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Innovate 4 Cities 2021 | UN Habitat Conference

Tuesday 12 October at 15:45 CEST.

Dr. Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo has presented her insights at the session 5H: Green spaces for healthier cities, which was fully recorded and available online:

The Conference, co-hosted by #UNHabitat and #Mayors4Climate, brings together innovative research and science to help cities tackle #ClimateChange challenges. The global five-day virtual #I4C Conference covering #Science and #Innovation partnerships driving inclusive, resilient, and climate-neutral #cities, runned from 11 to 15 October 2021 and attracted over 1,000 city leaders, scientists, researchers, innovators, academics, youth, and business leaders and is open to everyone.

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Mental Health in Slums – the Case of Bangladesh Among Other Developing Countries

The share of the world’s population living in urban areas has been predicted to increase from 55% in 2018 to 60% in 2030 (UN, 2018). Every year people move to the urban areas from villages for various reasons. If we try to see this urban-rural migration under the push-pull model, push factors from rural end such as landlessness and poverty, frequent natural calamities (particularly riverbank erosion, tidal surge), lack of social and cultural opportunities for rural rich and The pull factors from the urban end like job opportunities, higher wages, better civic services encourage these migrants. Most of them are low or lower-middle-income people.

Due to high land prices and construction costs, these people cannot afford suitable housing. In rural areas, they may have a house with a courtyard, pond with lots of greenery. It is very hard to get just a shelter under the roof which is far away from the house they used to live in. A lot of slums and unplanned low-income residential areas with poor greeneries, ventilation boom up. People have little scope to take care of their mental health in such settlements. Most of them face severe mental illness due to some social and physical variables including low socioeconomic status, unemployment, impoverished social networks, quality of life, bad living condition, overcrowding, pollution, and limited social supports overall the environment around these people. These variables of the social and physical environment have different types of effects on different age groups, it also varies from gender to gender.

Different geographical contexts – same issues

In a study in India, it has been explored with ethnographic methods that afflictions of the city affecting the emotional well-being and mental health of women and men with respect to gender in the Malvani slum, Mumbai. Mental health issues such as emotional distress, hopelessness, disappointment, demoralization, addictions, instability, hostility, violence, criminality, worthlessness, fatigue and weakness, depression. Poor hygiene and sanitation, subjective quality of life of poor people living in deprived conditions population density, hutment demolition, homelessness, violence, and crime play a vital role in this degrading mental health in slums of Mumbai.

Women face more problems along with the previously mentioned ones such as dual responsibilities of home and work, substandard jobs and pay, sexual exploitation, marital disharmony, abandonment, exploitation of women, domestic violence, the humiliation of women
which creates a great negative impact like depression, fatigue , worthlessness, stress, low self- esteem from menial position etc.

If we look at South Africa, 72% of women in informal settlements have been reported moderate to high levels of depressive symptomology and 57.9% reported very high levels, compared to only 26.4% of women in a nationally representative sample. A lack of access to water, sewage, garbage collection, health care, and other basic services as factors associated with poor mental and physical health in these settlements. The prevalence of IPV in these communities (66.2%) is higher than in the general population (39%). Even in the slum of Bangladesh, 46% of women in the sample tested positive for a UTI (urinary tract infections) which have not only a physical health problem but also severe mental issues.

Adolescents in the urban slums of Bangladesh face more mental problems than other well-off areas. They may have limited chances to learn skills to shape their minds. Thus, non-slum adolescents may be able to feel anxiety when they face stress, whereas slum adolescents may not be able to learn or practice this
highly cognitive procedure but rather vent their frustrations by acting out as they get older. Here also, quality of life plays a role.

