handbook of Salutogenesis,” in The Handbook of Salutogenesis (Springer, Cham, 2017), 3-5.

  8. Learning in Urban Environments

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    Intro

    We invited four leading researchers to share insights from their time exploring the intersection of science, the brain, and the built environment. In the interviews excerpted below, we asked about indicators of good brain health from cognitive performance to emotional well-being and the methods and technologies used to assess how different environments influence the brain to those ends. We also asked how city dwellers can rethink their relationship to the places they live, work, and play in order to improve their brain health and quality of life.

    Sandra Chapman
    Founder and Chief Director, Center for Brain Health, University of Texas at Dallas

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

    Frederick Marks, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Six Sigma Green Belt
    President, Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, and Visiting Scholar, Salk Institute

    John Medina
    Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine

    Building for the Most Vulnerable

    Too often our cultures, along with the cities we build, assume we all have the same backgrounds and abilities. Today our buildings are overwhelmingly built on a foundation of ableism, with urban form deferring primarily to able-bodied persons. This ideology is so widespread as to make invisible the barriers in the built environment experienced by the one in five individuals living with cognitive impairments.

    The most common reason for cognitive impairments is a mental disorder: Alarmingly, over 20% of Americans have one. And outside of a psychological diagnosis, there are many reasons why people might suffer from persistent cognitive impairments—neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia affect one in five people over 71 years old, or 1.3% of all Americans. Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and conditions like migraines can also diminish cognitive abilities.

    Cognitive impairment often involves deficits in executive function: the skill required to control and coordinate all of the brain’s cognitive abilities and behaviors, like a CEO overseeing all departments in a business to make sure they progress efficiently and effectively. There are many theories about the nature and operation of executive functioning, but what might be the implications for design and planning? Take the example of ADHD. Decreased activity in the hippocampus—specifically, low dopamine levels—appears to be why individuals with ADHD exhibit impulsive behavior. Providing engaging sensory environments that promote dopamine production in the brain may be a helpful support in stimulating prefrontal brain activity.

    It’s imperative for architects to make streets and buildings more adaptable to everyone’s use. When our designs fall short of these standards, we risk making arbitrary barriers for individuals with cognitive impairments. But despite the physical environment having direct and indirect impacts on cognition, cognitive impairment is rarely considered as a design criterion, and practitioners in planning and design typically lack the lexicon to discuss inclusive design. (See the glossary below for a crash course.) From my perspective as an architect, questions about access for individuals with impairments typically go unasked, short-circuiting a design process that could remove barriers. We should ask which type of impairments people will bring with them to our buildings, streets, and parks. We have a mandate to expose and reduce these barriers so that the environment can help fulfill rather than hinder our potential. This means not only making the built environment more accessible but also increasing access to nature, providing the diversity of surroundings that humans need to thrive physically and mentally. Re-imagining our built environment in collaboration with individuals with cognitive impairments will be a step toward a more inclusive society, resulting in cities that improve the mental well-being of the entire population.

    Design for cognitive impairments is also a matter of equity. The legislative wins of the civil rights movement in the 1960s helped set the stage for those with physical impairments to advocate for their rights to access the built environment. Design improvements that address these impairments can now be thought of as universal design. Popularized in the 1980s, universal design posits that buildings, products, and processes work better the more people can use them. Undergirding universal design is an agenda that seeks to restore agency to excluded groups and to confront the ableist bias in society. This makes proponents of universal design also activists for social change.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation of 1990 is a great starting point, but despite increased awareness of cognitive impairments, designers still lack a framework for creating solutions and incorporating the tenets of universal design into practice. Removing obstacles in the built environment, for instance, such as those prescribed by the ADA, is not sufficient for creating designs that address cognitive impairments. A more salutogenic approach to mental health in the built environments—focused on promoting health and well-being rather than preventing disease or harm—provides opportunities for rich, physiological interactions, like chances to modify our surroundings to suit our mental and physical needs. Enabling people to access the built environment in this way helps exercise executive functioning skills: The choice of which path to take or which room to use provides a sense of control. This concept of manageability gives people the opportunity to create healthy outcomes while maintaining a strong sense of self. Adaptability is a hallmark of good design because it helps people accomplish their goals in a way that works for them.

    Providing all persons with options and the freedom to choose among them isn’t just a good idea—it’s also inherently pleasurable. Alliesthesia, the desire to achieve a neutral internal state, explains why water tastes better when we’re thirsty, and quiet is more desirable when we’re stressed. Providing arenas for people to exercise their executive functioning skills can create more opportunities for pleasure in the built environment.

