Designing Healthy Communities

A four-hour television series, which will debut at the same time a companion book is made available, takes a close look at how our built environment is affecting our personal health.

A provocative new four-hour series soon to air on public television, Designing Healthy Communities,
examines the impact of our built environment on key public health
indices, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, cancer, and
depression. The series documents the connection between bad community
design and burgeoning health consequences, and discusses the remedies
available to fix what has become an urgent crisis.

Long in the making, the series looks well produced, immensely enlightening and even captivating. The four parts will include:

  • Retrofitting Suburbia, which will address health problems like obesity and diabetes
  • Rebuilding Places of the Heart, on reviving our older downtowns
  • Social Policy in Concrete, addressing the particular risks faced by low-income communities
  • Searching for Shangri-La, exploring whether there are “ideal” healthy communities

A companion book, also called Designing Healthy Communities, is available as well. It comes on the heels of the excellent compendium of essays, Making Healthy Places, co-edited with Andrew Dannenberg and Howard Frumkin, that was published last year. All editors are veterans of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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The Geography of Binge Drinking

Using data released by the Centers for Disease Control, we can see that there is something of a binge drinking belt across the northern half of the country, and that liberal states drink more.

Binge drinking varies from one in ten adults (10.9 percent) at the low end of the spectrum to more than one in four (25.6 percent) at the high end. There is something of a binge drinking belt across the north of the country, running westward from New England, Pennsylvania and Ohio to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana. Alaska ranks high too, suggesting that long, cold winters might play a role, though tropical Hawaii is in the top tier as well.

With the help of my MPI colleague Charlotta Mellander, I took a quick look at some of the economic and demographic factors that might be associated with binge drinking. The correlations that we noticed, of course, do not prove causation, only that an association exists. Several factors do stand out, however.

Binge drinking is more common in liberal states, those voted for Obama in 2008, and it is negatively associated with states that voted for McCain (with correlations of roughly .3 and -.3 respectively). Binge drinking states are also more “extroverted.” The correlation between extroverted personality types (one of the “big five” personality traits identified by psychologists) and binge drinking is .3.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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How Our Brains Navigate the City

To navigate certain parts of New York City — namely Queens and much of Manhattan — all you need to be able to do is count. In Manhattan neighborhoods like the West Village, and most of Brooklyn, things get a good bit trickier. You can no longer depend on the logical numbered progression of streets and avenues, and must instead rely on some other picture inside your head.

For a while now psychologists have debated just what that picture looks like. Some believe we need to orient ourselves by local reference points. Under this theory, we’re lost until we see that certain street or certain landmark, at which point the rest of the grid emerges in our minds. Others argue that experience is our mental cartographer. This idea suggests that if you cruise around the city enough, you develop a spatial memory that helps you find your way no matter which direction you face; at the same time, if this is true, it should become harder to reach a destination that’s farther from your familiar starting point.

A third alternative suggests that our internal GPS system is informed by frequently looking at maps. In other words, the more time we spend finding directions on Google Maps, the more our minds may grow familiar with the officially documented outline of our city, rather than the one created through our own experiences. This idea receives support in a recent study published online late last month, ahead of print, in the journal Psychological Science. A team of psychologists led by Julia Frankenstein of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, found evidence that we’re best oriented when facing north — just like a reliance on maps would suggest.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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The New Science of Collaborative Workspaces

Drawing by Steven Johnson

Rollabout desks and continuous cubicle walls are just a part of the new science of office ergonomics:

Being a part of group is awesome (go team!) but so is individual
effort. The uncritical embrace of collaboration above all else can lead,
as a social scientist at the SPUR panel remarked, to the reverse of
what was intended: group-think, conformity, consensus for the sake of
peace-making. Further, the suburban corporate campus, even when it
attempts, as Facebook and Google are, to approximate urban environment,
can often serve to exacerbate the type of self-reinforcing behaviors
Bill Bishop explored a few years ago in his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.
Forest City’s Alexa Arena, another participant in the SPUR panel, says
that her company’s anthropological research while working on the more
iterative workspace model seen in its 5M Project
revealed that employees working in these environments found that their
best ideas came not while in that bustling, lively office but more
likely when they were in their own neighborhoods hanging out with people
not necessarily in their own line of work, or waiting for lunch at the
Korean taco truck parked in front of the office.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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The Where and Why of Coachella 2012

From which cities do the bands playing the iconic rock festival hail?

