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November 30, 2020updated 23 Mar 2023 12:09pm

Public spaces are essential – but not yet equal

Recognising that not everyone experiences public space in the same way, this environmental neuroscientist is working to create more equitable urban environments.

By robin mazumder

Robin Mazumder stands in front of a mural

The research of environmental neuroscientist Robin Mazumder focuses on the psychological impacts of urban design. (Photo by Beth Garant)

Covid-19 has highlighted the connection between urban design and stress, the main physiological variable I study in my work as an environmental neuroscientist. At a fundamental level, this communicable disease has shifted the way we engage with urban environments – places of connection that perhaps once brought us joy may now be seen as places that expose us to the threat of the disease. How, then, can we address this threat? Considering that the threat of spreading or contracting the virus is primarily dependent on proximity to others within indoor spaces, the use of outdoor space, including both private and public, could be seen as a way to mitigate the stress.

It’s with this lens with which I have been viewing the pandemic, and its implications on health and equity.

Environmental neuroscience is a brand-new field and I’m figuring out what that means as I go. My research interest is informed by my clinical experience working as an occupational therapist in community mental health, where I saw first-hand how the built and social environments of the city impacted the well-being of my patients.

My approach to my work is informed by my lived experience. As a racialised person with a disability, my experiences of both marginalisation and privilege elucidated the complexity of the human experience, and how that experience can be shaped by barriers created in our social and physical environments. I bring these experiences to my research in environmental neuroscience, where I examine the psychological impacts of our social and physical environments. On numerous occasions, I’ve experienced racist threats in a park, and other public spaces; these experiences drastically influence how I related to urban environments, and it’s my goal to use the tools of psychology and neuroscience to better understand these impacts.

In the months since Covid emerged, cities have recognised the importance of public space, and have made adaptations to both existing spaces and the built environment to help ensure the physical and mental well-being of residents. The emphasis has been not just on providing more space but also to improve access to it. These various interventions – slow or safe streets, parklets and the like – help manage the perception and experience of the threat of contracting or spreading the virus, while at the same time enabling people to engage in activities that support well-being. Forms of physical exercise, like walking and cycling, are known to have mental and physical benefits; exposure to green space has been found to be associated with a reduction in physiological measures of stress. Access to, and experience of public space, then, can be seen as a reliable and scalable solution to pandemic-related stress.

But it’s important to consider that not everyone experiences public space in the same way, and that the pandemic is not the sole threat there. In the midst of the pandemic, cities around the world have also erupted in protests, highlighting the reality and pervasiveness of anti-Black racism. The pandemic and protests both involve a conversation about public space; while the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of how access to public space can support well-being, the protests demand we ask to whom that public space is open and accessible.

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The intersectional experiences of public space

In 1897, WEB DuBois, a Black sociologist, discussed ‘double consciousness’ as the cognitive burden of being aware of being a Black person in a racist society, while dealing with the typical daily stressors non-Black people deal with. Almost 100 years later, the late Dr Rodney Clark, a Black psychologist, proposed a biopsychosocial model of racism, where he identified how anticipation and experience of racism can cause physiological stress, which is related to chronic health issues. The concept of intersectionality, developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw offers a helpful framework for examining the complexity of the experience of oppression in the urban context, because it acknowledges the multidimensionality of the human experience. Crenshaw highlights the ways in which discrimination associated with aspects of identity, including gender identity, gender, race, class, ability, and sexual orientation, intersect and amplify the experience of marginalisation. Neuroscience may offer a way to quantify these intersectional experiences of public space.

When it comes to the conversation on equity and urban infrastructure, a common point of discussion is on access to urban infrastructure, which is referred to as distributional equity. Building on this concept, we must also ask how the infrastructure accessed is experienced. In his piece on poor and Black cyclists, who he refers to as the “invisible cyclist”, Dr Julian Agyeman makes the incisive statement: “design-related, infrastructural challenges, such as providing more bike lanes, or better still, protected bike lanes – paths separated from both road and sidewalk – are important. But the more  fundamental barriers are political, cultural and economic in nature.” How do we measure the impacts of these barriers?

Building on the work of Dubois, Clark, and Crenshaw, and using my lens as an environmental neuroscientist, I am suggesting we consider an experiential equity. I propose this term to acknowledge the psycho-spatial disparities that exist in the human experience of public space and the associated violence to the body and mind that are caused by these disparities. I am actively working with other scholars, from across disciplines, including Agyeman, Dr Minelle Mahtani, a race geographer who examines race and place, and Dr Lorien Nesbitt, an urban forestry researcher, who has done considerable work on urban equity, particularly green equity, on further expanding this concept. To develop a robust, comprehensive and practical concept, a collaborative approach is necessary and a a diversity of lived experiences, and disciplinary backgrounds is required. Experiential equity should be a transdisciplinary endeavour in the truest sense of the word.

Key to my conceptual framework is its relevance and applicability to actual urban policy, which is why I am honoured to have been recently asked to serve as an adviser on the City of Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw Renewal. The city is completely reformulating its zoning by-laws using an equity lens; zoning has significant impacts on how space is designed, and, consequently, how it is experienced. We need not look further than redlining to acknowledge how these policies create disparities. This work has just begun and I am keen, and hopeful, that it will provide a tangible example of how experiential equity can be used to facilitate societal change, and to help create urban environments that account for and support everyone’s dignity and well-being.

Robin Mazumder is an environmental neuroscientist who researches, writes and speaks about how our social and physical environments influence our brain, body and society.

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