    Encouraging agency and mental exercise within our surroundings is one way the built environment can support mental health. Attending to the ways a given suite of cognitive impairments compromise agency can help designers identify avenues for intervention. For instance, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have symptoms that vary widely, although problems with social interactions are typical. Many individuals with ASD also have trouble with sensory integration—meaning they may be overwhelmed by lights, noise, and touch. Deficits in executive function are common. Given these characteristics, some simple accommodations could improve the learning experience for a student with ASD in a mainstream classroom, for example. Having an alcove in the room available for sensory escape would help ease overstimulation. Allowing options for self-regulation can help individuals with ASD practice executive functioning skills. Increased ventilation, insulation from outdoor noises, and controllable lighting are also particularly beneficial. The resulting classroom, tailored for those with ASD, also clearly stands to help everyone focus.

    Down syndrome is the most common form of genetic cognitive disability. It is characterized in part by atypical development of the prefrontal cortex, often producing deficits in executive function. While driving a car is out of reach for many individuals with Down syndrome, taking the bus is often a viable option. Navigating a transit system, however, can be a multi-step process that taxes our executive functioning, attention, and memory skills. Viewing this as an accessibility problem, there are several ways that attending to the nuances of this population could translate into better transit design. Bus stops with clear signage, a place to sit, and dynamic arrival times would reassure riders that they are at the right place while reducing attention demands. A digital interface at the bus stop where riders can enter their destination would confirm their travel plans and arrival time. The same interface could accept payment for the trip, easing a barrier to boarding the bus and finding a seat. A transit system designed in consideration of riders with cognitive impairment has features that all users would enjoy, allowing them to focus on alternate tasks and enjoy the ride.

    Urban design is a powerful avenue for mental health interventions, but being able to escape the city is equally important. The complexity of our brains can lead to an array of sensitivities when it comes to pollution in the air and water. Exposure to higher concentrations of dust, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens may explain some differences in mental health for city-dwellers. Some research has shown that the incidence of autism spectrum disorder appears to be higher in cities. Anthropogenic soundscapes and lighting also disrupt sleep, increasing the risk of depression and other mood disorders.10 Just the stress from the pace of life in developed areas is associated with more pronounced symptoms for some individuals with cognitive impairment. This evidence supports the hypothesis that ecology is linked with mental health.

    Spending time in nature positively affects everyone’s mood, and is particularly impactful for those with mental disorders. Children who live nearby nature are also more psychologically resilient to stressors in life. A patch of wilderness can provide seminal developmental experiences for children, while also giving everyone room to breathe—literally and figuratively. Adding green space to our cities is a common-sense strategy for combating light and noise pollution, helping us entrain healthy sleep cycles. The evidence is telling us that better design for cognitive impairment means engineering with ecological principles that reduce pollution and increase our exposure to living things.

    For those with cognitive impairments, design for brain health is a civil rights issue. Neurotypical designers—those without neurologically atypically patterns of thought and behavior—have a mandate to combat the ideology of ableism and take part in the lived experience of their neighbors with cognitive impairments. This in part requires an earnest effort to include individuals with impairments—by including disability advocates as stakeholders in urban development. Recognizing exceptional projects that also meet the needs of those with disabilities will raise awareness of the damage caused by ableist development. Ultimately we could see rating systems such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) incorporate metrics for inclusive design, improving the standards of design in our communities overall.

    The brain activities that underpin success—executive function, memory, and attention—reside within all of us. Designing for these activities from multiple perspectives expands our knowledge of how our brains work, helping build empathy and, hopefully, a more cohesive community. Designing spaces for those with cognitive impairments supports neurotypicals too, building a future city that’s designed with all of us in mind.

    Glossary

    ABLEISM
    A common belief that individuals with impairments are abnormal and inferior to “able-bodied” people. Common ideas associated with this ideology are that individuals with impairments have less opportunity in life and suffer from limitations on their development as a whole person. Our buildings and streets bear testament to the hegemony of this ideology.

    COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT
    This umbrella term indicates deficit in brain function observed through behavior. This article focuses on problem-solving skills (executive functioning), attention, and working memory. Intellectual disability and learning disability are common types of cognitive impairment.