Making the bill at Coachella signals a certain level of value to big labels and record industry tastemakers as well as to the wider public. The rapper Azealia Banks rode a wave of Internet buzz to this year’s Coachella stage before she signed to a
major label or even made a full-length record. Being a big act’s protégé can help too. Rumor has it, for example, that Dr. Dre only agreed to
perform when the festival booked his


, Kendrick Lamar.

Coachella thus provides an interesting lens into the evolving geography of popular music, enabling us to map the locations and music scenes where not
just the most established acts, but some of the most intriguing up-and-coming acts hail from.MPI alum Patrick Adler, now a grad student in Urban Planning at UCLA, gathered locational data on the 2012 Coachella acts from multiple
sources, including band websites, MySpace, Sound Cloud, All Music, Pitchfork and music journalism. When possible, he gave priority to
locations entered by the acts themselves. For veteran acts, he used their location when they achieved their greatest popularity. For acts with multiple
locations, he gave fractional points to each location.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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Introducing the Food Hinterlands

“In Portland, and in the West in general, urban poverty is less of a concentrated urban phenomenon and the low income households living with low food access are really spread all over an urban area,” says Leete.

While food deserts may be more of a reality in cities in the Eastern U.S. where poverty is more concentrated, cities in the West have more suburbanized poverty. She argues that these aren’t food deserts, but food hinterlands. The issue, Leete says, is not just areas with few grocery stores, but the scattered low-income people who live too far from grocery stores and have few options to get to them.

“The food desert idea has been bandied about a lot and it’s been popular, but it’s really only a relevant problem to people who don’t have access to cars, and that’s a certain particular subset of the population. It’s not even the poor population, but it might be 25 percent of the poor population,” says Leete. “In some urban areas virtually all or some huge percentage of the poor have access to cars and in some other urban areas very few of them do. So it’s a very context-specific problem.”

And in the context of transportation, residents in food hinterlands are limited. But merely building a grocery store can’t possibly accommodate a fairly large population that’s spread out across the city.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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CityLab Daily: It Happens in Every Kind of Community

What We’re Following

Where do mass shootings take place? While the tragic pattern of who commits mass shootings fits a particular profile, where these attacks occur is less demographically predictable. As CityLab’s Richard Florida and Alastair Boone write, the places that suffer mass shootings run the full gamut of American communities, leaving victims that look a lot more like the country as a whole.

Also: Tanvi Misra takes a comprehensive, state-by-state look at the policies and outcomes of gun control in the United States.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

How to Care for Your Portman Hotel

Architects chime in on how to make the right interventions inside and out of the late developer-architect’s distinct buildings.

Mark Byrnes

A Small Town Kept Walmart Out. Now It Faces Amazon.

How can local businesses compete with a company so local it lets people shop from their couches?

Alana Semuels

New Report Says FEMA Badly Underestimates Flood Risk

41 million Americans—not 13 million—are at risk of experiencing a 100-year flood, according to the study.

