Can Urban Design Support Better Mental Health?

In May, it is Mental Health Awareness Week. According to research from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, urban dwellers are more likely to suffer from mental health issues.

People living in cities have a significantly increased risk of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, compared to people living in the countryside.

For developers, planners and architects and others, the question is whether they can help alleviate the causes of poor mental health when designing for urban dwellers.

Sick Buildings and Suitable Materials

It is now well-established that the materials used in building design and construction can affect its occupants.

Aspects of building design such as use of natural light, and heating, cooling and ventilation systems can all impact on mood, wellbeing and, ultimately, mental health.

The layout of workstations can also contribute, either positively or negatively.

Whereas sick building syndrome (SBS) is a phenomenon linked to building design, rather than a recognised illness, it is a critical component in the built environment’s relationship with mental health.

Another factor in people’s wellbeing is their sensory experience of being in a building. The choice of building materials and even fabrics can help determine the mood of a building’s occupants.

Just as in the home, people will choose specific fabrics, furnishings and colours because of their physical impact on mood, so the same can apply to commercial, industrial and shared public spaces.

Increasingly, architects, designers and developers are aware of the human implications of the choices they make, but should this awareness have a wider scope when it comes to urban planning?

Urban Risk Factors in Mental Health

What is causing greater mental health issues in urban centres?

One issue is around pre-existing risk factors, where urban dwellers are already under pressure. If, for example, someone who is struggling to find work moves to the city, then they are already under some degree of pressure. The same might apply to someone who feels socially adrift and isolated.

What the urban experience can then end up doing is exacerbating these conditions, cities, and to an extent towns, can be centres of large wealth disparities. People have widely contrasting experiences of day to day living in them.

Many urban areas create a sense of segregation, both physical and psychological.

Then there are quality of life issues such as restricted access to nature or outdoor exercise, or removal from close-knit friends and family.

Finally, there is the sheer sensory overload of the urban environment itself. Too much of everything can lead people to want to shut themselves off, encouraging their isolation.

A Cultural Approach to Mental Health

Designing urban centres to support mental health means widening the brief beyond buildings.

To a large degree, this is about design that is meaningful to end-users, and about recognising the importance of culture in urban development and renewal.

Placemaking is a key aspect of this, where planning takes into account the needs of a local community; and sometimes revitalising urban spaces means effectively establishing a community from the ground up.

Measures might include: the inclusion of green spaces; looking at different transport options, including cycling and walking; creating social spaces that meet community requirements; and how to design spaces and structures that feel safe and secure.

Dystopia Now?

The concept of future cityscapes that are visually cluttered, monumental and alienating is familiar in literature and films. This is the urban dystopia, a future where alienation is part of the fabric of society.

However, there is a view that dystopias are subjective, and therefore happening right now, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Think, for example, of Manchester’s issues with homelessness, and how the city must appear to people who are in it but essentially excluded from it.

Urban design for mental health cannot be an aspiration for the future: it needs to start happening now.

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