    DISABILITY
    Individuals experience a disability when they are unable to perform their intended task. Tasks with social significance such as going to work and self-care add definition to the disability a person experiences. Sometimes tasks with little relevance to everyday life such as standardized tests are used to label a person with a disability. Having an impairment does not mean a person has a disability. Accommodations can eliminate barriers to participation. Eyeglasses can give an individual with poor vision the ability to drive, just as a wheelchair can enable someone with cerebral palsy to go shopping. Social norms and the design of the environment create barriers that act on a person’s impairment, thereby creating the disability.

    DSM 5
    Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This book is the basis for classifying mental disorders. It describes differences (and similarities) in cognitive functioning for disorders.

    IMPAIRMENT
    Difficulty hearing, a migraine, and a broken arm are examples of impairments. They may be temporary, situational, or persistent. All of us will experience impairment at some time—for example, having our eyes dilated for a new pair of eyeglasses or having vision that needs correction in the first place.

    NEURODIVERSITY
    The concept that many “disorders” such as autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia are best explained as natural variation in neurology. This is supported by the evidence that individuals on the autism spectrum may be high-functioning, such as Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein. Neurodiversity is also a social movement.

    SALUTOGENIC
    This term was introduced by Aaron Antonovsky in 1979 to describe how health is created through interactions with the social and physical environment. It is distinct from the dominant model in medicine, which presumes that health is the absence of pathogens. Comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness are the key components of a sense of coherence that ultimately determines health.

    SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE (SSDI)
    In the United States, many of us think of disability in the context of federal assistance. In fact, only one in five individuals with a disability receive SSDI. Of those who do, psychiatric disability is the largest group receiving benefits.

    References

    1. B. L. Plassman, K. M. Langa, G. G. Fisher, S. G. Heeringa, D. R. Weir, M. B. Ofstedal & R. B. Wallace, “Prevalence of cognitive impairment without dementia in the United States,” Annals of Internal Medicine 148, no. 6 (Mar. 18, 2008): 427-434.
    2. “Executive Functions,” UCSF Aging and Memory Center, accessed April 18, 2019, https://memory.ucsf.edu/executive-functions.
    3. For a detailed review, see S. Goldstein, J. A. Naglieri, D. Princiotta & T. M. Otero, “Introduction: A History of Executive Functioning as a Theoretical and Clinical Construct,” in The Handbook of Executive Functioning (Springer, New York, 2014), 3-12.
    4. For an overview of mental health and design, see G. W Evans. “The Built Environment and Mental Health,” Journal of Urban Health 80, no. 4, (2003): 536-555.
    5. J. A. Golembiewski, “Start Making Sense: Applying a Salutogenic Model to Architectural Design for Psychiatric Care,” Facilities 28, no. 3/4 (2010): 100-117.
    6. For a detailed discussion of alliesthesia, see M. Cabanac, “Physiological Role of Pleasure,” Science 173, no. 4002 (1971): 1103-1107.
    7. For a detailed discussion of classroom design for ASD, see M. Mostafa, “An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User,” International Journal of Architectural Research: ArchNet-IJAR 2, no. 1 (2008): 189-211.
    8. For example, see J. A. Ailshire & E. M. Crimmins, “Fine Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cognitive Function Among Older U.S. Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology 180, no. 4 (2014): 359-366 and L. G. Costa, T. B. Cole, J. Coburn, Y. C. Chang, K. Dao & P. J. Roqué, “Neurotoxicity of Traffic-Related Air Pollution,” Neurotoxicology 59 (2017): 133-139.
    9. A correlation between ASD and degree of urbanicity is shown in M. B. Lauritsen, A. Astrup, C. B. Pedersen, C. Obel, D. E. Schendel, L. Schieve & E. T. Parner, “Urbanicity and Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44, No. 2 (2014): 394-404. A correlation to air pollution is shown in T. A. Becerra, M. Wilhelm, J. Olsen, M. Cockburn & B. Ritz, “Ambient Air Pollution and Autism in Los Angeles County, California, Environmental Health Perspectives 121, No. 3 (2012): 380-386.
    10. For a discussion of urban lighting and mental health, see R. Chepesiuk, “Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution,” Environmental Health Perspectives 117, No. 1 (2009): A20.
    11. E. Gullone, “The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: Increasing Mental Health or Increasing Pathology?” Journal of Happiness Studies 1, No. 3 (2000): 293-322.
    12. For example, see J. Barton & J. Pretty, “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis,” Environmental Science & Technology 44, No. 10 (2010): 3947-3955 and P. Grahn, A. M. Pálsdóttir, J. Ottosson & I. H. Jonsdottir, “Longer Nature-Based Rehabilitation May Contribute to a Faster Return to Work in Patients with Reactions to Severe Stress and/ or Depression,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, No. 11 (2017): 1310.
    13. See N. M. Wells & G. W. Evans, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children,” Environment and Behavior 35, No. 3 (2003): 311-330.
    14. See G. N. Bratman, J. P. Hamilton & G. C. Daily, “The Impacts of Nature Experience on Human Cognitive Function and Mental Health,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249, No. 1 (2012): 118-136.
    15. For a foundational article on the role of culture in creating disability, see R. McDermott & H. Varenne, “Culture as Disability.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 26, No. 3, (1995): 324-348.
    16. M. B. Mittelmark, “Introduction to the Handbook of Salutogenesis,” in The Handbook of Salutogenesis (Springer, Cham, 2017), 3-5.