Housing conditions in the slums of Bangladesh (photo by Ananya Tahsin)

Healthy housing – a human right

Most studies are consistent about that housing condition plays a major role in mental health issues. Lack of adequate space, utility facilities, open space, the hygienic living environment creates a great negative impact on the people living in the slum. Though the constitution of Bangladesh declared housing is a basic right. But proving proper healthy housing to people is a huge challenge for Bangladesh. 80% of poor HHs in Dhaka live in one-roomed homes of the latter types (1.2 m2 floor area per person). From the National Housing Policy of Bangladesh 1993, we come to know that housing is one of the three basic primary needs of human-like food and clothing. It is considered that housing creates a sense of belonging and safety for the owner. Even the major objective of the Housing Policy 1999 was to ensure housing for all. It has put emphasis on the disadvantaged low and middle-income groups of people. Then again the goal of the Housing Policy 2008 was to provide proper housing available to all citizens and to develop houses, settlements, and workplaces on a sustainable and equal basis. The National Housing Authority undertook a project to provide 5,472 flats in Bhashantek. But govt is failing to provide housing to this increasing number of migrants.

RAJUK has reserved only 1.2%, 4.3%, and 7.5% of land for low-income groups in the Purbachal, Uttara (3rd Phase), and Jhilmeel projects respectively. Different NGOs are working to provide housing to this low-income community living in an informal settlement. ARBAN, one of the first NGOs  piloted a low-income, urban housing project in Bangladesh. By tapping into micro-credit savings deposits and loan assistance, ARBAN built an apartment complex for 42-member households in Mirpur, Dhaka. The apartments were handed over in 2012. Building on success, ARBAN is taking on another housing project to construct apartments for 85 households on a 1 Bigha plot at the city’s Rampura-Banasree area. “Ghore Fera” or similar kind of rehabilitation opportunities have to be created.

People in our slums are still struggling for a better life…

As we can see there are so many policies but not much really changes for people in slums. They deserve proper housing, a basic healthy life with effective interventions for mental health. Community mental health services should be introduced in these informal settlements. Approaches to mental health policy and planning for community mental health benefit to priorities can be defined with local socio-cultural contexts. So improving and monitoring should also be a concern to the providers to slums. Complimentary approaches to mental health research can also be helpful to address interdisciplinary academic interests and practical needs for mental health planning. Psychiatric epidemiology is required to identify the burden of mental disorders. Quality living may improve their mental health. A housing with better basic facilities such as water sanitation, electricity, open space, basic medical treatment, scopes to talk and getting help about mental health is their right to survive in a good way on this Earth.

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How can VR improve mental health

Eascape, a new VR relaxation app created by neuroscientists and landscape architects, makes it possible to benefit from the healing power of nature without leaving home. The test version of the app has just been launched, as the whole world deals with the consequences of coronavirus waves and lockdowns. It is not a coincidence. In this difficult time creators of the app encourage us all to start looking at VR technology as an effective self-care tool, ready to reconnect us with nature and ease our minds.

An intensive work on the project started almost exactly one year ago – during the first lockdown. We wanted to better understand people's psychological needs in times of confinement, so we conducted the world-wide survey on this very topic. What we have learned was very striking, although not that surprising – at least not to us – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, co-founder of Eascape, then she adds: It turned out that what we, humans, miss the most in such difficult conditions is, apart from being close with relatives and friends, a deeper connection with nature. The pandemic has shown what neuroscientists and environmental psychologists have known for a long time – that being around green spaces is crucial to our mental health and cognitive processes such as memory, attention or creativity.

We need nature more than ever

If we talk about our exposure to nature the situation had been dire even before pandemic, especially in big cities. Science shows that urban, stressful and chaotic environments full of stimulation increase the risk of psychiatric disorders by 38% as compared to rural living. We work long hours in office spaces, away from green scenery, then we go home, where we often stay until the next day, too tired to go out and have at least a stroll in a nearby park. And even if we are keen to spend some relaxing time in green environments – we often simply cannot do so, since due to the urbanization and biodiversity loss processes we have no longer unlimited access to such spaces. This simply cannot be good to our well-being. We need to take action. We must be mindful of what we expose ourselves to everyday, to keep a healthy mind, help with depression and anxiety, alleviate stress, and reduce the risk of dementias – explains Nicolas Escoffier, one of the creators of Eascape.