Michael Isaac Stein

Brussels Makes an Extreme Plan to Fight Pollution Emergencies

When the air gets bad, transit would be free. When it gets worse, the city would effectively grind to a halt.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Britain Plans a Memorial for Grenfell, a Tragedy That’s Far From Over

Survivors will get a final say over the site’s future. Meanwhile, little has been done to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Feargus O’Sullivan


(Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Yesterday we asked for your thoughts on Barack Obama’s comments about whether his presidential library would cause gentrification on the Southside. Several readers took issue with use of “debacle” in our subject line, and we hear you; “conundrum” would’ve been a better fit. Many others weighed in on Obama’s remarks. Here’s a sample:

Katie H. from Chicago:

WBEZ’s Natalie Moore has done great reporting on the neighborhoods that are and are not gentrifying in Chicago. While gentrification is a huge problem in the city, particularly in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, the West and South sides that are overwhelmingly black have the opposite problem—generations of disinvestment. This is a thorny, complicated issue, and I don’t know what the Obama Foundation will bring for the future, but as far as his analysis on the current state of Chicago… he’s right.


Stephen D. from Middletown, Connecticut:

If a fancy $6 cupcake store brings to the neighborhood people with the expectations of good schools and low crime and the power to demand them, then the “gentrification” represented by the cupcake store has benefited the people of the neighborhood. However, communities need to be vigilant about the trends in the relationship between incomes and rents… The time to write such language is before there is substantial gentrification.


David C. from Houston:

“Gentrification” is a fake meme that acts as a pejorative to keep people at bay, away from a neighborhood that doesn’t want them. If “displacement” is a problem because somebody improved a structure and taxes went up, Obama is absolutely right: address that specific problem with those specific people.


Thanks to all who commented. As always, you can reach us at

What We’re Reading

Let Ben Carson keep his fancy furniture (Slate)

Are American cities making progress on traffic safety? (Streetsblog)

Seattle digitizes its anti-freeway history (Next City)

Microsoft makes an app to help visually impaired people navigate cities (TechCrunch)

For your weekend binge-watching: 101 urbanist movies (Curbed)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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The Ultimate Guide to American Gun Control Laws

Americans are suddenly—and seriously—talking about guns. Since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 were killed, the public conversation about firearm regulations has acquired a new urgency. The teens who survived the tragedy have spearheaded nationwide rallies for more protective gun laws, and they have shown no signs of letting up. Businesses are withdrawing support from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Several retailers are changing their policies on selling weapons to buyers under 21. And President Donald Trump is whipsawing between demanding armed teachers and stricter gun control laws. (And then, according to the NRA, re-reversing himself.)

In many ways, Trump embodies in one person this nation’s intense polarization and deep-seated confusion surrounding firearm regulations. But which position is backed up by the best evidence? What does science say about what laws save lives and what don’t? That’s where the Gun Policy in America project comes in.

Over the last two years, researchers at the RAND Corporation have synthesized all the available research on the effect of various gun laws on a range of outcomes. To that, they’ve added a survey of policy experts both for and against gun control. The results of this self-funded project have been visualized in interactive maps and charts on their website. Think of this as your one-shop-stop to understand what we know about gun policy—and importantly, what we don’t.

There are two big takeaways. One, some gun control policies clearly seem to decrease certain types of violence. Two, while there is more overlap than one would have expected among experts on both sides of the issue, the huge gaps in research make it impossible to reach any kind of consensus.

“We haven’t invested, as a country, as much as we should in building a data infrastructure,” said Andrew R. Morral, the lead researcher on the project. “The second thing is: There’s not very much investment in research to use the data that is available or to collect more data.”

Let’s dive into the first part of the project. Clicking on the little magnifying glass in the “policy analysis” section pulls up the table below, which gives a snapshot of the literature review. In the vertical column on the left are the gun policies the RAND researchers have examined—both restrictive ones such as bans on assault weapons and minimum age requirements, as well as permissive ones such as concealed-carry and “stand your ground” laws. In the first row, you can see the spectrum of outcomes the researchers were interested in. Among the negative ones are mass shootings, suicide, accidental deaths, and violent crime. But they also looked for research on links between these policies and gun sales, incidents of defensive gun use, and hunting and recreation.