  9. Parks, Cities, and Mental Health

    Comments Off on Parks, Cities, and Mental Health

    Intro

    At the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, Director Layla McCay works closely with designers, planners, and scientists who are actively interested in creating cities that support good mental health. The well-documented benefits of nature for city dwellers underlines the importance of new research showing what kinds of green spaces best promote well-being.

    Andrew Brown spoke with McCay by phone about how parks and nature influence mental health in cities, how that influence is currently studied, and how greener, healthier cities can be designed from that knowledge. This conversation has been edited and abridged for clarity.

    Building for the Most Vulnerable

    Too often our cultures, along with the cities we build, assume we all have the same backgrounds and abilities. Today our buildings are overwhelmingly built on a foundation of ableism, with urban form deferring primarily to able-bodied persons. This ideology is so widespread as to make invisible the barriers in the built environment experienced by the one in five individuals living with cognitive impairments.

    The most common reason for cognitive impairments is a mental disorder: Alarmingly, over 20% of Americans have one. And outside of a psychological diagnosis, there are many reasons why people might suffer from persistent cognitive impairments—neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia affect one in five people over 71 years old, or 1.3% of all Americans. Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and conditions like migraines can also diminish cognitive abilities.

    Cognitive impairment often involves deficits in executive function: the skill required to control and coordinate all of the brain’s cognitive abilities and behaviors, like a CEO overseeing all departments in a business to make sure they progress efficiently and effectively. There are many theories about the nature and operation of executive functioning, but what might be the implications for design and planning? Take the example of ADHD. Decreased activity in the hippocampus—specifically, low dopamine levels—appears to be why individuals with ADHD exhibit impulsive behavior. Providing engaging sensory environments that promote dopamine production in the brain may be a helpful support in stimulating prefrontal brain activity.

    It’s imperative for architects to make streets and buildings more adaptable to everyone’s use. When our designs fall short of these standards, we risk making arbitrary barriers for individuals with cognitive impairments. But despite the physical environment having direct and indirect impacts on cognition, cognitive impairment is rarely considered as a design criterion, and practitioners in planning and design typically lack the lexicon to discuss inclusive design. (See the glossary below for a crash course.) From my perspective as an architect, questions about access for individuals with impairments typically go unasked, short-circuiting a design process that could remove barriers. We should ask which type of impairments people will bring with them to our buildings, streets, and parks. We have a mandate to expose and reduce these barriers so that the environment can help fulfill rather than hinder our potential. This means not only making the built environment more accessible but also increasing access to nature, providing the diversity of surroundings that humans need to thrive physically and mentally. Re-imagining our built environment in collaboration with individuals with cognitive impairments will be a step toward a more inclusive society, resulting in cities that improve the mental well-being of the entire population.

    Design for cognitive impairments is also a matter of equity. The legislative wins of the civil rights movement in the 1960s helped set the stage for those with physical impairments to advocate for their rights to access the built environment. Design improvements that address these impairments can now be thought of as universal design. Popularized in the 1980s, universal design posits that buildings, products, and processes work better the more people can use them. Undergirding universal design is an agenda that seeks to restore agency to excluded groups and to confront the ableist bias in society. This makes proponents of universal design also activists for social change.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation of 1990 is a great starting point, but despite increased awareness of cognitive impairments, designers still lack a framework for creating solutions and incorporating the tenets of universal design into practice. Removing obstacles in the built environment, for instance, such as those prescribed by the ADA, is not sufficient for creating designs that address cognitive impairments. A more salutogenic approach to mental health in the built environments—focused on promoting health and well-being rather than preventing disease or harm—provides opportunities for rich, physiological interactions, like chances to modify our surroundings to suit our mental and physical needs. Enabling people to access the built environment in this way helps exercise executive functioning skills: The choice of which path to take or which room to use provides a sense of control. This concept of manageability gives people the opportunity to create healthy outcomes while maintaining a strong sense of self. Adaptability is a hallmark of good design because it helps people accomplish their goals in a way that works for them.

