urban green spaces

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.

Urban green space, such as parks, forests, green roofs, streams, and community gardens, provides critical ecosystem services. Green space also promotes physical activity, psychological well-being, and the general public health of urban residents.
—  Wolch, Byrne and Newell 
Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice:
The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’’
(2014)
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SN: a great infill project in the heart of the rust belt, Cleveland, OH, transforming decaying and underused parking lots into a landmark park along the Erie Canal. The park will also incorporate historical reproductions of key features of the Ohio & Erie Canal circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Cleveland City Planning Commission approves early plan for Canal Basin

CLEVELAND, Ohio’s Planning Commission on Friday enthusiastically approved an early “framework” plan for the proposed Canal Basin Park, a 20-acre public space that would celebrate the Ohio & Erie Canal and how it helped shape the city.

“It’s truly extraordinary,” said Tim Tramble, a member of the Planning Commission. “I think it’s going to be a great contributor to the consistent in-migration to our city.”

The plan describes how an area twice the size of Public Square would be transformed from crumbling parking lots and weed-choked remnants of the canal to one of the city’s most important parks.

The park will ultimately serve as the northern gateway to the Towpath Trail, which when finished will connect the city to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and other points to the south.

“I believe it will be a national model for how to recover an urban space that’s been damaged and abused,” said Craig Kenkel, superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Ecosystem services provided by urban green space not only support the ecological integrity of cities, but can also protect the public health of urban populations. Green space may filter air, remove pollution, attenuate noise, cool temperatures, infiltrate storm water, and replenish groundwater; moreover, it can provide food.
—  Wolch, Byrne and Newell  ‘Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’’ (2014)