Mental-health issues can’t be solved by psychologists alone—city design can help, too
The world’s cities aren’t very mentally healthy.
People who reside in cities are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia than those living in the countryside. No matter where you live, at least one in four people will have a mental illness in their lifetime, and everyone suffers from mental-health problems such as low mood, loneliness, stress, and anxiety at some time or another. These kinds of problems can affect everything from our relationships and housing to our social capital and resilience.
But mental health is not just an individual issue: It affects the whole city. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), economic costs associated with mental illness amount to 4% of national GDP. Mental illness increases a city’s costs of health and social care and puts people at higher risk of physical-health problems. There are also indirect costs to the city: People with mental-health problems can become disadvantaged in education and employment, and their opportunities for economic and social participation may begin to decline.
In these ways, mental-health problems affect a city’s ability to remain thriving, resilient, and sustainable. But while many of the more physical aspects of health have been addressed using urban design—for example, some cities have created walking and biking infrastructure that encourages physical fitness to reduce obesity, while others have separated pedestrians from motor-vehicle emissions to reduce urban air pollution and prevent respiratory diseases—most cities have not taken the same intentional approach with their citizens’ mental health.
The solution for mentally healthy cities
But urban planners can design the urban environment in ways that systematically address mental-health opportunities. For example:
- Expanding access to green spaces—such as parks, street trees, or even office-window views of nature—has been proven to benefit mental health.
- “Active design” is not simply a physical health effort: Because regular exercise can be an effective way to address some forms of mild depression (as well as reducing anxiety and some of the symptoms of dementia, ADHD, and even schizophrenia), interventions like creating walking circuits in a park or installing safe cycling infrastructure can have substantial mental-health benefits.
- Positive social interaction increases self esteem and feelings of belonging as well as mitigating loneliness and anxiety. In order to encourage this, public spaces can install features like benches and chess tables to facilitate social interaction and provide settings for community activities.
When people are experiencing mental-health problems, individual and group interventions by mental health professionals are essential. But when it comes to promoting good mental health and preventing disorders, there are myriad untapped opportunities. When we shift the scale of innovation from the individual to the city, we can create long-lasting solutions that make our cities more enjoyable—and mentally healthy—for all.