ORGANISATIONS WORKING AT THE NEXUS OF URBAN DESIGN AND MENTAL HEALTH
UD/MH Associate Sarah Willson speaks to Alice Ferguson, Director of Playing Out Bristol, an organisation helping children and parents change their experience of residential streets.
Wow, so the movement is really growing. How did it all begin?
Playing Out was started by myself and my neighbour, Amy Rose, in response to feeling that our children’s lives were too restricted and that they were missing out on something we had taken for granted as children – having the freedom to play out independently and make friends on their street. For us, the main issue was that our residential street was dominated by cars and just didn’t feel like a safe or pleasant space for children to be in.
How does a Playing Out session work?
The ‘playing out’ model is meant as a temporary way to give children a taste of this experience and a catalyst for longer-term change. Neighbours get together and apply to the council to close their street for a couple of hours, weekly or monthly, to create a safe space for children to play freely. There are no organised games or activities – the whole idea is for children to have the freedom to follow their own ideas and use the space as they choose. This leads to an astonishing variety of activity, from cycling, scooting and skipping, to more imaginative and invented games – or just ‘hanging out’ and getting to know each other.
What is the benefit of free play for children? Physical health? Mental development? Social interaction? Community belonging?
All of the above! There is a lot of evidence of the general benefits of free play for children, especially in terms of emotional and mental development. The problem is that they have less and less opportunity for this, as both their time and the space available to them has become increasingly more restricted. See here for more information on the evidence of the specific benefits of the ‘playing out’ model.
For children, one massive benefit of playing out is making friends on their street. Because they have a shared sense of belonging – the street being an extension of home - you tend to see much greater interaction across the normal barriers of age, gender, ethnicity and social background, compared to play in the school playground. Often, the children who live on one street will go to several different schools and don’t even know of each other’s existence until they meet at a playing out session!
There hasn’t been any specific research (that I know of) on the link between street play and mental health – but it would definitely be something we would be interested in.
(UD/MH Editor: the research on play and mental health is summarised here).
Children enjoying a Playing Out session. Credit: Playing Out
How does the project affect and involve other residents?
Playing out is generally – though not always – initiated by parents who are motivated to change things for their own children. As a result of being involved in sessions, parents have reported feeling increased confidence to let their children play out, increased sense of belonging in their street and trust of their neighbours, and a sense of satisfaction at knowing they are giving their children something really valuable. Some mothers have even said that getting playing out happening on their street has helped them to come out of post-natal depression and overcome isolation.
Older residents and those without children have also been involved on many streets. For older people especially, it can be a valuable way of getting to know their younger neighbours and becoming more ‘visible’ in their community. We have even heard stories of 999 calls being avoided (for example, when an elderly person had a fall in their house) because of neighbours getting to know each other through ‘playing out’.
What types of streets and urban spaces are suitable for outdoor play? Is there an ideal form?
The main thing children need is access to safe space near their front door. It is a bonus to have somewhere with interesting, playable or natural features but really, children are not too fussy and will find imaginative ways to play in any space that is available, however dull or ugly it may seem to adults.
So how can people start organising their own Playing Out sessions? Is it a difficult process?
It’s pretty simple. Everything you need to know is on our website www.playingout.net. The first step is to talk to your neighbours and build support for the idea. Meeting other people on the street can be a great side-effect for adults involved in making it happen.
What has been the response of local councils and officials? Are they receptive of the program?
In general, councils have been very welcoming of the idea as a low-cost, community-building way of getting children outdoors and active. It really is a no-brainer for councils to support it from a public health point of view. All they have to do is put a policy in place to allow people to apply for a regular road closure and residents do all the hard work themselves! Over fifty local authorities have done this so far and we are here to help advise any other councils that are interested in supporting it.
What does this mean for public health policy?
I would just say that we need to look at the root causes of our current public health issues – especially those affecting children – and tackle those in a more radical, sustainable way. Children want to play - it’s not a chore for them. They just need to be given the time, space and opportunity to do so immediately outside their front doors.
What are the long-term goals of the Playing Out project?
