Monday, March 13, 2017

Urban Planning For Better Mental Health

Men playing chess in Hyde Park
Sydney, Australia
Photograph by Daniel Munoz/Reuters
Hello Everyone:

The toaster, slow cooker, and I were having a lovely chat this morning about today's post on supporting mental health through urban planning.  Oh wait, "I'm not Inspector Gadget," sorry Kellyanne Conway.  Seriously, we are going to talk about "How to Support Mental Health Through Urban Planning," the fascinating interview by Mimi Kirk for CityLab.  Ms. Kirk's speaks with Tokyo-based psychiatrist Layla McCay, the founder of the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health (  The purpose of the center:

To help inform, motivate and empower policymakers, designers, planner, and public health professionals to build better mental health into their cities... (Ibid, date accessed Mar. 13, 2017)

The center was founded in 2015 and has grown at a quicker pace than Dr. McCay imagined.  She joked with Ms. Kirk, Be careful of finding an unmet need, a reference to the fact that Dr. McCay spends a majority of her time running the center.

Boston, Massachusetts
The center functions as:

...a central repository and global go-to-resource and platform for policymakers, architects, transport, planners, urban planners, developers, designers, engineers, geographers, and other who want to design better mental health into cities, and drive integration of mental health into urban design as standard... (Ibid)

Dr. McCay said,

For instance...we know that green space is good for mental health, but there are a lot of questions.  What kind of green space?  How can make sure people want to use it?

Dr. Layla McCay sat down with CityLab to speak about how "how cities make us anxious and depressed, and what  civic officials and planners can do about it.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
CL: Why did you create the center?

LMcC: Every time I went to events about cities, I was hearing about physical health, but no one was talking about mental health.  Or if they were talking about mental health, it was about access to therapy and medication, or getting people with depression to play sports-not about design of the city itself.

...there's an untapped concept here, about how to integrate mental health support into that design...mental health disorders are complex, and there are all sorts of reasons for them.  But there is a role urban design can play in helping to prevent these disorders, and helping people who already have them.

I started contacting researchers in the field.  They were there, but few and far between.  I thought it would be great to have a place for people to find each other and get this really import subject on official agendas.

Los Angeles, California

CL: How do cities affect mental health?

LMcM: Living in a city is both good and bad for mental health...But there are also theories about how living in an urban area negatively affects mental well-being.  One has to do with sensory overload.  You're encountering many people, and your brain is being very stimulated.  Some scholars argue that this is problematic mental in the long term...

More established research argues that cities strip away the protective factors that foster mental, such as green spaces, exercise, and especially social interaction.  You see a lot of people, but you might not have meaningful interactions with them...migration from rural areas to cities means that people are leaving their families and friends and have to build new social networks.  This makes people vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

The Canals of Venice, Italy

CL: What can urban planners do to promote mental health?

LMcM: We highlight four main themes that should be incorporated into urban to support mental health.  These areas have the most research behind them.

  • Green spaces. We know there's compelling relationship between green space and mental well-being, with fairly persuasive research show how,...access spaces reduces anxiety or improves ADHD in children.  This means space that you don't have to make a special trip to, but space that you encounter in daily life-...
  • Active space.  When people are designing for health, this is the focus.  It's a big opportunity for physical  health, but there's also a strong mental health correlation.  For mild to moderate depression, regular exercise can act the same way that antidepressants do.  Examples of such design are walkable spaces or spaces that encourage exercise on a daily commute
  • Social spaces.  These are spaces that promote natural interactions among people.  Research shows that people who live in neighborhoods with this kind of space have lower mental distress.  It's a question of making public places more social...
  • Safe spaces.  This is crucial, whether it means security in terms of crime, traffic, or, for example, for people with dementia, safety from getting lost.  But you don't want to design a safe space so that it feels suffocating or sterile...people should choices about which route to take rather than being constrained into one specific "safe" route.
Street scene New York City, New York
CL: If a city hasn't factored mental health considerations into its planning up to this point, what can it do?

LMcC: Every time the city has a project, it can start by looking at our framework: How are you optimizing green, active, social, and safe space?  It's not such a departure from what cities are usually doing already...But taking a moment to focus on it will help to integrate these elements and start to have positive effects on mental health...Investing in mental health is essential if you want to have a vibrant, sustainable city.   Building a population that has coping skills and strong relationships means you have a happier, healthier citizenry.

The Barbican London, England
CL: Can you give an example of a city that has done design particularly well, whether consciously or not?

LMcC: Well, there are little pockets of goodness everywhere!  The Barbican [a London residential estate built in the 1960s and 1970s] is a good example.  It look like it's bad your mental health-It's in the Brutalist style-...the planners actually prioritized walkability, green space, and social space...

I like in Tokyo now, and I've been struck at how it evolved in a way that keeps pedestrians as a top priority.  Research is being done about "boringness" in cities; increasingly cities are becoming boring because they have unremitting facades with nothin to look at.  People thrive having entryways at the street level where you can see things and people, and where there might be welcoming elements on the sidewalks...In Tokyo, though there are challenges such as crowding...Most small roads have very little traffic, and people go into local shops and they know each other.  There are also little micro parks...Within the metropolis, it feels local.

Tokyo, Japan

CL: Who exactly should be implementing the framework?

LMcM: I've spoken to a lot of architects and urban planners about the framework, and they say, "Sure that sounds great, but the client has to want it."  So it has come to come from the top down.  This is an opportunity for leaders such as mayors and other politicians to make it a policy.  Physical health is becoming a standard policy, and mental health should be part of that policy too.

No comments:

Post a Comment