The table is populated with the results of the analysis: The darker the purple, the stronger the evidence supporting the effect of a policy on the outcome. The gray cells, on the other hand, show where there’s no research at all. (On the website, you can click through to get a detailed explanation of how the researchers came to these conclusions.) Here, science staunchly backs up the claim that laws that prevent children from getting their hands on guns help reduce unintentional injuries and suicide (deepest purple boxes).

For four outcomes that are central to the gun debate going on in the country—how gun control laws hinder people’s ability to defend themselves, whether they discourage hunting for sport, and whether they increase or decrease the likelihood of mass shootings and officer-involved shootings—the researchers found very little authoritative evidence. (See: the many boxes marked “inconclusive.”) Via the report accompanying the project:

This does not mean that these policies are ineffective; they might well be quite effective. Instead, it partly reflects shortcomings in the contributions that science has made to policy debates. It also partly reflects the policies we chose to investigate, all of which have been implemented in some U.S. states and so have proven to be politically and legally feasible (at least in some jurisdictions).

Here’s another way of visualizing the results, available on the website. Below are seven policies (on the left) that research has found to have substantive effects on at least four outcomes (listed on the right). The brown lines show a positive effect, whereas the green ones indicate a negative effect. The thicker the lines, the stronger the science. Below, you can see moderate evidence that background checks and ownership restrictions for individuals with mental illness decrease suicide and violent crime. In other words, the review demonstrates that some gun control policies, at least, do work.

Given the lack of scientific research regarding many of the policies, the RAND researchers went ahead and surveyed experts and advocates on both sides of the battle. Their sample included those who supported looser restrictions on guns (NRA, Gun Owners of America, etc.) and those who supported tighter laws (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Mayors Against Illegal Guns etc.). On their website, the researchers have put up a nifty interactive map to see the results of the survey.

If you toggle a particular law “on,” you can see what both camps of experts think will happen to a particular outcome if that law is enacted across the country. So let’s say I want to see the effect of a blanket ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunitionsa key demand in the post-Parkland gun conversationon mass shootings. When I select those options, the results show that pro-gun experts believe the policy will produce no change (first map below). The anti-gun experts believe it would lead to a 11 percent decrease in mass shootings, nationwide (second map below).

Similarly, this is what the experts think will happen to firearm homicides if “stand your ground” laws pop up across the country. The first group thinks firearm-related murders will go down 4 percent; the second thinks they’ll go up 2 percent. (A small caveat: If more policies are selected via this tool, more assumptions come into play, and the resulting maps get less reliable.)

Across all outcomes, the researchers found that the disagreements ​weren’t as widespread as they seem. They were particularly stark when it came to three laws in particular: concealed-carry, elimination of gun-free zones, and stand your ground. Four other laws—prohibitions against gun ownership for people with mental illnesses, required reporting of lost and stolen guns, awareness campaigns to prevent children from accessing and misusing guns, and the surrender of firearms by individuals prohibited from owning them—elicited a bit more overlap in opinion.

A key hopeful finding of this survey: The two groups do, in fact, have shared goals. They just disagree on how to achieve them. “We find some pretty good evidence that there’s not a values disagreement here,” Morral said. “It’s not that one side favors community violence reduction and the other side favors Second Amendment rights more. Everyone wanted to reduce homicides, suicides, mass shootings, and accidents—the other things were more secondary. … They appeared to evaluate policies in the same way, but they were working from different assumptions about what the policies could achieve.”

That’s important, because more rigorous research around some of the most contentious gun policies could actually help bridge the gap in opinion, the researchers concluded. But getting that data has long been a challenge, for nakedly political reasons: a 1996 amendment to a spending bill—lobbied for by the NRA—that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using government funds for research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

For more than two decades, that legislation has hindered researchers from treating gun violence as the public health problem that it is. While there are national datasets that contain information about the circumstances of each traffic fatality, no such database exists for gun deaths. (Traffic deaths slightly outnumber gun deaths overall, but are less numerous in 21 states. Along with suicides, injuries, accidents, and defensive shooting, all gun incidents came to over 60,000 in 2017, according to one count.) If decreasing gun violence is indeed a shared value in America, both camps will have to start with the numbers, so that we can build a shared understanding of the scale of the problem.

