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Mental health has become the Cinderella of urban design – so let’s take her to the ball

Dr Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, reflects on the first of our feeling good in public spaces dialogues, Human physiology, psychology & place-making.

It is unusual to attend an event that is specifically focused on the nexus of urban design and mental health. All too often in discussions about how urban design can improve health and well-being, the focus is on physical health, specifically on active cities. Of course physical activity can have a great impact on mental health, but when it comes to a specific focus on mental health opportunities, in the words of one urban planner, ‘we haven’t a clue’.

It was therefore particularly interesting that the UK Climate Impacts Programme chose to host the first in a series of discussions focused on that very question, with the inaugural event kicking off at the Wellcome Trust in London on 18th November 2015. An audience that included designers, planners, developers, academics, and health professionals gathered for a fascinating and diverse series of talks.

Georgina Hosang from Goldsmiths, University of London summarised the links between urban life and mental health, highlighting the differences in prevalence of various mental illnesses in urban versus rural areas in the UK, highlighting increased urban rates of depression, alcohol and substance dependence, and schizophrenia. In particular, she highlighted the need for urban designers and planners to help create spaces in the city that increase social capital (pdf, 74 KB), a key factor that reduces the risk of developing mental disorders. She highlighted the London Mood Project, using mobile phones to map people’s mood in different geographical locations in London. If you’re in London, why not download the app and get involved.

Rhiannon Corcoran from the University of Liverpool started the discussion of how to measure and understand the implicit and explicit effects of urban places on peoples’ feelings, thoughts and behaviour. She showcased the Prosocial Space Programme and introduced research that measured people’s responses to photographs of different types of urban spaces, anticipation of threat as they walked through various areas of a city, and surveys of what people felt made a positive place to live. A different method of measuring the effect of people’s interactions with the urban environment on their mental state was discussed by Panos Mavros from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL, who has interestingly been using portable EEG machines to measure people’s brainwaves as they walk around urban streets.

Antonio Caperna from the International Society for Biourbanism talked us through evolutionary theories for biourbanism. His theories of why humans respond positively to nature are based on the brain’s affinity to the viewing of fractal patterns (naturally occurring, complex patterns found in nature), and he argued that architecture should reflect this inherent affinity. He argued that throughout history, the body has evolved itself to its environment, and current adaptations to urban life include stress, fear, anxiety and aggression, and that we can employ principles of biophilia in urban design to enhance human interaction with the built environment.

From the perspective of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, my focus was on why mental health has been sidelined in urban design discussions, prioritisation and investment. In my view (summarised in this New Statesman op-ed) a combination of stigma, concerns about the complexity of the causative factors of mental illnesses, and a vicious cycle of non-prioritisation have led to mental health becoming the Cinderella of urban design and health integration. I highlighted key areas that we believe hold particular potential for urban design in improving mental health and would benefit from further research (more details):

  • Conscious cities – collecting and using data to improve urban mental health
  • Exposure to nature
  • Older people’s mental health – including reducing depression, anxiety and disorientation caused by dementia
  • Transportation – particularly the question of how to optimise commuting
  • Extracting lessons from mental health-sensitive design of healthcare facilities and applying them to the wider urban environment
  • Sound, colour, art, and other sensory opportunities
  • Traumascapes – where a traumatic event has happened in a particular place, how can urban design contribute to reducing individual and public distress caused by that place

To take mental health to the ‘urban design ball’, we must not ask just what urban design can do for mental health, but what we can do to increase the knowledge, data, profile, prioritisation, and implementation of mental health improvement as part of urban design. It must be a matter of researchers, urban designers, planners, policymakers, engineers, and public health professionals explicitly asking that question when developing their plans and projects.

One major theme from this event was the challenge of accessing and translating high quality research into practical urban design: “we need evidence to back up our hunches” when it comes to mental health promotion through urban design. We must undertake, publish and share more research and experience, and find ways to translate all this information and experience into practical, evidence-based guidelines, while guarding against a one-size-fits-all approach.

Mental health can and should be at the urban design ball. This is why the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health is planning the launch of a new journal (call for papers out now), and is publishing research, ideas, and case studies on this Sanity and Urbanity blog (submit yours) to increase the discussions, research, and people’s access to the research. We are planning discussions, consultations, and guideline development. That’s what we’re doing. As a designer, policymaker, planner, health practitioner, engineer, researcher… what will you do to help get Cinderella to the ball?

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