Urban design and mental health – an unlikely pairing?

22 May, 2019

The real estate industry is shifting in terms of how it uses space.  Something which is taking centre stage is how cities and buildings can be designed to enhance user experience.  This blog will focus on the key ways urban design can be tailored to benefit mental health and wellbeing.

How do cities affect mental health?

Living in a city is both good and bad for mental health.  There are economic, cultural and educational opportunities in cities that you might not find in more rural areas.  But cities can result in a sensory overload.  You see a lot of people, but you might not have meaningful interactions with them.  And with the world becoming more and more urban, migration from rural areas to cities means that people are leaving their families and friends and have to build new social networks.  This can make people vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

Ways in which cities can be designed to improve mental health

  1. Access to green space and natural settings is likely to improve mental health.  Regular exercise improves self-esteem and wellbeing and is also shown to reduce anxiety and stress.  An example of access to nature and space in a modern way is Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.  Created in 2012 as part of Singapore’s government strategy of making Singapore into a “City In A Garden” and to increase the quality of life with trees, plants and flowers, it is an enormous futuristic botanical garden.
  2. Compact, walkable cities provide opportunities for natural social interaction on a regular basis.  Many cities in Asia Pacific are promoting walkability; for example, in Tokyo wide pavements and aims to reduce congestion and pollution have meant the city now offers surprising walkability.  Mixed-land use is also a good way to encourage social interaction with nearby amenities.  Having different residential, commercial and industrial services close together promotes interaction with others along with surroundings.  Examples of where mixed-land have been used include Kreuzberg (Berlin), Fitzroy (Melbourne), Subiaco (Perth) and Pyrmont (Sydney).
  3. Feeling secure in your surroundings can benefit mental health.  There are also studies to show when economic disparities are obvious this can result in frustrations and feelings of inferiority.  A key example of this was apparent following the Grenfell fire 2017 which highlighted the disparities within Kensington and Chelsea.  Affordable transport and housing available for everyone to take advantage of what cities have to offer is key.
  4. Tech and data influence placemaking.  In New York, smart sensors are being place throughout the city to collect data and help with things such as waste management, traffic control and public transport.  City planners and businesses can then use this data to help make more educated planning decisions.  We are also now at the stage where you can give a user a headset and we can see how their brain reacts in various settings.

Although the real estate industry is facing challenging times, this does force it to innovate in different ways.  Cities that are good for mental health not only give back to the community, but could also boost the bottom line.