Landscapes that ease our minds

Eascape builds on the concept of Contemplative Landscapes, an idea conceived in 2011 by Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, as part of her scientific work in Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology. In her research, she found that there are certain characteristics of the scenic views that can influence the human brain to improve mental health and well-being. Contemplative Landscapes should for example contain a certain landform with many layers, natural asymmetry and the depth of the view.

Being surrounded by such scenery we should be able to observe subtle phenomena such as the play of light and shade, trembling leaves or shadows growing and shrinking with the passage of the sun. What adds to contemplativeness of a landscape are also archetypal elements like a running body of water, a path, an old tree or a big stone. 

The space should also carry a character of peace and silence, providing comfort and  a sense of solitude. It activates our nervous system and a built-in biophilia – a state that exists in all of us since the time when we were still living in close relation with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. 

VR experience like no other 

Eascape is nothing like VR games. It differs even from other VR relaxation apps. Most of the VR apps absorb our attention completely. We have tasks to do, fantastic creatures to meet or new things to learn. All this generates the beta waves in our brain, making our mind work at top speed, and eventually causing mental fatigue. Eascape is not a gaming experience. It works in the opposite way to generate the alpha waves which are characteristic for the state of relaxation and mindfulness. On a daily basis, we have access to such state only through sleep, meditation or close contact with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.

The app contains full HD 3D 180° videos, recorded in a scientifically confirmed Contemplative Landscape site: Parchi di Nervi in Genoa, Italy. The user is able to hear the natural, relaxing sound of chirping birds and teleport to four locations across the lawn. The environment has been designed in a very minimalistic way, intentionally deprived of special effects or extraordinary elements. It is a place for soft fascination and gentle exploration that calms down the mind. The whole experience should feel as a pleasant mindfulness practice, available at one’s fingertips. The Eascape team recommends spending 10 min per day in Eascape for 2 weeks to see the improvements in mood. A pilot test showed 32% reduction of depressive mood after just 7 min using Eascape demo, when compared to another VR environment.

 

 

Healthy VR environments to the rescue of today’s societies

We are sure that healthy VR environments can make a huge change in the way we as society deal with mental health problems – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. Desire to help those who need access to nature have brought together the Eascape team which consists of people from all around the world. Growing up, they were all observing different kinds of landscapes, learning how it can affect people's well-being. That was a huge source of inspiration. 

When the world of Academia meets VR industry

Among Eascape team members there are scientists from University of Porto and National University of Singapore who specialize in Neuroscience, Environmental Psychology and Landscape Architecture. Why did they decide to go out with their expertise beyond the world of Academia and cross their paths with the VR industry? We wanted to use our knowledge and create a tool that would be accessible and helpful for everyone, especially for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, sleeplessness or burnout, as well as for elderly people who due to their health conditions often stay in isolation – says Nicolas Escoffier. 

An invitation to a green peaceful change

A free version of Eascape is being launched right now on Oculus. But that is just the beginning. We dream big. We intend to conduct further research on the app, adjust it to particular groups of users and add new healthy environments based on Contemplative Landscapes from all corners of the world. But for now, we just want as many people as possible to try Eascape and be part of our green peaceful change. Our app is not about replacing nature – that’s simply impossible. But when you simply cannot access it, it is as close as it gets to the real experience – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.

 

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Simply Green is Simply not Enough – a Prelude to Mentally Healthy Cities

The fast-paced urbanization and disconnection of people from nature and the current series of lockdowns, contribute to an increasing burden of mental health disease in cities. Researchers have estimated that it is 39% more likely to develop depression when living in urbanized areas as compared to rural regions [source]. Other mental illnesses and neurodegenerative disorders such as anxiety, substance abuse, and dementia are also taking a large toll on the lives of urban dwellers.

The environmental determinants of this phenomenon are most obviously the noise, pollution, and abundance of distracting elements in the space, which keep attention at the mode of alertness. In addition to these factors, there are certain visual constraints and limited contact with nature, which contribute a substantial psychological burden to those living in urbanized spaces.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the specific mechanisms of why this happens and, more importantly, how to design our cities to not only prevent mental illness but also improve our wellbeing. Several research teams around the world, including our scientists and landscape architects at NeuroLandscape, have been investigating the influence of exposure to different living environments on brain activity.