Our long-term goal is for all children to have the freedom to play out safely where they live, every day. As well as political and physical changes to slow traffic and make streets and cities more people-friendly, this will mean a big shift in culture and attitude towards widespread understanding that, for children, playing out is a vital part of a healthy, happy life.
A young girl enjoying a Playing Out session. Credit: Playing Out
Playing Out materials
Read more about the links between environment, play and children's mental health
Free Play and Children's Mental Health - David Whitebread (2017), The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health
The Importance of Play - David Whitebread (2012)
Further journal research papers (you can read the abstract summary; you may need to sign in through your institution to read full text)
The Power of Outdoor Play and Play in Natural Environments - Kemple et al (2016) in Childhood Education
Play and its role in the mental development of the child - L.S. Vygotsky (2014) in Soviet Psychology
Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children’s Health - McCurdy et al (2010) in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care
Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health reflects on how marginalisation of LGBT+ people in their own neighbourhoods may contribute to mental health problems - and how planners and designers might help.
On Saturday, walking through my south London neighbourhood, Brixton, a Valentine's Day-themed display in the local department store caught my eye. Taking up a full window display in Morleys, in a prime location right across from Brixton Station and the famous Electric Avenue, three giant red hearts enclosed three couples: a man and a woman; two men; and two women. As a gay woman, I was filled with unexpected joy. Whatever my feelings about Valentine's Day, it felt important to see my life represented in this place, my home, which has so far felt pretty far from a 'gaybourhood' (despite its LGBT+ history). I realised I had never seen a same-sex couple on the high street in Brixton, in advertising or in person. I realised that this lack of representation has been making me feel marginalised in my own community. I was filled with respect for Morleys. That department store's simple design choice had succeeded in making me feel more like I belonged.
Of course it wasn't a simple design choice. On Monday morning, I was walking my dog past the same window. The three couples were still in situ but across the glass in front of them, somebody had scrawled:
'F*CKING LIBERTY - SOMEONE SHOULD SMASH OUT THIS WINDOW!'
In an instant, my feelings about my neighbourhood changed. I no longer felt included in this community. I didn't even feel safe. I looked around, wondering whether the person who had felt compelled to express this view might be nearby, and what they (and their like-minded friends) might decide to do if I was walking past with my wife.
Morleys department store window, Brixton, 12th February 2018
This experience made me think more explicitly about the relationship between sexuality, urban design and mental health. Part of designing environments that promote good mental health is achieving feelings of safety, belongingness, and community connection. When these feelings are replaced by fear, anxiety, mistrust, and marginalisation, and experiences of bullying, harrassment, abuse and discrimination, this can increase people's risk of developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression. LGBT+ people are already twice as likely to have mental health problems compared to heterosexual people, and much of that is thanks to issues like self esteem, discrimination and marginalisation.
LGBT+ people do not always find acceptance and support within their own families and communities, and often move to cities in search of community and belonging. However, cities are not always tolerant utopias.
What can urban design and planning do to promote good mental health for LGBT+ people?
There are two main approaches: first, a sense of safety and inclusion that empowers LGBT+ people to fully access the environmental factors that promote good mental health, such as access to parks, physical activity, positive social interactions. Secondly, building on the importance of pro-social places by strengthening the role of the built environment in promoting a sense of community and belongingness.
Dedicated LGBT+ venues
Much has recently been written on the topic of 'queer urban planning' (see further reading at the bottom of this page for some examples). Most of the debate has centered around the demise of venues owned by or dedicated to the LGBT+ community, and the pros and cons of protecting and maintaining these spaces of safety and connections: are they sanctuaries or ghettos? Should they have a special status?
Last night I attended an event about queer city planning at the Museum of London, curated by UCL Urban Lab. We learned that 116 LGBT+ venues have closed over the last decade or so in London, and today few remain. A positive interpretation could be that this reflects an increasingly inclusive society: perhaps LGBT+ people no longer experience the prejudice that underlies the need for dedicated venues. Or perhaps the rise of the internet and apps overlying physical space is helping like-minded people find each other and build communities in new ways.
