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Stress test: An interview with Araceli Camargo

Araceli Camargo

Poorly planned environments pose serious risk to physical and mental health, says cognitive neuroscientist Araceli Camargo – and, as she tells Catherine Early, she has the evidence to prove it

“If you’re walking around an area with high levels of air and noise pollution your body will start to respond, your stress response will start to engage. If we constantly engage the stress response, it begins a process called allostatic overload. The body starts to experience chronic stress, and can’t regulate itself. And that opens people up to higher risk of mental and physical illnesses such as depression, anxiety, diabetes and obesity.”

Araceli Camargo and I are talking in the reading room of London’s Wellcome Collection, a library and museum with a calling to challenge “how we all think and feel about health”. The venue’s mission might well reflect Camargo’s. A cognitive neuroscientist, she is co-founder of Centric Lab, which aims to bring neuroscience out of the lab and into the public sphere. Working with fellow neuroscientists at University College London, Camargo has developed a new framework to use neuroscience in the urban realm in order to improve people’s health.

“One of the trends we see coming up is for urban regeneration to come together with health”

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with other parts of the body. As Camargo explains, it encompasses physics and computation, as well as biology, microbiology and chemistry. One of the discipline’s main purposes is to understand how our biological system interacts with the external world. The body’s response to stress sits at the crux of this interaction, and her work investigates how the built environment puts both mental and physical health at risk.

Camargo’s work is building an evidence base that could help urban regeneration professionals understand the impacts of urban planning on health. By studying people and their response to their environments, her work could provide a scientific basis for arguments in favour of ‘sustainable’ developments favoured by many planners and health professionals – those, for example, that are car-free and have accessible green space and well-ventilated homes.

Crucially, Centric Lab has identified that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are rising among urban populations, particularly in deprived inner cities (PTSD in urban environments, below). Environmental pollutants are not the sole determinant of mental health, of course. “but the built environment is where we live and do things, so it plays a crucial role and we have to understand what that is.”

Curriculum Vitae: Araceli Camargo

Place of birth: Turtle Island / Indigenous American Descent

Education:  BA Liberal Arts, Florida State University 2001; MA English, King’s College London 2004; MSc Cognitive Neuroscience. King’s College London 2014

2001-2008: Production manager for live productions (theatre, dance, fashion) 2009-2019 Founds and runs co-working space dedicated to design, science, and technology.

2012-present: Founder of Neuroscience London meetup

2016: Co-produces Conscious Cities conference, bringing together neuroscientists, developers, and architects to discuss neuroscience in the built environment.

2017-present: Co-founds Centric Lab

2018: Publishes Neuroscience for Cities for Future Cities Catapult alongside Professor Hugo Spiers and Josh Artus

2019: Develops software to qualify the biological risk of an urban area.

Biological inequality

Pollution from noise, heat, air and light are all more prevalent in London’s poorer areas, Centric Lab’s work has found. “Living in an environment where a person feels helpless and inferior by comparative standards can be a form of trauma. This opens up the pathway to developing PTSD,” its research states. Camargo’s team has coined the term “biological inequality” to describe the unequal distribution of health-threatening pollution levels within the built environment.

Such stress will be exacerbated by climate change, the research argues, and the capital is unprepared for increased air pollution, flooding, and dangerous levels of heat. Camargo’s team has created a ‘Stress Risk Score’ (SRS) software tool that combines neuroscience with urban data to help built environment professionals diagnose an area’s biological stress risk (Measuring stress, below).

One of its highest SRS scores to date is for Somers Town, a neighbourhood of around 7,000 people between St Pancras and Euston train stations. This, the tool found, is a cocktail of environmental stresses, its traffic-generated air pollution exacerbated by pollutants from the railway stations and construction in the area that has been ubiquitous for 15 years. Limited green space – two small parks – increases heat stress.

With deep irony, Somers Town contains both a community that lives in biological inequality and the Frances Crick Institute, a biomedical research institute. “They are hiring the best of the best in neuroscientific research, and yet they’ve put them in an area with high pollutants,” Camargo observes, wryly.

She anticipates that the SRS tool will enable users (health bodies, transport bodies, private developers and local authorities) to understand what type of health problems face communities and to tailor their response accordingly. It could be particularly pertinent to regeneration schemes, argues Camargo. “One of the trends we see coming up is for urban regeneration to come together with health to ensure communities have good health and well-being.”