From multiple neuroscience experiments and cross-sectional analyses, it seems that the quantity of green cover in the city is not enough to trigger a beneficial mental health response. The proximity and accessibility of green spaces in relation to residency is a very important start point to mitigate the mental health decline but does not consistently determine better mental health outcomes. Like in many other aspects of life quality outperforms quantity.

In the era of the color green, urban planners, landscape architects and city managers, lend me your ears! —Do not green cities mindlessly.

There are certain types and components of urban green spaces which can reduce stress levels, restore our attention, regulate emotions, bring back positive motivation, and improve cognitive functioning by just passively experiencing them [our library on that topic]. They include open and panoramic landscape compositions, which allow far-away views into the landscape, but also enclosed pocket gardens inviting for calm relaxation and solitary contemplation. The visibility of natural asymmetry, undulating landforms and a diversified skyline also count towards that restorative effect. Among many other salutogenic landscape design strategies, seasonally changing, lush vegetation, and the presence of strong symbolic features, such as water, play an important role too.

In the endeavor to create liveable cities we have been through several stages, starting with the consideration of functionality and logistics, which was followed by improvements to sanitation, safety, equity, greening and sustainability, and finally led up to a focus on the mental health. The research to support this latest stage is ongoing. However, it is becoming clear that mentally healthy cities rely on the quality rather than quantity of green and natural elements.

With that in mind, nature is not to be visited (like visiting a gallery or animal park) but rather, a backdrop to our daily events and activities. For this vision to be feasible and effective, evidence-based landscape design is indispensable.

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Networks of Nature: Integrating Urban Farming in the city Fabric

Our programme Planting Seeds of Empowerment Mental Health and Well-being of the Communities starts this year with a new project created in collaboration with international organisations to emphasise the importance of nature in the mental health and well-being of people residing in heavily urbanised cities.

The project entitled: Networks of Nature Integrating Urban Farming in the city Fabric will introduce and educative platform that will provide knowledge about the importance of individual and community actions in urban farming activities as accelerators for positive environmental change in Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore.

Joining efforts with two partnering organisations Binatani Sejahtera Foundation (Indonesia) and Technical Assistance Movement for People and Environment Inc (TAMPEI Philippines), Networks of Nature will provide a platform for empowerment towards nature actions to enable a shared sense of community and support. Three main educational modules will be developed focusing on: Urban farming, improving mental health through urban farming, and adaptable architecture infrastructures for urban farming. Our combined efforts from Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore will bring different sets of skills and expertise that will also help those engaged in the Networks of Nature to feel supported and connected to a global community.

Networks of Nature Integrating Urban Farming in the city Fabric was selected among the best five projects during the Gobeshona Global Conference in January this year. We will be running this project with the financial support of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCD), Climate Justice Resilience Funds, and Gobeshona Global conference.

BBC Worls Service, My perfect City

NeuroLandscape featured in BBC “My Perfect City”

NeuroLandscape featured in BBC "My Perfect City" Series episode which was released on: 30 Dec 2020

New episode of the BBC World Service "My perfect city" features Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo among other experts.  They discuss Singapore as a city which attempts to improve residents' mental wellbeing through urban design.

Generally, people in cities are likely to experience mental health problems.  This counts for about 38% more than people living outside of big cities. Urban greening and creating therapeutic gardens with contemplative features can really help. But also, promoting high amenity public spaces,  physical exercise, housing security and social services are important too! These solutions can make a city more liveable but also reduce rates of disorders such as OCD, anxiety and depression.

But are these community-based, non-medical approaches enough to improve mental health among the population of the highly urbanized Singapore? Let's find out!

 

Listen to the end to find out if Singapore receives 3 ticks -  a perfect city mark.  This means that Singapore should be an example to follow by other cities!

Taking part in the podcast like this one was a great experience. Thanks to endeavours like this one we can share the knowledge from the scientists and inform the public!

