This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), one of the biggest awareness weeks both within the UK and globally, which was set up by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) 21 years ago with the aim of encouraging discussion around a yearly theme. The MHF's mission is "to help people understand, protect and sustain their mental health" with a focus on prevention and the identification of the sources of mental health problems. This weeks theme is that of loneliness, which has been labelled an epidemic in recent years, with one in four adults reported to feel lonely some or all of the time. Loneliness is a difficult problem to tackle as each of us are different and so are our reasons for feeling lonely. Those of us who experience loneliness for extended periods are more at risk of both mental and physical problems. A study in 2010 found that it could be as harmful to our health as a 15 cigarette a day smoking habit and has been linked to sleep loss, ill health, dementia and premature death. For MHAW this year MHF wants to raise awareness around the impact of loneliness on our health as well as the practical steps we can take to address it.
Loneliness is almost always depicted as solitude and isolation, just google the word and you're shown brooding images of lone figures staring wistfully into the distance. Although physical solitude can be a trigger it can also be a comfort and often isn't why most of us feel lonely. It's more commonly a lack of emotional togetherness or true connection. Considering this you may think that those of us living in cities would be less likely to experience loneliness given the sheer amount of people in close proximity, but as sociologist Georg Simmel puts it "Nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd". Despite 56.2% of the global population (in 2020) living in cities those living in these urban environments are at higher risk of loneliness. Reasons range from poor transport links and lack of physical space to make these new connections to the cost of living.
"Look up! There are hundreds of poor people housed in the sky who don’t have good reasons to come down." This is where we as architects come in, along with councils and the rest of the construction industry. The built environment can hugely influence the mental health and wellbeing of the population and is a vital tool for tackling loneliness. The presence of informal places to meet, like green spaces or public squares, and libraries within a community are necessary to encourage natural socialisation. Take the Green Square Library in Sydney for example, the informal and playful design elements aim to encourage incidental encounters and natural interactions as well as housing programmes such as 'Tech Savvy Seniors' actively encouraging the coming together of the public. With increased high density living the need for space outside the home is becoming evermore prevalent, this project is a prime example of this kind of space making exercise as the library and public piazza were a single design commission. this allowed for harmony within the exterior and interior spaces as there weren't multiple parties vying for space and allowed for the creation of this ‘public living room’. A huge feature of this project is the unusual decision to almost exclusively build underground, this ensures the preservation of valuable public space as the city grows around it. "Space for all, all day and free of charge". Not only do we need communal spaces to meet but the public realm needs to be maintained to ensure these spaces are safe and accessible for everyone to use. Pavements need to be even, streets need to be well lit and transport links need to be regular and affordable. The coming together of these elements allows for relationships to be maintained and new ones to be formed through regular interactions with people from the community.
In a lot of cases it is beneficial to not only build for the community but with the community. These are the people you are building for and they are going to know their needs better than any developer. Taking on board the ideas of the public and designing with those in mind will ensure the development of community space that will be utilised regularly and in turn encourage socialisation. Even the putting on of the public consultation sessions themselves brings members of the community together and promotes interactions over a common subject. Here at WR-AP we encourage this within our projects, most recently taking part in sessions with Kingston Riverside, Achilles Street and Ham Close Community Centre. Another practice known for this kind of process is Assemble, in particular their 10 houses on Cairns Street. “Assemble are the only ones who have ever sat and listened to the residents, and then translated their vision into drawings and models, and now into reality,” Erika Rushton of the community land trust said on their work in Liverpool. Regeneration projects can often bulldoze the needs of existing residents in order to pursue profit, speed and ease. However, with a project such as Cairns street where redevelopment plans came and went the residents that clung on had been working hard to create a sense of community and a pleasant place to live, installing planters in the streets and renovating their properties. The other proposed plans didn't take this into account and stripped out all the life and personality from the street. Assemble showed how an inclusive and hands on approach could bring the community together, not only within the finished spaces but through the design and construction process with volunteers working hard to create elements of the homes.
As a practice we're taking the time to to sit down together this MHAW to discuss what we feel we could do to improve mental health and wellbeing within the office. This could be whether we think we would benefit from assigning a mental health first aid officer and have them complete the appropriate training, if we take part in some Acas training on mental health at work, or anything else that the group may raise. We're also aiming to create a more social atmosphere outside of our working hours by organising monthly team lunches and after work drinks, as we're often very busy here at WR-AP and forget to do much else but work hard on our projects. This is starting with our Friday lunch and team office clean up where we'll be getting together to repot the practice plants, organise our materials and do a general reshuffle within the office.
This blog has been written by Amber, our design and communications lead. Amber is a 2020 Communication Design graduate from the Glasgow School of Art and founder of Bloom & Body, a small ceramics business focusing on the human form. You can read more about her here.