An art installation in Derry/Londonderry will double as a suicide prevention tactic

The Peace Bridge over the river Foyle, Derry/Londonderry, 2013. Image: Getty.

Since the Good Friday Peace Agreement, more people have died from suicide in Northern Ireland than were killed during the troubles, leaving the province with the highest suicide rate in the UK. This is a particular issue for the city of Derry/Londonderry which has the highest suicide rate in Northern Ireland

Since 2016, a team of designers from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, working with the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, have been investigating how design approaches might improve mental health in the city. Their focus has been on the River Foyle – a dominant city landmark which has negative connotations for mental health issues in the city.

Historically the river has acted as an unofficial ‘peace’ wall. “It has separated communities,” says local Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCalion. The opening of the Peace Bridge in 2011 connected the divided east and west banks of the city, “but unfortunately there is a reality as well – regrettably a number of people take their own lives in the river.” 

The local phrase ‘ready for the Foyle’ is used in jest at times of stress or hardship. A recent spike in suicidal incidences on the river has contributed to pressure on the city to respond. However, the river also plays a positive role in the city’s history. 


One of the more unusual events to take place at the river has become a departure point for the project. In 1977, at the height of the troubles, an Orca whale – nicknamed locally as Dopey Dick – made its way up the river Foyle in search of salmon. For several days the whale became a point of community cohesion – a distraction from the ongoing violence.

The team built a full-size replica whale to float down the river as part of Derry’s yearly Maritime festival and Halloween celebrations. Using the whale as a research base, they asked people about how they would improve the riverfront. 

“The response was amazing,” says project leader Ralf Alwani. “We began to understand how the whale holds such significance, and why it still resonates as a positive memory. We learned that the river plays such a significant role in the local consciousness. So we began to think about how the project could do something similar by reanimating the river in a positive way – creating a sense of festival.”

The team’s first proposal – responding to suicide behaviour along the bridges of the Foyle – is the Foyle Reeds project. Around 12,000 extruded, digitally interactive ‘reeds’ will be installed along the existing barrier of the city’s main river crossing, the Foyle Bridge, in what will become the largest art installation in Northern Ireland. The Reeds will create an architectural barrier that aims to prevent planned suicides. Unlike traditional prevention barriers, which feel imprisoning, the reeds will interact with pedestrians, changing colour as they detect the movement of people. People can also adopt a reed for a small fee, and change their colour for a special occasion.  

The second proposal is Foyle Bubbles, a series of small portable spaces that can be deployed around the riverfront. The ‘Bubbles’ will house community, arts, leisure, and commercial groups. The team hopes that the ‘bubbles’ will incubate entrepreneurial activity and generate festivity in the area. The occupiers of the ‘Bubbles’ will also undergo mental health awareness training, to help them spot those in crisis along the river providing a community response without the clinical stigma.  

This is the first time a project of this kind and scale has been undertaken. If successful it will likely take a generation for negative perceptions of the river to change. Alwani is aware of the project’s limitations: “Art and design are not the silver bullet.” But research carried out by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has shown that mental health can be improved by “changing how a place feels.” 

The centre’s director Dr. Layla McCay says that, “One theory is that installations that evoke nature can make people feel less anxious and reduce suicidal thoughts; another is that investing in places that have meaning to communities can evoke pride in a neighbourhood and can improve feelings of belonging and self-esteem. The Foyle Reeds project has elements of both of these theories.”

Visuals courtesy of Vizrage; photos by Ralf Alwani.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.