Northern Ireland can be a divided and divisive place. It is also where I am from. Nestled up to the the border, our second largest city is ringed by stone walls and reverberates from a conflict that killed 3,524 people. Inside, the River Foyle flows between two communities. These have different visions for the island of Ireland, and are defined by living memory and ancient history. The very name of the city, Derry/Londonderry, acts as a linguistic signpost to which ‘side of the river’ a speaker identifies with.
There are three ways to get to the other side.Craigavon Bridge, named after the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was completed in 1933. Sit-down protests (against housing discrimination by the government) blocked the bridge shortly before decades of armed violence began. In the middle of the 'Troubles', the Foyle Bridge was completed at Madam's Bank. Three centuries earlier, chains were stretched across the same stretch of water during the Seige of Derry. Finally, the Peace Bridge marked Derry/Londonderry becoming the inaugural UK City of Culture. Fêted as a symbol of a ‘post-conflict city’, the bridge links the (mostly) nationalist Bogside and the (mostly) unionist Waterside neighbourhoods.
Urban density correlates with environmental stressors, such as congestion, pollution and crime. These conditions have been linked to mental health outcomes in. a variety of global cities. However, their ultimate impact is shaped by the socio-cultural context. Suicide kills more people in Derry/Londonderry than anywhere else in the UK. This crisis is rooted in the trauma stemming from recent urban violence, compounded by a lack of economic opportunities - unemployment is twice as common here than in the average UK city.
Deaths have a spatial pattern; a substantial proportion occur after falling from the Foyle Bridge. Suicide in a public space can reinforce negative associations with a location, making it more likely to be the site of further deaths. In a city where community divisions play out through language, there is striking consensus on the connection between the river and suicide. Locals from both sides describe themselves as ‘ready for the Foyle’, to convey stress or sadness. Cognitive lock-in has charged the shared landscape with negative associations, inhibiting the adoption of new visions for the waterfront.
In 2016, Public Health Agency Northern Ireland invited the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design to ideate changes for the waterfront. They used a prominent event in the collective memory of the city to engage the public. In 1977, a disorientated killer whale swam up the River Foyle, and promptly named 'Dopey Dick'. This attracted crowds of onlookers from both communities, in a year where sectarian violence killed over 100 people. For many, this neutral interloper in a natural environment led to their first friendly interaction with the ‘other side’.
Researchers built a transportable public space in the shape of the whale, sparking intergenerational, cross-community conversations. Upon entering the structure, participants discussed the future of the Foyle with researchers. The topic of suicide surfaced frequently, along with positive associations such as the rivers distinctive biodiversity. These conversations informed the design of the ‘Foyle Reeds’, a recreation of native flora spanning the full length of the Foyle Bridge. These hard-to-climb sculptures will be the largest public art installation in Northern Ireland, as well as a suicide prevention barrier. Once the 12,000 illuminated reeds are constructed, the project will allow locals to 'adopt a light' for a small fee, raising distributed, recurring revenue.
Mental health, and its links with the built environment, is an underexplored sustainability challenge. Epidemiological research has found that living in cities is correlated with poor mental health. Causation is unlikely to be unidirectional: people with pre-existing vulnerabilities may gravitate towards urban areas. However, living in a city can entail exposure to stress factors like poverty or traffic noise, while reducing protective factors such as access to nature. Poor mental health comprises 14% of the world’s disease burden. As urbanisation continues, this will become an increasingly pressing issue. Just as planners should consider the physical health of future generations, they must urgently seek to create places conducive to mental wellbeing.
Derry/Londonderry provides promising example of how to proceed. Through inclusive public engagement, the city was able to identify the salient issues it faced. The scope of the subsequent intervention was also determined, in a transparent design process. Having defined the goal of sustainable urban development, the city could then engage private actors to start achieving it. Architectural interventions, based on over 15,000 conversations with locals, aim to mitigate against the most extreme outcomes of poor mental health whilst reshaping the meaning of landscape.
Derry/Londonderry faces unique divisions of geography and language, place and health. However, if a coherent, shared vision can be achieved here, it should offer encouragement to those contesting development trajectories in cities everywhere. Northern Ireland can be a divided place, but it makes the world a more interesting place. Its journey, which began with Dopey Dick's wrong turn up the Foyle, can help make it a healthier one.
Design for Global Challenges and Goals by Routledge (2020)
Expensive textbook, great if you can get free institutional access or borrow from a library. I used the chapter on Mental Health for this article, but the whole thing is worth reading.
Happy City by Charles Montgomery (2015)
You have probably seen this book in an airport. One of the approachable pop-urbanism books, that fits in a lot of inspiring case studies. Good starting point for anything on the link between cities and wellbeing.
Rethinking Sustainable Cities by David Simon (2016)
This is a short edited collection, particularly focused on different forms of density, and their relative merits and drawbacks. Academic, but not tedious.
Geographies of Digital Exclusion by the Oxford Internet Institute (2022)
If you like arguing about maps and place names, you will love this. Recent, rich and engaging scholarship on how we understand the world and our place in it. Plus it is totally free to download.
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