Improving mental health through city planning


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If you were to ask anyone what they thought of when they thought of Canada, cities probably wouldn’t come to mind. They would mention mountains and lakes, pine trees and wood cabins (and possibly a red-plaid shirt), but densely packed, noisy urban areas would probably not make the list. However, the fact of the matter is that-like many industrialized nations-over 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas. That’s a large portion of our population that lives and works in the gritty, noisy, bustling environments that make up our cities. The worst part? We know that people living in the city are much more likely to experience mental illness, be it either acute conditions like schizophrenia or mood disorders like depression and anxiety.   

It’s not all doom and gloom for city-dwellers. There are many initiatives all over the world to improve mental health through urban design, creating open green spaces, encouraging active living, and reducing noise pollution.  

The City of Toronto produced a report in May of 2014 that detailed how they were going to plan for health. They mention things they will focus on to improve mental wellness, such as open spaces to draw people out, increased places for physical activity (which is linked to better mental health), and creating vibrant neighbourhoods that encourage more social connection.  

Noise pollution is another detrimental force working against city dwellers. Research has shown that exposure to greater amounts of noise has negative effects on mental wellness. 

John Connel founded the Noise Abatement Society in the United Kingdom in 1959, and through extensive lobbying, they managed to have noise established a statutory nuisance in 1960. While they have many initiatives to decrease the amount of noise in one’s life, many of them are targeted specifically at city policy. These include making a standard delivery time for trucks and creating a maximum decibel amount for emergency vehicles. These might seem like small things, but they will be beneficial in the long run for mental health.  

Green space and open areas for social interaction are another important planning component for cities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), creating parks and recreational spots increase a neighborhood’s social cohesion. There is a large body of research that shows the importance of social relationships for humans. So now that we’ve paved a parking lot, maybe it’s time to put up a paradise?  

The WHO launched its Healthy Cities project in 1978 with a goal of promoting health and well-being at the municipal level. They segregate every five years into different phases that use up-to-date knowledge on how to make cities healthy and happy environments for all. While most of their policy focuses on physical health and environmental concerns, they do acknowledge that many of these problems adversely affect mental health as well.  

A little closer to home, we have the consulting group called Happy City Lab. Based out of Vancouver, B.C., it is run by author and urbanist Charles Montgomery. They use decades of research to look at the way we design neighborhoods, buildings, and other main components of cities to see how to best design our spaces with happiness and well-being in mind. Through workshops, presentations, and consultation, they advise people of all levels and backgrounds on how best to make cities livable.  

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health is a start-up that was launched in 2015, with the aim to be a global resource for policy makers and urban designers with a focus on mental health. They’ve explored how design can affect mental health, how nature exposure positively relates to mental wellness, how urbanity can help reduce stigma of dementia-related problems, how commutes can be either a major stressor or pleasant activity, how hospitals are seeking to build with mental health in mind, and how sensory input is a major influence on mood.  

What does this mean for the future? Cities are projected to house two thirds of the world’s population by 2050. Now that researchers, consultants, and major organizations are having these discussions about the mental wellness of their inhabitants, perhaps policy makers and municipal urban designers can work on improving the lives of city folk. Many cities have already started making the necessary changes in creating more inviting open spaces, making commuting more active and accessible, and reducing noise pollution. Now it’s time to turn planning into action.  

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