Here are some other blog posts related to Singapore:

  1. Singapore Urban Sustainability MND Congress.
  2. IFLA Conference, Singapore
  3. Neuroscience data collection outdoors
  4. NeuroLandscape featured in BBC "My Perfect City"
Conscious Cities Festival

Healthy Cities – Cities for Humans, Conscious Warsaw 2020 (VIDEO)

A speech presented during the "Conscious Warsaw - Sensing our City" webinar organized by the Center for Conscious Design, which took place on October 22, 2020, in Polish (English subtitles available in this video!).

Dr. Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo presented a new concept of designing mentally healthy cities based on contact with salutogenic natural landscapes (Contemplative Landscapes) and introduced the scientific background and activities of her NGO.

The entire webinar is available on https://theccd.org/domain/conscious-warsaw/

Centre for Conscious Design: www.theccd.org

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The New Urban Normal_Dr Diana’s speech at TecNM (Mexico)_VIDEO

24th September 2020.

Tecnológico Nacional de México, campus Costa Grande, hosted an online event addressing the World New Normal in the interdisciplinary lens.

Dr Diana Benjumea gave a speech regarding architecture and urban planning, where she sets a new paradigm of bottom-up, evidence-based urban design. Moreover,  she introduces NeuroLandscape projects and explains the global implications of the emerging shift in thinking and approaching urban space.

The entire speech and Q&A session are available on youtube! English subtitles coming soon!

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Virtual Healthy Environments: Feasibility Study in Societies Affected by COVID-19 Summary of Results

Between 19 April and 12 May 2020, we ran an online survey titled "VHE for Well-Being".  Our goal was to better understand people's psychological needs, especially the relationship between Covid-19 confinement and mental health. We also aimed to test feasibility and demand for Virtual Healthy Environments (VHE) - our solution for health and well-being. To do this, we developed a questionnaire in five languages: English, Polish, Italian, Spanish and French and shared it through our website and social media (see the call for responses here). Please check out the summary of our work below! A special thank you to all participants who helped us discover these important trends!

Sample Characteristics

We collected 507 (318 female) responses from nearly every continent, but mainly from Europe. Most were from Poland, Spain and Italy, primarily representing two different socio-geographic zones: South-European (Mediterranean) and Central European regions. There were also contributions from France and the UK to help understand Western European trends. 

The respondents were between 19 and 90 years old, with most between 24 and 41 years old (n=294). There were 23 elderly respondents (>65 years old). The largest portion of our respondents was from high-density cities (33%) or large or medium-sized cities (25%). 12% reported living in the suburbs of big cities. This means the majority of respondents (70%) were from the urban population.

Summary of Main Findings

We ran our analysis based on two groups of psychological issues:

1. General mental health & well-being: comprised of the feelings of loneliness, helplessness, isolation, restlessness, sadness or depression, anxiety, worry and uncertainty about the future, higher irritability, and insomnia.

2. Productivity & cognitive performance: comprised of the feeling of boredom, problems with memory, and decreased motivation, productivity and concentration.

    • Men reported less general mental health issues than women, but stronger productivity/cognitive issues. It looks like women cope better with cognitive performance but are worse with general mental health issues than men. However, it is also possible that women were more willing to report these mental health issues as other research suggests.
    • A large majority (85%) of respondents missed meeting with friends and family the most during confinement (Figure 8). Travelling and contact with nature were the second most missed activities with 59% and 58% of people affected, respectively. Over half (53%) of respondents missed events and socialising, 36% missed going to work and/or school and 37% practising sport.

 

  • Percentage of respondents listing each activity in response to the question: "What did you miss the most in the period of confinement?", broken down by gender.

Did people miss nature?