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Britain Plans a Memorial for Grenfell, a Tragedy That’s Far From Over

Eight months later, it still feels brutally early to be discussing a memorial at London’s Grenfell Tower. Destroyed on June 14 after flammable cladding turned a domestic fire into a lethal blaze, the still-gutted, uninhabitable public housing tower remains a grim reminder of last summer’s tragedy, where 71 people died and many more were injured or made homeless. Ultimately though, according to a U.K. government press release published Thursday, the site will become a formal memorial to the fire’s victims.

The announcement of the plan—which could also see the nearby Latimer Road Tube station renamed to Grenfell—strikes the right note so far, making it clear that residents of the West London housing project will get the deciding say on any kind of memorial that happens on the tower’s site.

The announcement is nonetheless treading on delicate ground. The aftershocks of this tragedy, after all, are still very much present. Eight months later, the handling of the Grenfell fire remains a running scandal of official incompetence and indifference, broken promises, and ongoing hardship for the former residents. Perhaps worst of all, at many sites across the U.K., a disaster like this could happen at any moment for all the same reasons.

This is, after all, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided with proper safety standards. The blaze was sparked by a small domestic fire that could have been contained under normal circumstances. A cheap aluminum composite cladding—banned on tall buildings in Germany and the U.S., but permitted in Britain—caused the fire to spread with alarming speed. Unbearably, residents were well aware of the flaws and actively petitioned to have them changed.

You might expect cladding of this type to have been stripped off every single building by now. In fact, this work has barely begun. At the time of the fire, 301 buildings across Britain were covered in the flammable cladding that proved so lethal at Grenfell. This week, the government announced that only seven of those buildings have fully removed the cladding. All told, only 4 percent of British social housing covered in the flammable material have been stripped and renovated.

Meanwhile, the trauma continues for the project’s residents. Just this week, the fire’s toll rose once more with the death of Maria Del Pilar Burton, a 74-year-old tower resident who had remained in the hospital after suffering severe burns. Burton’s neighbors, who were mostly public housing tenants, remain largely without permanent housing in one of London’s most expensive areas, despite a thin strip of public housing on its northern edge. By Christmas, only 49 of Grenfell Tower’s 207 households had found permanent homes. The rest remained in temporary accommodation or, for the majority, hotels.

Residents of the complex that surrounded the tower—living beneath a burned-out hulk where their neighbors died—are still experiencing intermittent hot water and central heating, and faltering gas supplies. Meanwhile, their social landlord has proposed to start charging them rent once more.

The burned out tower as it appeared in September 2017, three months after the fire. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

There’s an overwhelming sense from locals that they aren’t being sufficiently represented or listened to at the public inquiry. Take all that together and it’s no wonder why the Grenfell Tower disaster remains unhealed. Even before the fire, the neighborhood’s situation was paradoxical: London’s poorest ward, located within the city’s wealthiest borough, housing many people who believed that local officials saw them only as an inconvenience. That belief was only confirmed by the distant, unaccountable handling of the aftermath.

Much of the public agrees with them. Last month at the Brit Awards, Britain’s main music award ceremony, hip hop artist Stormy made headlines by using a performance to ask, “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” A subsequent petition demanding more involvement for residents in the public inquiry has so far gathered 155,000 signatures.

Into this chaotic, embittered situation walks the proposal to preserve the Grenfell Tower site as a memorial. It might ultimately turn out well as a plan. If residents genuinely get to pilot the process, this memorial could be a fitting tribute and site of remembrance for the fire’s victims. Right now, it nonetheless feels like a monument for a tragedy that’s still far from over.

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How to Care for Your Portman Hotel

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, few architects or developers could rival John Portman’s impact on America’s downtowns. And few built in such intensely polarizing ways.

