Designing Spaces to Heal in Times of Covid

In a world ridden with myriad forms of inequality, the mental health issues arising out of the Covid-19 crisis may not receive the deserving attention. Enabling the survivors and health workers to fight stress is a tall order. One way to solve the puzzle is to create dedicated spaces for ‘healing’.

We might have been banging vessels as a gesture to thank and encourage our healthcare workers fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. But Mount Sinai hospital in New York has been tending to their medical staff a little differently. With the help of design company Studio Elsewhere, the 175-year old hospital built ‘recharge rooms’ which are healing spaces for healthcare workers. The studio owned by designer Mirelle Philips built tranquil, immersive environments out of ordinary rooms with the help of music, scent, lighting and sound. The spaces are designed particularly to address trauma, anxiety and stress and improve cognitive performance among the staff.

We are living through a pandemic that has changed the way we work, live, interact and even imagine. And changes have taken place not just in our physical, perceptible environment. By excluding us from our normalised settings, many of us have been left exposed and vulnerable to trauma, anxiety and various other mental tectonic shifts, to be dealt with on our own.

Given that our societies are fundamentally embedded with inequalities of ability, income, accessibility and opportunity; mental health resources remain unutilised by most of us. However, a new solution has been circling conversations of environmental psychologists and architects – Designing conscious and inclusive spaces for healing. 

Mental health and environment

In a piece titled Psychology of Space, Irving Weiner, who is an environmental psychology professor, states that while we may not be able to see or touch (“not easily discernible”) some environmental influences that surround us, they have a direct part to play when it comes to our behaviour or mood. 

Another environmental psychologist and interior designer, Migette Kaup also says in the article that “architectural cues can reinforce the desired behaviours that we would like to see enacted in specific place types.” 

Apart from the stated accounts, multiple studies and researchers over the years have validated healthier living standards and better mental health to spaces designed to subconsciously induce comfort and a healing environment. 

Immersive spaces designed by Mirelle Philips and Studio Elsewhere have helped more than 200,000 health care workers through integrating aesthetics and technology to achieve a purpose. However, immersive spaces are not the limit, public spaces that surround us also play a very important role.

Designing public spaces

Dr Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a Psychology and Social Sciences Professor, elaborates on the need of having a social environment. During a conversation on the Shared Space podcast she said, “ We all feel lonely from time to time and it is thought to be adaptive because it’s our body’s way of signalling that we need to reconnect. Just like hunger and thirst signal us to seek out food and water, loneliness signals us and motivates us to reconnect. Where it becomes problematic is when it becomes more prolonged.” She added that our brains experience distress when we lack proximity to others, as with evolution, our brain interprets having people around as safe and protected.

Having shared public spaces can allow us to rehabilitate ourselves in a surrounding and heal together, in more than one way. Moreover, combined with individual therapy for chronic cases, well-knit communities and relations around us may accelerate the healing process by introducing more trauma-informed designs in our personal as well as public spaces. 

Emily Anthes, a renowned science journalist and author also believe that we can nudge people into healthier behaviours, through design. Giving an example for the increasingly hermetic office spaces in the present times, she said, “Bringing elements of nature into the indoor environment can have benefits for our physical health, psychological health, cognitive performance. Nature seems to make people more active. Other things like daylight or indoor air quality, they’re likely to be good for everyone and have benefits that range across the spectrum.”

Expanding on the perspectives behind designing, she elaborated that thinking about ways in which special populations might be sensitive to bad design can guide architects and planners in creating environments that are better for everyone.

While talking with Erin Peavey on her podcast about designing happier cities, Mitchell Reardon, an urban planning expert explains that by understanding the needs of the demographic, designing based on needs and lived experiences public spaces can be made more participative.  

As Reardon further explains, “ We need to have spaces that allow people to be empathetic as well, we need to enable people to live with dignity whatever their circumstances may be, and we need to give people a little more time and understanding than we might have recently. The only way we are going to be able to knit society together is if we accept that there are differences and try to find ways to bring people together.”

Several studies also indicate that having lively communities has impacts on the mortality rates of citizens. People who were socially connected were at 50 per cent increased odds of survival. Combining all the available data worldwide and analysing it predicted that loneliness predicted increased risk of earlier death by 26 per cent, social isolation by 29 per cent and living alone by 32 per cent (*independent of age and health status).

Therefore, through efficient policy-making, countries can help heal their people from the trauma of this pandemic and offer their people better and healthier lives in the long-run, by creating more conscious, accessible designs and intelligent urban planning projects.

Also See: Is Vaccine Passport a Good Idea? All You Need to Know

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