Design affects the brain. We know this intuitively, as we get frustrated when poor wayfinding causes us to get us lost or we feel renewed after a run in the park, but only recently are we starting to understand how and why. Our immediate environment can prompt both negative and positive effects and it’s becoming evident that the way spaces are designed can exert a strong influence on our behavior. This is especially important in cities, where mental health problems caused by over-stimulation, isolation, and loneliness, are particularly high. To alleviate some of these city stressors, we turn to urban design.
City dwelling and mental health
Many factors contribute to mental health and wellness, including biological factors, experiences, and lifestyle, but the built environment also plays a critical role. While mental health and happiness can be difficult to measure, cities are associated with higher rates of most mental health problems compared to rural areas. City dwellers have an almost 40% higher risk of depression, over 20% more anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to more loneliness, isolation, and stress — including chronic stress, such as gridlock traffic or work demands. Good mental health is critical for both individual wellbeing and overall human health, but it is under-prioritized in the design of our cities.
Contributors to positive mental health
Urban design has the potential to help support mental health. Urban conditions like pollution, noise, crime, and over-stimulation can be reduced with appropriate planning. The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH), an independent research collaborative, is working to increase the body of knowledge and awareness of strategies to support better mental health in cities.
The center highlights the importance of mental health, stating that “good mental health can improve our enjoyment, coping skills, and relationships, our educational achievement, employment, housing and economic potential, help reduce physical health problems, ease healthcare and social care costs, builds social capital, and decrease suicides.” UD/MH has developed a set of policy recommendations, called the Mind the GAPS framework, which encourages city planners and developers to create spaces with the following attributes: Green, Active, Pro-Social, and Safe.
Access to green spaces and nature is continually linked to improved mental health, reducing depression, and improving cognitive functioning. The experience of nature is an antidote to the stressors of urban living. Incorporating street trees, views of nature, and community gardens are all ways to reduce stress. Increasing community walkability and bike-ability, as well as providing good public transit, ensures opportunities for people to be active, which is also linked to improved mental health. Dedicated spaces for sports fields and tennis courts provide active space, as do walking loops in parks. Collectively, green space and active space should be weaved throughout the urban fabric.
Creating social places that encourage interaction is one of the most important opportunities for promoting good mental health. Designing cities that enable human connection helps combat loneliness and feelings of isolation. Social interaction builds self-confidence and fosters a sense of community and belonging. Mixed-use development, which blends shops, offices, and residential spaces into a single neighborhood, is one design approach that sparks interaction among individuals. Design elements as simple as street benches promote conversation, and the creation of open spaces allows for informal meeting spaces for groups. The perceived safety and security of a space is also a component of how people feel. Proper wayfinding and minimized traffic congestion reduce anxiety and help improve feelings of security.
To learn more about relationship between urban design and mental health, the Urban Realities Laboratory at the University of Waterloo is using tools to conduct psychological research on the streets of cities. From 2011 to 2013, they conducted studies in New York City, Berlin, and Mumbai in which participants were monitored for their psychological state while being lead through city streets. Wristband sensors measured stress levels and emotional states while participants were shown different styles of urban aesthetic. The study showed that many aspects of the urban environment exert a strong effect on our emotions and influence our attraction to particular areas of the city. For example, long, featureless facades caused passersby to become unhappy and bored, while respite from the crowding and noise of the streets, such as green space or a quiet courtyard, produced psychological restoration.
Urban design in action
Some architects and urban designers have already put this research into action. For example, the Trust for Public Land has several urban greening initiatives underway, such as those in Chicago and Los Angeles, which recognize the importance of green space to promote mental health.
In Chicago’s Northwest side, one recent project transformed nearly three miles of unused rail line into an elevated trail. The 606 integrates the community with green space and provides an alternative, uninterrupted commute through the city. This 2.7 mile trail acts as a community connector between four neighborhoods and six ground-level parks. This alternative transportation corridor provides commuters with a less hectic travel and gives low-income neighborhoods spaces to connect to nature and thrive as a community.
In South Los Angeles, a 16 square mile area of concrete alleys are being converted into safe, green, community spaces. The Green Alley Master Plan creates a network that improves community walkability and green space to serve one of the most underserved communities in the region. Both projects highlight the potential urban design has to alleviate city stressors and create livable cities.
While more research is needed, there is already clear evidence that proper urban design can promote good mental health. Given the importance, we need to make positive mental health a priority in urban design. Understanding the effects of urban environments on mental health is the first step in helping to create saner, happier cities.
Stephanie Marino is a landscape architect practicing in Washington, D.C.