    Providing all persons with options and the freedom to choose among them isn’t just a good idea—it’s also inherently pleasurable. Alliesthesia, the desire to achieve a neutral internal state, explains why water tastes better when we’re thirsty, and quiet is more desirable when we’re stressed. Providing arenas for people to exercise their executive functioning skills can create more opportunities for pleasure in the built environment.

    Encouraging agency and mental exercise within our surroundings is one way the built environment can support mental health. Attending to the ways a given suite of cognitive impairments compromise agency can help designers identify avenues for intervention. For instance, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have symptoms that vary widely, although problems with social interactions are typical. Many individuals with ASD also have trouble with sensory integration—meaning they may be overwhelmed by lights, noise, and touch. Deficits in executive function are common. Given these characteristics, some simple accommodations could improve the learning experience for a student with ASD in a mainstream classroom, for example. Having an alcove in the room available for sensory escape would help ease overstimulation. Allowing options for self-regulation can help individuals with ASD practice executive functioning skills. Increased ventilation, insulation from outdoor noises, and controllable lighting are also particularly beneficial. The resulting classroom, tailored for those with ASD, also clearly stands to help everyone focus.

    Down syndrome is the most common form of genetic cognitive disability. It is characterized in part by atypical development of the prefrontal cortex, often producing deficits in executive function. While driving a car is out of reach for many individuals with Down syndrome, taking the bus is often a viable option. Navigating a transit system, however, can be a multi-step process that taxes our executive functioning, attention, and memory skills. Viewing this as an accessibility problem, there are several ways that attending to the nuances of this population could translate into better transit design. Bus stops with clear signage, a place to sit, and dynamic arrival times would reassure riders that they are at the right place while reducing attention demands. A digital interface at the bus stop where riders can enter their destination would confirm their travel plans and arrival time. The same interface could accept payment for the trip, easing a barrier to boarding the bus and finding a seat. A transit system designed in consideration of riders with cognitive impairment has features that all users would enjoy, allowing them to focus on alternate tasks and enjoy the ride.

    Urban design is a powerful avenue for mental health interventions, but being able to escape the city is equally important. The complexity of our brains can lead to an array of sensitivities when it comes to pollution in the air and water. Exposure to higher concentrations of dust, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens may explain some differences in mental health for city-dwellers. Some research has shown that the incidence of autism spectrum disorder appears to be higher in cities. Anthropogenic soundscapes and lighting also disrupt sleep, increasing the risk of depression and other mood disorders.10 Just the stress from the pace of life in developed areas is associated with more pronounced symptoms for some individuals with cognitive impairment. This evidence supports the hypothesis that ecology is linked with mental health.

    Spending time in nature positively affects everyone’s mood, and is particularly impactful for those with mental disorders. Children who live nearby nature are also more psychologically resilient to stressors in life. A patch of wilderness can provide seminal developmental experiences for children, while also giving everyone room to breathe—literally and figuratively. Adding green space to our cities is a common-sense strategy for combating light and noise pollution, helping us entrain healthy sleep cycles. The evidence is telling us that better design for cognitive impairment means engineering with ecological principles that reduce pollution and increase our exposure to living things.

    For those with cognitive impairments, design for brain health is a civil rights issue. Neurotypical designers—those without neurologically atypically patterns of thought and behavior—have a mandate to combat the ideology of ableism and take part in the lived experience of their neighbors with cognitive impairments. This in part requires an earnest effort to include individuals with impairments—by including disability advocates as stakeholders in urban development. Recognizing exceptional projects that also meet the needs of those with disabilities will raise awareness of the damage caused by ableist development. Ultimately we could see rating systems such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) incorporate metrics for inclusive design, improving the standards of design in our communities overall.

    The brain activities that underpin success—executive function, memory, and attention—reside within all of us. Designing for these activities from multiple perspectives expands our knowledge of how our brains work, helping build empathy and, hopefully, a more cohesive community. Designing spaces for those with cognitive impairments supports neurotypicals too, building a future city that’s designed with all of us in mind.

