Robin Mazumder estimates that he spends, “80-to-90-percent,” of his time on Twitter.
Exaggeration or not, the Canadian urbanist is indeed a prolific tweeter, and the site served as the starting point for what would become a 1,500-person impromptu snowball fight in Edmonton in 2014. To this day, he still gets messages about it.
“We thought maybe we’d get like 50 people,” he said.
That crowd-sourced winter spectacle was one of several topics Mazumder discussed Monday night at the Queen Anne Community Center, during a forum hosted by Queen Anne Greenways.
The hour-long conversation with the Vanier Scholar and co-chair of The Council for Canadian Urbanism’s Committee for Young Urbanists — moderated by Mark Ostrow — focused on design thinking and the city, and what role design plays in the health and well being of the public.
Mazumder also discussed his path to urbanism, stemming partially from his time as an occupational therapist in mental health.
“I think it was working with really vulnerable, afflicted people, and seeing how they experienced a city, and how that made them feel, and it made me angry.”
The other piece that drew him to the field, he said, was projects like the aforementioned snowball fight — which he called, “an experiment in using really simple methods to create a community,” — and an effort to install light therapy lamps at a public space in Edmonton.
“Seemingly simple, silly things like that had an impact on my city,” he said.
Hit hard by his first winter in North America’s northernmost city with a population greater than one million, Mazumder learned that he may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder. As he searched for a light therapy lamp for himself, he realized that others dealing with the same problem might not have the same access to one, with an effective lamp a several-hundred dollar investment. With the help of a $1,000 microgrant, he purchased three lamps to put in the downtown branch of the Edmonton Public Library.
And while he didn’t think much of the project at the time, it proved to have a positive impact in the community.
“We had one fellow whose psychiatrist prescribed the library to him,” he said. “… He would spend his winters in his basement, not going out, and when his psychiatrist prescribed the library, he not only got access to these lamps, he had access to people.”
Now, at least 30 libraries across North America have adopted similar efforts.
He went on to call libraries, “the most important urban places in our communities,” as places that give people access to the things they need.
“They’re more than warehouses for books,” he said. “They’re places where people connect.”
Mazumder also discussed some of his current research as a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. One recent study involved the use of virtual reality and wearable technology to measure the effect of tall buildings on a person’s stress levels. While he cautioned that he couldn’t say whether their findings were meaningful enough to enact change, they did find statistically significant results that skyscrapers did impact their subjects’ physiological responses.
“We’re interested for the most part in stress or stress restoration, and how design elements of the city can really impact people,” he said.
When asked about the future of urbanism, Mazumder said the field will be more inclusive in all facets, whether its discipline, gender, race, or ability, “because I think it’s going to be necessary.”
“If we want cities to work for everyone, then they’re going to have to be at some level or some point in the process designed by everyone,” he said.
On a bureaucratic level, that means hiring people from diverse backgrounds to inform the process, noting for instance how elements that women want or need in a project aren’t there when the process includes only men.
“We tend to build things that meet our needs,” he said.
But on a smaller scale, he also emphasized the difference people can make with small changes in their communities. He cited recent research conducted in Vancouver on how simple design interventions impacted moods, comparing how people responded to changes like a rainbow intersection versus a normal one, or an alleyway with benches and little free libraries, to a blank, concrete one the next street over. Ultimately, they found that the locations with the added public features were the ones that had a positive impact on participants.
“We want cities to see starting these place making programs, or helping citizens shape their own communities has a tangible impact on their well-being,” he said.
For more information on Queen Anne Greenways, follow the group on Twitter at www.twitter.com/QAGreenways or like them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/QueenAnneGreenways. To learn more about Mazumder, visit www.robinmazumder.com.