2023 Mary Kolb Berglund Traveling Fellowship

Arianna Schall, RA, LEED AP BD+C, Well AP

Covid! I am sure we are all very tired of even thinking about that nasty infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus. Especially, when it upended every part of most people’s lives. Arianna was no different, having recently moved to downtown Dallas and trapped within the confines of her studio apartment; a lovely 540-square feet, chained to her computer laptop and Amazon pop-up desk. “Just two more weeks,” she would think … .every two weeks for about a year before rotation work-from-home became some version of “normal” back in the office.

Prior to Covid, Arianna lived out near north Texas, an open-ended environment, surrounded by wildlife, fresh air, and lots of running space. People didn’t have all the anxiety and depression Covid brought, or that weird leg-shaking-nervous thing Arianna has now picked up – a new symptom of the environment she was learning to live with. “We all are just nervous right now,” she would say over virtual happy hours that seemed to become poor excuses for therapy sessions. Every one of Arianna’s friends and colleagues who could, left the city. People were actively fleeing Downtown.

Arm pain and weight gain expressed themselves gradually, and would lead Arianna to the closest natural environment to her – the Katy Trail – where for just 15 minutes a day, she would ride her bike from one end of the apartment complex to the Katy Trail ice house. Whoo! Arianna had fallen out of shape! Yet, the pump of her heart and a light bit of exercise released many of the much-needed hormones and endorphins she craved to get through the day. This, along with unplugging the phone after 7 pm, became a pattern of practice, and eventually she would ask, “Why isn’t Dallas set up in a way to inspire health and well-being for people actually living in the city?”

Today, Arianna is an architect focusing on both the renovation market and building a business with her partner Stephané Boston from Bishop & Ivy Design Studio. Arianna desired to take a trip to Copenhagen, known as one of the happiest cities in the world, to uncover how a city can help facilitate healthier bodies, higher life expectancy, and more positive mental health.

Why Copenhagen?

Although regional Census data claims 8.1 million people now call North Texas home, they aren’t moving to Dallas. In fact, Dallas County’s growth hasn’t been in the black since 2017 and most of that growth has happened in births, not domestic migration. More people in 2023 moved away from Dallas than moved here. This opens up the question: why? According to Matt Goodman, from D Magazine, we don’t exactly know why people are leaving Dallas County, but I have a thought; perhaps Dallas doesn’t provide beyond the basic human needs of housing, food, and clothing – and honestly, it doesn’t even provide that in most areas. I wanted to see where in the world people are thriving in cities and discover why. Since the creation of the World Happiness Report, in 2012, Copenhagen has ranked high on the world’s healthiest and happiest cities, with obesity, depression, and heart-related health risks on the downhill tread. There my travels would begin, to study the city of Copenhagen along with a brief stint in Bergen to discover how early Viking and indigenous peoples cultivated architecture early on in the mountains.

As a young architect, who moved to Downtown Dallas in 2018 and lived through the pandemic in a studio apartment, I want to help build up a better Dallas. The wonderful news is, there are other cities already testing initiatives as a case study with quantitative solutions. That is where my journey begins.

COPENHAGEN AND ITS ACTIVE CITY INITIATIVES

When starting this journey back in 2022, The American Institute of Stress and American Psychological Association (APA) had determined that American stress had dramatically grown. The results for 2023 are in, showing a stark picture of what psychological toll has been inflicted over the last few years and the aftermath of what might be called a “collective trauma.” The report emphasized an increase in health conditions and mental health diagnoses, with adults aged 35-44 experiencing the greatest growth in negative side effects. Many of these diagnoses align with stresses due to financial and economic uncertainty, downplaying treatments, and difficulty managing the stress. There is a growing need for positive outlets and architecture can greatly benefit individuals and communities by integrating meaningful built-environment into the daily nature of the user. Architecture can promote well-being and societal change, but we, as the designers, need to provide those outlets for the convenience of people – it should be natural. As mentioned, Copenhagen is a case study with now time-tested results.

Street Environment and Family First Design

Another aspect of the built environment that I found interesting was the natural and child-friendly nature. No matter where or what time I walked around the city, there were families and children. It was a stark contrast to downtown Dallas, where children have virtually disappeared from public spaces. In comparison to our grandparents’ generation, where 71% regularly played outside their own homes, only 27% of children (at least in the UK) regularly play outside. There is a disconnection in spaces where public spaces for children are limited to getting from one secure point to another like a school or park. Their territory is limited to standardized zones complete with schedules, rules, and helicopter parents. Why isn’t the city designed for recreational movement for all ages?