    Glossary

    ABLEISM
    A common belief that individuals with impairments are abnormal and inferior to “able-bodied” people. Common ideas associated with this ideology are that individuals with impairments have less opportunity in life and suffer from limitations on their development as a whole person. Our buildings and streets bear testament to the hegemony of this ideology.

    COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT
    This umbrella term indicates deficit in brain function observed through behavior. This article focuses on problem-solving skills (executive functioning), attention, and working memory. Intellectual disability and learning disability are common types of cognitive impairment.

    DISABILITY
    Individuals experience a disability when they are unable to perform their intended task. Tasks with social significance such as going to work and self-care add definition to the disability a person experiences. Sometimes tasks with little relevance to everyday life such as standardized tests are used to label a person with a disability. Having an impairment does not mean a person has a disability. Accommodations can eliminate barriers to participation. Eyeglasses can give an individual with poor vision the ability to drive, just as a wheelchair can enable someone with cerebral palsy to go shopping. Social norms and the design of the environment create barriers that act on a person’s impairment, thereby creating the disability.

    DSM 5
    Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This book is the basis for classifying mental disorders. It describes differences (and similarities) in cognitive functioning for disorders.

    IMPAIRMENT
    Difficulty hearing, a migraine, and a broken arm are examples of impairments. They may be temporary, situational, or persistent. All of us will experience impairment at some time—for example, having our eyes dilated for a new pair of eyeglasses or having vision that needs correction in the first place.

    NEURODIVERSITY
    The concept that many “disorders” such as autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia are best explained as natural variation in neurology. This is supported by the evidence that individuals on the autism spectrum may be high-functioning, such as Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein. Neurodiversity is also a social movement.

    SALUTOGENIC
    This term was introduced by Aaron Antonovsky in 1979 to describe how health is created through interactions with the social and physical environment. It is distinct from the dominant model in medicine, which presumes that health is the absence of pathogens. Comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness are the key components of a sense of coherence that ultimately determines health.

    SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE (SSDI)
    In the United States, many of us think of disability in the context of federal assistance. In fact, only one in five individuals with a disability receive SSDI. Of those who do, psychiatric disability is the largest group receiving benefits.

    References

    1. B. L. Plassman, K. M. Langa, G. G. Fisher, S. G. Heeringa, D. R. Weir, M. B. Ofstedal & R. B. Wallace, “Prevalence of cognitive impairment without dementia in the United States,” Annals of Internal Medicine 148, no. 6 (Mar. 18, 2008): 427-434.
    2. “Executive Functions,” UCSF Aging and Memory Center, accessed April 18, 2019, https://memory.ucsf.edu/executive-functions.
    3. For a detailed review, see S. Goldstein, J. A. Naglieri, D. Princiotta & T. M. Otero, “Introduction: A History of Executive Functioning as a Theoretical and Clinical Construct,” in The Handbook of Executive Functioning (Springer, New York, 2014), 3-12.
    4. For an overview of mental health and design, see G. W Evans. “The Built Environment and Mental Health,” Journal of Urban Health 80, no. 4, (2003): 536-555.
    5. J. A. Golembiewski, “Start Making Sense: Applying a Salutogenic Model to Architectural Design for Psychiatric Care,” Facilities 28, no. 3/4 (2010): 100-117.
    6. For a detailed discussion of alliesthesia, see M. Cabanac, “Physiological Role of Pleasure,” Science 173, no. 4002 (1971): 1103-1107.
    7. For a detailed discussion of classroom design for ASD, see M. Mostafa, “An Architecture for Autism: Concepts of Design Intervention for the Autistic User,” International Journal of Architectural Research: ArchNet-IJAR 2, no. 1 (2008): 189-211.
    8. For example, see J. A. Ailshire & E. M. Crimmins, “Fine Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cognitive Function Among Older U.S. Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology 180, no. 4 (2014): 359-366 and L. G. Costa, T. B. Cole, J. Coburn, Y. C. Chang, K. Dao & P. J. Roqué, “Neurotoxicity of Traffic-Related Air Pollution,” Neurotoxicology 59 (2017): 133-139.
    9. A correlation between ASD and degree of urbanicity is shown in M. B. Lauritsen, A. Astrup, C. B. Pedersen, C. Obel, D. E. Schendel, L. Schieve & E. T. Parner, “Urbanicity and Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44, No. 2 (2014): 394-404. A correlation to air pollution is shown in T. A. Becerra, M. Wilhelm, J. Olsen, M. Cockburn & B. Ritz, “Ambient Air Pollution and Autism in Los Angeles County, California, Environmental Health Perspectives 121, No. 3 (2012): 380-386.
    10. For a discussion of urban lighting and mental health, see R. Chepesiuk, “Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution,” Environmental Health Perspectives 117, No. 1 (2009): A20.
    11. E. Gullone, “The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: Increasing Mental Health or Increasing Pathology?” Journal of Happiness Studies 1, No. 3 (2000): 293-322.
    12. For example, see J. Barton & J. Pretty, “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis,” Environmental Science & Technology 44, No. 10 (2010): 3947-3955 and P. Grahn, A. M. Pálsdóttir, J. Ottosson & I. H. Jonsdottir, “Longer Nature-Based Rehabilitation May Contribute to a Faster Return to Work in Patients with Reactions to Severe Stress and/ or Depression,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, No. 11 (2017): 1310.
    13. See N. M. Wells & G. W. Evans, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children,” Environment and Behavior 35, No. 3 (2003): 311-330.
    14. See G. N. Bratman, J. P. Hamilton & G. C. Daily, “The Impacts of Nature Experience on Human Cognitive Function and Mental Health,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249, No. 1 (2012): 118-136.
    15. For a foundational article on the role of culture in creating disability, see R. McDermott & H. Varenne, “Culture as Disability.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 26, No. 3, (1995): 324-348.
    16. M. B. Mittelmark, “Introduction to the Handbook of Salutogenesis,” in The Handbook of Salutogenesis (Springer, Cham, 2017), 3-5.