And yet dedicated physical spaces still play important roles for minority communities. These spaces emphasise commonality. They facilitate connections, support, and freedom for people to express themselves without fear. This is especially important because such spaces may not exist in other parts of some LGBT+ people's lives. They provide an important setting to be with people who accept each other without requiring explanations, enabling them to connect, and build communities. People who have just come out of the closet (or are bracing themselves to take that step) are at increased risk of loneliness, depression, anxiety and suicide. The support and solidarity and acceptance they can find in LGBT+ venues can be an incredibly protective factor for mental health. Without such venues, people may rely on the internet and struggle to make meaningful social connections. Even meeting up in person can be complicated. For instance, at the Museum of London event, cultural producer Chardine Taylor-Stone spoke of the overt and covert discrimination she has faced when trying to run events for LGBT+ people in venues that do not have LGBT+ management.
Another interesting argument for the importance of dedicated LGBT+-run establishments is that such venues provide much-valued 'official' visibility for LGBT+ people on the streets of their city - a gay bar on the corner of the high street provides physical proof that LGBT+ people are present and deserve to be present in a landscape. This is meaningful because heterosexual representations tend to dominate in most cityscapes.
Two performers dressed up as two of my favourite lost London LGBT+ venues, First Out and The Glass Bar, read (and are clothed in) the relevant planning permissions at the Queer Salon event at the Museum of London
This leads to the second major topic of discussion - the concept of 'gaybourhoods'. These are areas of town (often originating as deprived areas) where LGBT+ people gather, set up venues and over time, preferentially move in, creating neighbourhoods with populations comprising higher-than-average LGBT+ density. There are various discussions about the pros and cons of these 'gaybourhoods'. Such places can create a feeling of solidarity, and the sort of 'safety in numbers' that empowers LGBT+ people to enjoy activities that heterosexual people might take for granted, such as walking down the street holding your partner's hand, or encountering families that resemble their own. 'Gaybourhoods' enable convenient targeting of LGBT+-specific services, events and information. However, some criticisms of the gaybourhood include the self-marginalisation or 'othering' of LGBT+ people, and the association with gentrification which, over time, can lead to exclusion of these neighbourhoods' original communities - and of younger and less rich LGBT+ people.
What does this mean for urban planning and design?
At the Museum of London event, the poet Travis Alabanza spoke compellingly about their experience of belonging and being celebrated at LGBT+ club nights, and then five minutes later, in the same outfit, as exactly the same person, stepping out of the door to be reviled and abused (sometimes even by the very same people, who seemingly consider this self expression to be laudable in one place, but not acceptable in another). The importance of safe spaces where any of us feel we belong cannot be overstated. But in a diverse society, spaces of safety cannot be restricted to a few venues dotted around an entire city. Since probably every neighbourhood in the world is home to LGBT+ people I am interested in the opportunity to move beyond specific 'queer' venues or 'gaybourhoods' (while recognising their historical and current importance) to think more about how to design and plan inclusive, thriving, diverse places for everyone. If we do not, we are simply providing fuel for distress, discrimination, marginalisation, and mental health problems.
What are the attributes of a 'gay-friendly' neighbourhood?
Between 2008 and 2011, I co-ran Gay Camberwell, a place-based initiative that increased LGBT+ inclusion and acceptance in an area of South-East London that was not previously known for these attributes. In addition to encouraging local businesses to run regular LGBT+-themed events (such as film nights, comedy shows, drag brunch, and literary events), my wife and I went to every local bar and restaurant, had drinks/food, and wrote a review on the Gay Camberwell webpage that included a rather tongue-in-cheek 'gay-friendliness' rating. To ascertain this rating, we would hold hands and gaze at each other romantically, and then look around to see if anyone was reacting or making us feel threatened. That was a bit of fun entirely lacking in valid science or even diversity of experience, but it underlies some basic principles that may be helpful for thinking about the concept of 'gay-friendly neighbourhoods' (which I shall use as shorthand for what can otherwise be termed LGBT+, LGBTQI+ or queer-friendly neighbourhoods).
I personally feel that I am in a 'gay-friendly neighbourhood' when I can go about my day (1) feeling comfortable and safe, (2) not feeling compelled to modify my behaviour to avoid disclosure of my sexuality, and (3) not inciting reactions if I do disclose any evidence that I might be gay.