With the rare luxury of being both an architect and developer on his projects, Portman, who died in December at the age of 93, brought the promise of urban revitalization from New York to Los Angeles through his signature cylindrical glass and concrete slab hotel complexes with unforgettable interiors.

The Atlanta native is most celebrated for designs that exposed the guts of his buildings—elevators, stairwells, corridors—to create a voyeuristic spectacle visible from every floor. Prada, an architecturally savvy fashion brand, recently used these elements charmingly in a 2017 short movie, The Postman Dreams 2, a promotional film shot in Los Angeles’s Bonaventure Center.

But these works have often been criticized by urbanists for turning their backs on the places they appeared in. Urban sociologist William Whyte called out two specific Portman project in his 1980 film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, saying of the Renaissance Center in Detroit that it presented itself as a place to “come in and be safe from Detroit.” L.A.’s Bonaventure Center, Whyte added, was scaled to the freeway, not pedestrians.

These were private-sector responses to the challenges facing big-but-struggling American cities of the 1970s and ‘80s that needed to attract business and tourism. It was thought that something like a hotel and conference center with easy car access and no need to venture out for a meal or an errand would make for a happy visitor.

But American downtowns have long since shed their image as decaying centers of crime, poverty, and disinvestment. And today’s traveler is just as eager to roam around an unfamiliar city as they are to photograph a Portman atrium for their Instagram. Can a typical Portman building change in order to best fit a 21st century city?

I don’t think it’s that hard to solve,” says architecture professor Preston Scott Cohen. He headed a 2015 studio at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design called “Portmanian Architecture,” and some of the student work from it is featured in Portman’s America & Other Speculations, released last May.

Perhaps the best example of a Portman do-over is one of Whyte’s subjects—Detroit’s Renaissance Center. In the mid-1990s, General Motors agreed to relocate its headquarters into the vast downtown complex, which opened in 1977 but struggled to live up to its promise. So the company asked Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) to come up with a plan.

“We had to help GM understand how they would take seven of their product lines, merge them into one facility, and integrate the facility into Detroit,” says Bill Baker, engineer at SOM. “It had its back turned to the city and riverfront when it was conceived, so the goal was to change all of that and embrace those elements.”

So SOM removed the nearly 30-foot tall concrete mechanical bunkers facing the street. Inside, the hotel lobby was moved up from the main floor of the atrium, which was then turned into space for GM. A new Wintergarden facing the Detroit River opened in 2001. “When you’re inside the building now you can look out to riverfront and use it as a civic space, a place for product launches, restaurants, and retail,” says SOM partner Richard Tomlinson. “You can go down there to get a coffee and just look out at the river.”

Its new layout made for better connections to the outside, and addressed a particular flaw in Portman’s approach to the interior: “The unrelenting symmetry really was the main challenge,” said Tomlinson. “Everyone got lost, even people who worked there.” Still, SOM’s solution wasn’t to redesign so much as to find the right places to intervene.

That’s a philosophy that rings true for Cohen. “I don’t think the crisis of his work is as incompatible with the city as it may have been,” he says. As for the idea of addressing Whyte’s critique of the Bonaventure in L.A., “It works; it’s not having a problem,” says Cohen. “The blocks surrounding it can’t support pedestrian culture. Whether we like it or not, it happens to be right.”

For a Portman that has been changed for the worse, look no further than Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza Hotel, which lost an immersive indoor water feature—much like the one inside the Bonaventure—to a renovation. Cohen describes the decision as a “neutering” rooted in practicality. “The water pushed everything out, now the check-in and bar are closer together. It’s programmatically better now —what’s beautiful about it made it harder to use.

Despite the risks posed by the rise of Airbnb and online hotel booking sites, Portman hotels seem to be adapting well; their scale and grandeur have slid into middle age gracefully while the downtowns they’re in have been re-energized and repopulated. “It’s not only important to indict these buildings for their errors, but to see how they work today,” says Cohen, “and to try and stop hanging on to bad memories.”

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