The city as a playground –

Review To preserve our (mental) well-being in increasingly crowded cities, Jenny Roe and Layla McCay wrote ‘Restorative Cities’. What interventions are necessary in the city to continue to feel comfortable there? Reviewer Eva Gaaff comes across little hard evidence, but like the authors is convinced that we not only need meeting places and green spaces, but above all sufficient space to play. For young and old.

Less stress, completely happy and even smarter through the city: is it possible? Thanks to Covid, we face the facts: our environment affects our well-being. And not just physically. A simple walk through the park gets us moving, but is also necessary to keep us mentally active. In Restorative Cities, we zoom in on it: our mental well-being. Can we create cities that prevent depression and anxiety, stimulate and restore us, even make us wiser? An important question, in a world that runs on highly educated people with all their burnout.

Seven principles

Authors Jenny Roe and Layla McCay explored the ingredients we need to make such a city, a restorative city. They came up with seven principles. Themes such as nature and water, movement, neighbourhood, diversity and inclusiveness are discussed. They are obvious. More surprising are sensory stimulation and playfulness – these are subjects that are not normally included in the quality requirements in an area development.

The ultimate message, certainly also for area developers, is: honor the child in yourself and design the city from that perspective

To start with the obvious themes. In recent years, much has been written about the importance of water and nature for both our physical and psychological well-being. This book adds an overview of research specifically focused on urban spaces. For example, the positive or healing effect of nature on cognitive health, social inclusion, ADHD and schizophrenia is demonstrated. An example of this is a study in Scotland which shows that children who grow up with lots of greenery and parks nearby do better cognitively as they get older. And this applies to neighborhoods with different socio-economic characteristics.

‘The Claddagh in Galway City in summer, Ireland.’

by Gabriela Insuratelu

(source: Shutterstock)

For water, movement, neighborhood and the social aspects, it is also clearly indicated which effects there is actually evidence for – and which cities are interesting examples. For example, studies in Hong Kong and Ireland indicate that people who have a view of the sea or who deliberately walk along the open water feel calmer and happier.

Plant seeds

A good example where many of these themes meet is the neighborhood garden, which can also be found more and more in Dutch cities. Since last year there has been one around the corner from me. What used to be a forgotten patch of grass and some bushes are now kitchen gardens. The neighborhood has changed enormously in recent years, you could say it’s gentrified. This is a place where old and new residents meet: plant new seeds together – literally and figuratively.

Hard evidence

What is striking is that a positive relationship between the aforementioned themes and psychological well-being is often plausible, but there is not always such hard evidence for it. Take for example the presence of city water and the reduction of depression. Research into this is limited to a few studies, with at most a handful of cases. Restorative Cities are honest about it, but this still sticks. It is precisely the numbers that are needed to realize ‘extra’. Conclusion: More research is needed.

Germany, Berlin, Kreuzberg Schoneberg, Park am Gleisdreieck: People children, men, women having fun in the center of the German capital with famous Potsdamer Platz and blue sky - leisure time.  May 1, 2019 by Rolf G Wackenberg (source: shutterstock)

‘Germany, Berlin, Kreuzberg Schoneberg, Park am Gleisdreieck: People children, men, women having fun in the center of the German capital with the famous Potsdamer Platz and blue sky – leisure. 1 May 2019’

by Rolf G Wackenberg

(source: Shutterstock)

Then come the two themes that I personally found fun and surprising: ‘legend’ and ‘sensual’. They correspond to the image that many people will recognize: the city as a playground. A place that brings out the unexpected, creative and spontaneous in us. Where we are surprised by others and by ourselves. Where, when we turn the corner, lies a new world – beyond our imagination.

You can do this by including play elements in an area development. Places where not only children, but also adults climb and climb – don’t we all want to go back to the monkey rock? A good example is Das Netz in Berlin: a huge net through which young and old can walk, hang out and lie down.

Can we create cities that prevent depression and anxiety, stimulate and restore us, even make us wiser?

But you can also think more broadly. Colors, smells and unexpected situations stimulate our brains. Input from senses is close to the part of the brain where emotions are processed. Translated into urban design, we can imagine that long gray blocks without decoration make few people happy. This also applies to wide asphalt roads with furious traffic.

Restorative Cities indicates what makes our brains happy: a varied streetscape, different materials, places, lights and even smells. A place that needs constant stimulation – it’s not far from an amusement park. It makes it clear why cities like New York and Tokyo are enduringly popular. Dynamics and a human touch: the city pulls you free from your own thoughts.

To be a child again

With the play and the senses, Roe and McCay have got their hands on something interesting. Although the effects of this are difficult to substantiate, they return to a feeling we all understand: the desire to be a child again. Kneel in the water, feel the ocean waves, climb trees and play hide and seek. The feeling of belonging and of being amazed by the world of others.

That image is what Restorative Cities is ultimately about. Because not everything can be substantiated – and perhaps we shouldn’t either. The ultimate message, certainly also for area developers, is: honor the child in yourself, and design the city from that perspective. Include a neighborhood garden in the design or a climbing frame for adults. For less efficient and more happy, isn’t that what we all want?

book cover: Restorative Cities by Jenny Roe (source: bloomsbury)

‘cover of the book: Restorative Cities’

by Jenny Roe

(source: bloomsbury)

Cover: ‘people playing in the city’

by Victoria_rt

(source: Pixabay)

Eva Gaaff by Eva Gaaff (source: LinkedIn)

By Eva Gaaff

Consultant Urban Development & Property at Arcadis

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