Of course everyone is different, so these factors may vary for different people. They may also differ in different countries where heterosexual norms also differ. But in general, so-called gay-friendliness may start with a feeling that anybody can safely express who they are (for instance by personal clothing, haircut, etc choices, or affection expressed to their partner), whether or not that expression falls outside the so-called norm, without fear of any repercussions. Because cities are for everyone, and everyone deserves to be included.
Back in Brixton, Morleys promptly removed the graffiti. And whenever I walk past, these same-sex couples in the window still make me smile.
This is not a complete review of all of the challenges and opportunities in this interesting field, but is intended to provide food for thought. How can urban design and planning specifically contribute to making places feel inclusive for LGBT+ people?
Please reply in the comments to share your knowledge, suggestions and ideas.
Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces by Petra L Doan
Queerying Planning: Challenging heteronormative assumptions and reframing planning practice by Petra L Doan (book)
The Inclusive City: an LGBTQIA+ Perspective by Mariangela Veronesi
Relevant upcoming event (London)
Our Kind of Town seminar: Queerying London - March 22 2018
Last month saw the publication of Dr Theresa Tam’s first report as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. Here UD/MH Associate Sarah Willson discusses the report’s key messages on mental health and cities.
Approaching public health through the lens of environmental design is not a novel concept, with the two fields holding a long and intertwined history. In 1854, British physician John Snow investigated the spread of cholera in Soho, London, and observed the connection between facets of urban design – residential density, the location of water pumps and sewage systems – and the incidence of ill-health among the local population. Since that landmark study and throughout the enmeshed history of urban planning and public health, mental health has been included on the agenda of public health. However, mental health has typically been addressed primarily through the promotion of public parks as sites of social interaction and escape.
As understanding about the interactions between mental health and urban form deepens, this has begun to seep into government thinking. The ‘Designing Healthy Living’ report from Canada demonstrates this, illuminating the ways in which the built environment acts as a foundation for physical health and mental wellbeing. The report gathers together a wealth of research from the medical sciences and urban design disciplines. Within it, the built environment is defined as all the infrastructure we experience, both seen and unseen, in daily life – our homes, streets, workplaces, parks, public spaces and transport systems. Healthy living is addressed in three parts – physical activity, food choices and mental wellbeing, yet crucially the report acknowledges the interconnection of these three. Moreover, recognition is given to the fact that there are other factors which influence physical and mental health – economic inequality, political contexts, social & cultural factors, which lie outside the purview of urban design to address.
The Canadian context
Today, approximately 80% of Canadians reside in urban or suburban areas. Like many North American cities, Canadian urban spaces throughout the 20th century mostly expanded through the process of urban sprawl. This development of cities outwards to create low density residential housing, and single use zoning has resulted in migration to the suburbs and daily flocking to city centres in private automobiles. A strong message against continued urban sprawl is felt throughout the report. The expanding spatial footprint of cities has been linked to increased dependence on private car ownership, sedentary lifestyles and rising levels of obesity. Sedentary lifestyles are of concern to Canadian officials due to the link with chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Dr Tam calls for long-term planning that promotes daily incidental physical activity to change sedentary habits. In addition, Canada is experiencing an ageing population, with the number of Canadians over the age of 85 years growing at four times the rate of the Canadian population (Statistics Canada 2017). Mental health is also on the agenda for Canadian public officials, with an increase to 8% percentage of the population diagnosed with a mood disorder in 2014.
Key messages on mental health from the Designing Healthy Living report
This report views public health as a confluence of three factors: enough physical activity, maintaining healthy diets and living in supportive, sociable environments. It is this last factor in which this report primarily addresses mental health. The report explicitly outlines the ways in which neighbourhoods can be designed with mental health in mind:
The three ways in which urban design contributes to public health. Image source: Designing Healthy Living report.
Social isolation and loneliness can result in stress, poor sleep, cognitive decline, impaired decision making and increased risk of depression among other effects (Cacioppo 2015). Neighbourhoods can be better designed to increase the likelihood of meeting other people and to provide places to gather. Designing green spaces, of whatever size, into our urban environments are discussed as a key tool for this. Green spaces offer opportunities for local people to walk for leisure and see others around, take part in outdoor sports, often in groups, and meet others through local conservation or gardening projects.
