Posts Tagged ‘Visual Literacy’

Could art classes for the masses lower our health care costs?

Few people give much thought to the psychological effect of places they frequent outside their homes. While they may have a vague sense that spending too much time inside a concrete box next to a big parking lot is bad for their state of mind, most folks turn a blind eye to bland or hostile surroundings. Meanwhile, such blocking efforts tax the brain.

Instead of ignoring these settings, more citizens can become aware of the impact of the built environment on their physical and mental health. They can take part in creating places worth caring about, in the words of author and critic James H. Kunstler.

A first step in creating places worth caring about is to encourage more people to develop the critical eye of an artist. For anyone who believes that only a few individuals can enjoy the benefits of an artist’s visual awareness, I recommend reading or seeing The Pitmen Painters. This play, which recently completed a successful run on Broadway, is about the transformational power of art lessons within a Northumbrian coal mining community during the thirties and forties. Playwright Lee Hall was inspired by William Feaver’s book about weekly art classes that became the celebrated Ashington Group.

A particularly astute observation appeared in The New York Times review of the play: “Its lesson is that in looking at art and articulating our responses, we find essential parts of ourselves that enable us to lead happier, fuller lives and, yes, probably be better citizens. That is something that no nation can afford to ignore.”

As a society, we know a lot about what causes disease, but what are the causes of health?  When more members of the public can consciously see things that enhance or erode their well being, maybe we will see a dramatic drop in preventable dis-ease.

– Sharon VanderKaay

aerial suburbs alienation

The suburbs are crying out for love and attention. Fifty years of car-centric design intended to be driven past as quickly as possible has taken a visible toll. Scarcity of interesting, safe places for walking, bicycling and social activities is increasingly seen as a root cause for escalating chronic diseases and mental health concerns.

Meanwhile, changing demographics and focus on resource conservation are stimulating a growing demand for suburban revitalization. In other words, the time has come to re-imagine unhealthy, underperforming acres of asphalt, retail and office parks as sustainable, diverse, walkable communities.

More than eighty examples of imaginative suburban transformations are presented in Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. Their case studies include the site of a former 100-acre mall in Lakewood, Colorado that has been redeveloped over a ten-year period into twenty-three walkable urban blocks, publicly owned streets and LEED-certified buildings. This successful venture has inspired eight of thirteen area malls to move forward with plans for applying urban design principles to their suburban settings.

However, Dunham-Jones reminds us that technical specifications for walkable communities are not enough. Design quality must also be seen as  a vital ingredient of healthy places.

As we reflect on historic failures of infamous urban renewal projects we are reminded that walk-able planning does not guarantee walk-motivating reality. Boring, nature-free streetscapes will lead to bad investments in suburban renewal.

Through our work with clients and the public we’ve developed five diagnostic questions – known as Vital Signs – to help people understand some of the most basic elements of design quality. We created these plain-language (non-academic/ architect lingo) questions so that citizens can look at their built environment with a critical eye, rather than settle for a monotonous “walkable” scheme:

1.  Nature: Does the design make connections with the natural world?

2.  Authenticity: Does the design convey locally-inspired character?

3.  Variety: Does the design provide visual interest and support diverse activities?

4.  Vitality: Does the design convey energy and stimulate social interaction?

5.  Legacy: Are we creating a design that is beyond “sustainable” in terms of advancing long-term health and prosperity?

NOTE: There will be a Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs conference in Toronto Dec 9 & 10.




  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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