Stephané, Fanny, and I embarked on the Aware – Architecture and Senses Danish Architecture Center exhibition, where all ages were present. Aware asks you to consider: what emotional effect does architecture have on you and your everyday quality of life? It was delightful to watch families at play with the interactive museum, but this installation presented fundamental concepts of space, relations, atmosphere, and human emotions. As an architect myself, I must remember that I can create impactful experiences – as architecture is nearly completely immersive. I hope that with my partner, Stephané Boston, and with Bishop & Ivy Design Studio, we can create positive experiences in design.

Denmark has been ranked #1 as the best country to raise kids while the U.S. is not near the top 10. Now these statistics come with many economic and social permissions like extended paid leave and highly subsidized childcare. We will focus however on the built environment. In Copenhagen, there is an official policy stating that all citizens must be able to reach a park or beach/ greenspace within a 15-minute walk. That resulted in over 125 public playgrounds that do not look like traditional American playgrounds with hardscapes and prison- like fences. No, these spaces include areas like the Tivoli Gardens, Kings Garden, and the middle of Havnegade where there are series of trampolines built into the sidewalks for play on the go for all ages. Basketball and soccer courts are integrated into the streetscape and are made a priority over car transportation. The city has made intentional decisions with families in mind – something that we as designers must engage in going forward on the city planning front.

LIGHT AND WATER

Another stark contrast to my city experiences was the abundance of natural light, space around buildings, and their shorter structures. Copenhagen’s population is small in comparison to Dallas (644K vs 1.3 million, respectively), but Copenhagen’s population is growing as people flock to what is considered for many as an ideal city. In 2008, daylight had its own chapter in the Danish Building regulation that was only in the overall context of indoor climate and those city codes have been adapted to maximize space between buildings and ensure minimum light requirements within the buildings and surrounding areas for user experience. The result was a feeling of openness to the city, multi-layered streetscapes, and fresh, green areas capable of living due to natural light access. Sunlight has direct links to increased vitamin D, improved mood, better sleep, and lower blood pressure – all items much needed to improve mental health among an ever anxious city environment. For more information on the history of lighting code in Denmark please see: Daylight Conditions in housing – its role and priority in Danish building regulations by Nanet Mathiasen, Anne Frandsen, and Louise Gronlund, published 19 March 2022.

Poverty

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of walking in Copenhagen was what we didn’t see – homeless encampments. Apparently, poverty rates in Denmark are low, recorded at .4% in 2020. Dallas is currently at 14.3%. There are active attempts at social housing in Copenhagen to include Nordvest District and the Superkilen along with aggressive public health programs paid through taxes. Access to these services are for all and not limited to a benchmark number. Of course, there is poverty like all places, but it appears that people struggling are given chances to remain housed. But this is all paid for by high taxes, right?

For comparison, Denmark pays 35.5% as an average tax rate but you receive free healthcare that is untethered to employment and fully funded school from pre-K to university. In contrast, Americans pay up to 30.5% in taxes and don’t receive these services. Copenhagen is more expensive upfront, being the ninth most expensive city in the world (Dallas is at 53) but continues to be voted in the top five happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report (the U.S. is the top 15).

There is no “right” answer to many of the social issues we face as a community, but it wasn’t hard to tell that with just 5% more taxes, the Danes appear to be using it more efficiently to better people directly. Imagine what Dallas could do if it readjusted the money, it was already given in taxes to more directly create positive change on the ground level for every user. People seemed to all “belong,” and along with the multitude of families, bikes, and pedestrians, the city felt safe.

My final day was a walk and rail through Bergen and the neighboring mountain, Floyen. I visited the Hanseatic wharf, Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, and ate a reindeer hotdog while experiencing the Vagen inner harbor and fish market. Later in the day, the weather became rainy, and we took the Funicular rail up to Mount Floyen to drink hot beverages and visit Lake Skomakerdiket. When the weather turned bad, I got to experience a piece of hygge – the entire team of visitors all coving up into the one cafe – experiencing a moment with each other – sheltered, warm, and paused.

 

In Conclusion:

Anxiety and growing mental discomfort are never going to go away completely, but we as individuals and designers can make impactful differences, mostly by just taking notice of what others are already doing and being successful at. As architects, we don’t have to blindly continue the cycle of unsustainable construction, lackluster buildings, and car-forward built environments. We can actively choose to look at master planning that includes all people, economic classes, and encourage healthy human conditions. As an individual, I can take a moment to pause, prioritize family and friends, and just turn off the phones and other devices. During the fellowship, I had the opportunity to see real working conditions of a city actively taking on the modern stressors by embracing a slower, less consumerism culture. Taking my business partner and close friend, has allowed us to align on what we could ideally do working as a small, women-owned business in Dallas. I am very grateful for being awarded the 2023-2024 Mary Kolb Berglund Traveling Fellowship. It has allowed me to experience the architecture as it is meant to be – in person, together.

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