  10. The Miami Murals Taking on Climate Change

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    Intro

    The latest season of Van Alen Sessions, “Turning the Tide in Miami,” sheds light on climate change in South Florida and profiles how Miamians—real estate developers, artists, architects, ecologists, activists—are fighting the effects of sea level rise. In investigating the future of Miami and questioning the sustainability of its real estate economy, infrastructure, and drinking water supply, it became evident that radical intervention is necessary to effectively prepare for sea-level rise.

    Before It’s Too Late (BITL), a non-profit prototyping lab using arts and technology, is at the forefront of climate change education for the public. BITL couples scientific climate research with art and technology, and experiments with social theory in an effort to spark changes in behavior. Currently, Miami Murals—depictions of present-day Miami overlayed with augmented reality simulating Miami’s future—is BITL’s flagship program. Miami Murals’ pilot mural launched in the Wynwood neighborhood in February, and the lab is currently designing their second mural at EcoTech Visions, a Miami-based green tech incubator hub.

    Despite being less than a year old, BITL is enthusiastically exploring various avenues to transform their pilot mural into a movement. Earlier this year, they worked with the City of Miami to propose an expansion of the program into twelve more communities through the Bloomberg Public Arts Challenge. The plan proposes the creation of several murals across Miami-Dade County as a means to combat climate gentrification and unite segregated communities in a common cause. BITL is also working on a high-impact proposal to cover Miami Beach in its murals and create the first augmented reality art walk.

    We spoke with BITL Founder Linda Cheung about the Miami Murals campaign to understand how creative thinkers can engage with issues surrounding climate adaptation and to explore the power of using one’s own voice to ignite a cultural movement.

    Interview

    Anja Laubscher: What sparked the inspiration to create the Miami Murals campaign and this unique way to create awareness about sea level rise?

    Linda Cheung: I was working on climate change, approaching it from a business, policy, and science perspective, constantly aiming to align incentives to get the system to work for us, and observed that it was not working fast enough. I realized that there was a lack of inspiration, and that the only way to get under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 was through a total radical systems change, which is not possible with an incremental way of thinking in business and policy.* So I researched radical cultural changes in the past that totally shifted our mental and ethics model for society. This idea of being a catalyst for cultural change inspired me to think about climate sustainability, and ask “what are the best tools to captivate and build a bridge to the public?”

    *The below 2°C threshold refers to the benchmark and worldwide goal to maintain a global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial temperature levels.

    AL: It is clear from the BITL website that you believe this bridge sits at the intersection of art, technology, and science. Why these three?