Good planning, bad planning

Both chapter eight of the National Planning Policy Framework and the draft London Plan direct those working in the built environment to improve public health. This, Camargo stresses, will be of more importance as climate change escalates. “What does Somers Town, already under high stress, look like under a week of 35 degree temperatures? Chance of death increases when air pollution collides with heat waves – biological systems are low in reserves from the heat, and then you add air pollution on top of that.”

The trend to increase housing density has increased toxin levels, she notes. Examples of bad development include schools next to roads and high-rise buildings with a lot of glass. “We have to stop doing that because people are getting really sick,” she urges. Instead, green spaces need to be prioritised to compensate for urban heat stress.

“The built environment is where we live and do things, so it plays a crucial role and we have to understand what that is”

Good planning is the solution, says Camargo, citing how the pedestrianised side of regenerated Kings Cross scored significantly better on the stress test than the side adjacent to Marylebone Road.

“What everybody in industry learned from that development is that it [a pedestrianised environment] can be incredibly lucrative,” she says. Air pollution is not just related to volume of cars, however, but details of urban design. If pedestrian crossings are badly placed, for example, walkers will cut between traffic, which then stagnates when drivers apply their brakes, she says. Such details add up – for better or worse.

PTSD in urban environments

Centric Lab extracted data from the government’s index of multiple deprivation (IMD) for 2000-2015 for Greater London. This was layered with mental health trends from the NHS Atlas of Variation report to give a picture of how poverty and mental health interact.

A strong correlation was found between IMD scores in 2015 and mental health rates for 2014. PTSD data from the NHS was also compared with IMD data, revealing a strong association. Rates of PTSD rise from around 1.5 per cent in the least, to five per cent in the most impoverished areas. Rates of PTSD in homeless people were found to be 14 per cent.

“Poorly developed urban environments are making people very sick,” says Camargo, “and this requires urgent care, especially as climate change threatens these areas further.”

Environmental influence

Born of Indigenous American descent in ‘Turtle Island’ (the Indigenous American name for North America), Camargo was raised in Florida. It was here, where 54 per cent of land is owned by the National Park Service, development is governed by strict rules about green space and climate change is having a dramatic effect on weather, that her interest in the environment took hold.

Her father’s work as an industrial engineer in the hotel sector made Camargo aware of the commercial benefits of developing environmentally-friendly buildings. She learned that simple changes can have an impact – for example, reducing the number of towels used by guests reduced the risk of run-off from laundry systems into the Everglades National Park, and also saved money from water and detergent use.

Studying and working in England, she made the leap to neuroscience via a fascination with the influence of environment on the human mind and body. She became interested in whether that interaction was behind spikes in cancers and neuro-development issues. “Then it was a matter of figuring out where the application of the science was going to be most suited.”

Preventative health is little discussed and poorly funded yet approaching health through the built environment has great potential, not least because the more we know about the health risks associated with developments in certain environments, the less profitable they will become.

Camargo cites the example of ‘luxury’ flats in traffic-clogged Pentonville Road. “How are you going to say that those developments are luxury when people walking out of their door can’t even breathe? They are not even remotely sustainable.”

Climate change adaptation requires conversation between built environment and health practitioners. “We are seeing the NHS start to recommend people leave the city and go into the countryside as part of their therapy, which to me signals that the city is not supporting people. And it just doesn’t need to be that way, it really doesn’t.

“We’re at an amazing apex of science coming together with technology and design – every single problem I have stipulated is 100 per cent solvable.”

Measuring stress

The Stress Risk Score (SRS) software provides a score between zero to one for each of air, light, noise and heat pollution in a specified location. It draws its data from open data sets such as the London Atmospheric Emissions summary for air pollution, and Defra’s data for noise pollution.

The results were compared with data from the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation and NHS data. This comparison concluded that the SRS score is a valid proxy for investigating mental health rates linked to environmental stressors.

In fact, Centric Lab argues that the SRS score is a better system for assessing mental health than the IMD. This is likely because the SRS is based on data of pollutant levels that impact the stress response, rather than levels of deprivation of the built environment. 

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental issues

Photography | Peter Searle