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The arts, health, and why place matters

My life (like my website) is bifurcated into ‘health’ and ‘singing’, with today a rare occasion for the two to come together: an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing roundtable on ‘place, environment and community’.

Comment of the day, which I hadn’t thought about in quite this way before, came from the chair, architect Sunand Prasad: it is because of the development of good medicine that the importance of the environment/beauty in aiding recovery from sickness has been almost completely eclipsed (and I was reminded of Keats’ regrettably un-efficacious trip to Rome). Ten invited speakers then gave evidence, with us observers sitting at the side:

  • the importance of ‘heritage’ in reinforcing identity and a sense of place – with one calculation estimating (bafflingly precisely) that the value to wellbeing of being a ‘regular heritage goer’ is £1,646 per year;

  • the role of good building design – including wayfinding within hospitals;

  • questioning whether we have enough good, long-term, scientific evidence of the impact of artistic interventions on wellbeing – and how do we improve and use our evidence-building?;

  • an example of a GP surgery in Kentish Town being used as an arts space (including the strong message that this requires ‘active curation’ for its success – it won’t just happen!); and

  • the links between inequalities in the local environment and health outcomes – with some frustration that Sir Michael Marmot’s ground-breaking work on inequalities does not cover the role of the arts in bridging this gap (all credit to the APPG for bringing this aspect more on to the agenda).

And now, in true blogger style (and thoroughly unscientifically), three examples of my own to bolster a couple of under-served aspects of the discussion.

First, going beyond buildings to the role of the local neighbourhood. I live in a corner of south-east London that for the past two years has hosted the extremely successful Brockley Street Art festival in summer (see photo, by @BrockStreetArt – and more pictures here). The effect has been dramatically to brighten up some hitherto unloved corners of the area – and it makes us all smile.

Next, going beyond architecture and the visual arts to the role of music.* There is good evidence that music can be enormously therapeutic for myriad health issues – including people in hospital. This is something I’ve experienced when singing on wards at Christmas – it would be hard ever to forget the sight of a tiny child, rapt at ‘Away in a manger’, held in the arms of her weeping father.

Finally, rather than the arts’ role in health-care, their role in wellbeing. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, a singing lesson is the very last thing I want. But after an hour of taking the time to breathe, to relax, to do something in which the ratio of effort required by body/mind is so radically different from my sedentary working life, and singing beautiful music, my mood invariably improves. All the more so as my lessons are - remarkably, for London - just a five-minute walk from my house. Brockley is nothing if not an extremely musical neighbourhood!

(Thanks to Marc Sansom of SALUS Global Knowledge Exchange and Alexandra Coulter of Arts and Health South-West for the heads-up about, and invitation to, the roundtable.)

* Music was raised only briefly – within the context of creating safe, known spaces within which a specific community (in the given example, Somali women) can meet. It was also mentioned in a question from the chief executive of Music in Hospitals, Steve Rowland-Jones, but this was at the end of the discussion and went largely unanswered.

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