    • In our survey, 58% of people reported missing contact with nature during the confinement period. Interestingly, this was an activity missed equally by men and women; people of all ages, across all income brackets, and levels of education.
    • People living in big cities missed contact with nature significantly more than others (strong link found between city size and missing nature during confinement).
    • Also, self-employed individuals and homemakers reported missing nature significantly more than others.
  • person experiencing the healing benefits of being in nature
    Lack of time in nature was a significant factor during Covid-19 confinement and mental health was negatively affected as a result
  • Other research shows that people are poor at explicitly seeing the positive health effect of nature: it is good for them, but they are not always aware of it. This makes it challenging to capture these effects in self-reported surveys.  This highlights the need for providing education about and evidence for the benefits of exposure to nature on mental health and well-being.

 

Can Virtual Healthy Environments be a Solution?

At NeuroLandscape we are developing a self-care tool based on Virtual Reality (VR) technology and exposure to nature (read more about the project). It is a solution for all those who cannot access healing natural environments as often as they would like to in order to keep their mind healthy. We addressed some survey questions to test the feasibility of our solution. This will be useful to support our research grant applications. Below are some interesting findings we hope will convince the grantors.

  • The vast majority (79%) of respondents declared being interested in VR technology. VR use at home and during potential future confinement periods was the preferred situation.
  • People who declared missing travelling were more likely to try Virtual Healthy Environments.
  • Women, in general, reported greater interest in using VR for contact with nature and self-care activities than men (32% vs. 17% for contact with nature), while men preferred VR for games and movies.
"For what activities would you use VR technology?" - Percentage of individuals who listed each activity, broken down by gender.

 

Other interesting findings

Overall, people reported a decline in mental health and wellbeing due to confinement. However, the effect was not incremental over time (more time confined did not correlate with worse mental health and wellbeing). Our respondents missed meeting friends and family the most, followed by travelling, socializing, and contact with nature. The least missed activity was shopping. Nature was missed more by urban than rural dwellers, but it was equally missed by men and women, people of all ages, across all income brackets, and levels of education. Interestingly,  people who missed going to work or school reported worsened productivity and cognitive performance as a consequence of confinement.

Conclusions

This survey has more clearly defined the relationship between Covid-19 confinement and mental health. Respondents were not only able to self-report the effects on their mood, but also shared the degree to which specific activities were missed. These findings were useful in evaluating the potential of the VHE app in helping to mitigate the negative effects of adverse stressful circumstances (such as the confinement period). They show it could be effective to provide a digital tool based on VR for improving mental health.

We would like to thank all participants of the survey!

Survey and Report Authors : Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, Dr Nicolas Escoffier, Dr Weronika Gąsior, Agnieszka Chadała. Full text of the report available through info@neurolandscape.org

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Landscape & Brain – neuroscience data collection outdoors (VIDEO)

Brain scans outdoors: how to collect reliable EEG and FNIRS data in-situ?

Rigorous neuroscience research would question collecting the neuroscience data outdoors, due to too many confounding factors occurring and researchers not being able to control them all. In the sensory exposure research, each participant has to be exposed to the same set of stimuli, which is very difficult if not impossible in an outdoor setting.  For example, small environmental nuances such as certain type of cloud covering the sun would change the amount of light reaching the eye of the participant , which can dramatically change the alpha power produced by the brain.

For this sake we should collect the exposure data in a controlled-lab environment, controlling for each factor such as brightness, temperature, etc. Also, we should use the same set of stimuli, that can be recorded in a form of photo, video or more immersive - VR.

However, environmental researchers, landscape architects and ecologists will all agree that the exposure to nature in the lab has nothing to do with the one outdoors in a real setting. Lab-based experiment lacks the so-called "ecological validity" - meaning it cannot be fully compared with the real experience. As it is essential to advance the knowledge in the area of real exposure to nature as opposed to natural images, we took a challenge to collect a reliable data outdoors, while controlling for most important environmental factors (temperature, humidity, brightness and noise), and making sure for each participant the experience is as similar as possible.

We recorded the video of in-situ data collection from the "Effects of Landscapes on the Brain" project in Singapore, where we show how the EEG and fNIRS data can be collected outside. We have published the preliminary findings from that research in a journal.

Let us know if you have comments or questions about that procedure, also share and support pushing this discipline forward!