    LC: The science piece is obvious—climate science. A lot of what we do is also based on behavioral science, systems, and social change. We study the history of social revolutions to see what it takes to enact a cultural tipping point and what we can learn from that. We then use arts and technology as the tools to spark that change. Art is a cultural vehicle to reach out to people in new and emotionally engaging ways, and for a subject like climate change—which for a lot of people feels very abstract and far away—I feel like we need that. Technology, projection mapping, virtual, and augmented reality is like art—it attracts people to a message in a new flashy way. It is also a means to bring people together on one platform. I created the Miami Murals to connect different people through the same public mural campaign, to show that we can work together as individuals to contribute to the same goal. By merging technology and art, we can visualize something as abstract as climate change, take people into the future, show other possibilities, and build empathy for another species or people group.

    AL: How does the art and technology combination technically work?

    LC: The future plan is to develop a mobile app that displays a map of the locations of the mural sites, like a public art tour. People will then physically visit the sites and see the murals in their physical form. They will then open the app and use their phone’s camera to scan the mural or use geolocation to trigger the location. The phone will recognize the image and display a 3D animation augmented reality of a sea-level rise-affected future.

    AL: What is the message behind the Miami Murals?

    LC: There are two main messages. The first one is to wake up and start realizing that we have this big climate problem and we are running out of time to solve it. The second message is “it starts with us.” We need to stop pointing fingers and realize we are all part of the problem and the only way to solve it, is if we all dawn a new attitude of “I am going to do my part.” In the process, we will become more educated about climate change and how it impacts us as a society.

    AL: What was the concept behind the pilot mural?

    LC: I merged my knowledge of climate change, science, and what I thought was important to communicate with my strategic and aesthetic vision. The environment has many aspects to it. You can talk about energy or consumption, but instead, I just wanted to talk about the most fundamental thing of all: awareness and introspection. We called it the “climate awakening;” awakening our perspectives to realize that there is this problem in our city that we have been ignoring and we are all part of the problem. So the pilot mural design is a reflection of Miami, its facade of itself, and how it wants to appear to the world—a flashy, materialistic party. The augmented reality represents sea-level rise looming and threatening all of it.

    AL: BITL seems to take a much more emotional approach to raise awareness around sea-level rise, calling citizens of Miami to passionately fight for the soul of the city. Why this more personal and emotional approach?

    LC: Because humans, no matter how smart and capable they are, make decisions from an emotional place. For instance, shaming is ineffective, but galvanizing hope is very effective. So if you want to have an impact you have to get to those emotions driving decisions and people.

    AL: Why is it crucial for designers, artists, architects, and technologists to use their profession and mediums of design, art, and technology to actively contribute to the conversation around climate change?

    LC: Creative people know how to translate a message in new ways to the public and their innovative thinking is exactly what we need to address and solve the larger climate problem. I am trying to get the creators and the innovators of our world on board, so that they are educated on the issue, think differently about how they can become sustainable designers through their own work, and become the new brand ambassadors of this message. And hopefully, as a result of their not-too-scientific but optimistic response, inspire others and become role models for society. I am trying to prevent society from getting caught up in the nitty gritty details and the complexities—because it is a very complex issue—but rather to just get creative, roll up our sleeves, and start creating.

    AL: Practically, how can other creatives, technologists, and the general public get involved in a project like Miami Murals?

    LC: I am creating a platform that I hope can be a movement, a platform where one mobile app and website show a map of the original murals that we launched, and then all the other satellite murals made by others contributing to this campaign. I want the movement to grow, and not be limited by my own time and resources. It doesn’t even have to be in Miami—it can be anywhere. But whether people are specifically contributing to the Miami Murals movement or generally rethinking design processes and materials used, all of our professions could be playing a role in changing the trajectory of climate change. I just want to encourage everyone to realize their own voice. I really believe in the power of the individual now—I am just one individual actor, and I started this lab and campaign. If we all believe in our own power as an individual, just imagine the magnitude of our impact if we work together.

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    Van Alen Sessions takes viewers on revealing trips through a city’s internal workings, documenting conversations with urban planning practitioners and city dwellers. The series brings together the analysis of experts and the experiences of ordinary people. Van Alen Sessions is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

    Keeping Current: A Sea Level Rise Challenge for Greater Miami was a series of initiatives seeking innovative solutions to protect South Florida’s six million residents from the potentially catastrophic consequences of sea level rise. Keeping Current harnessed Van Alen’s years of experience organizing design competitions to help South Florida residents gain a better understanding of sea level rise and their opportunities to adapt to their changing environment.