Community belonging is important for mental wellbeing, with Canadians who feel strong ties to their local community more likely to report excellent or very good physical and mental health (Shields 2008). Regarding encouraging a sense of belonging through design, aesthetic places and sites of social interaction are sought after. Creating attractive urban spaces not only raises the aesthetic profile of an area, but has been shown to have a calming effect, reflect local culture and can build social connections. Community gardens, allotments, public art, and platforms for political engagement can encourage and enable people to become involved in their local communities and enhance ties to local areas (Cameron et al. 2013).
How urban design influences experiences of social support, stress and community belonging. Image source: Designing Healthy Living report.
Urban spaces and transport systems offer up a lot of sensory stimuli with noise from cars and public transport, construction work, crowded pavements and metro systems, streetlights and noise from neighbours. For some, the excitement of the urban environment can be outweighed by the stress experienced managing sensory stimulation, inducing and heightening stress levels. Chronic stress has an extensive array of health impacts, from heart disease to anxiety and depression (Broschot et al. 2006). Therefore, the report proposes that designing quieter places that manage unwanted stimuli is an important goal for urban designers to counter chronic stress. Commuting to and from work, school and social engagements is part of daily life for many Canadians, and another potential source for chronic stress. Over the long term, lengthy or stressful commutes are linked to poor health. Therefore, improving commuter experience, through for example improving the efficiency of public transport systems and encouraging more people to use them or walk and cycle, can be another long-term plan to manage chronic stress for urban populations.
Feeling safe where you live, work and visit within a city is important aspect of mental health, as fear and direct experience of crime can negatively affect mental wellbeing and behaviour. Urban dwellers, particularly those who perceive themselves as at greater risk of crime, such as women and ethnic minority groups, have been found to actively change their behaviour within urban space as a result, such as avoiding certain places, or restricting movement to certain times of day. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, a UN-supported program, is promoted in the report as a method to broach this issue. It promotes clear demarcation of private and public space, improved surveillance, good street lighting and reducing underused spaces. (Cozens and Love 2015).
Many of the design suggestions in the report are geared towards multiple mental wellbeing goals. The promotion of community gardens illustrates this well, offering quiet urban green space, places to socialise, and encouraging community belonging. Such an intervention also supports wider public health goals of increasing physical activity and access to healthy foods.
Davie Street Community Garden, Vancouver BC. Photograph by Geoff Peters
Designing for specific populations
Much of current research is based on adult populations, but the report takes steps to address how specific population groups experience the built environment, and how this in turn can be linked to mental health.
For children, playing outdoors and safety fears of parents are important issues for good public health. Living near green spaces can instill regular physical activity in children from a young age. Green spaces are also found to positively affect behavioural development in children: Canadian children who spend more time outdoors have been found to have better mental wellness and fewer friendship issues. Highlighted in the report is the need for challenging play for children’s mental development, where children are encouraged to assess their environment and make decisions, enabling them to develop their abilities in managing risk and judgment (Brussoni et al. 2012).
Given Canada’s aging population, issues around social isolation and loneliness are going to become increasingly important in decades to come. Those most at risk are identified as residents who are unmarried, have physical health problems, and are in lower-income groups. Designing for social environments and community belonging in younger years may be a way to buffer against older age social isolation. Ensuring neighbourhoods are walkable and well connected is another important design intervention, with safe, even pavements found to encourage walking and being more social into older age (Richard et al. 2013).
Conclusion- connection to Mind the GAPS
Overall, this is an encouraging report which places mental health firmly on the Canadian city design agenda. Connections can be made to the New Urban Agenda with the promotion of public green space, safe public spaces and community engagement. Although a Canada specific report, the design suggestions featured will strike a chord with many urban design and public health workers who find themselves working to stem the tide of urban sprawl and its effects. Many of the design features as are also seen in our Mind the GAPS Framework:
Read the full report here.
About the Author
UD/MH Associate Andre Williams discusses one city's solution for increasing residents' access to green spaces.
Overstimulation combined with limited access to green space poses a threat to urban mental health. Urbanists throughout the decades have attempted to alleviate these challenges through the creation of parks, waterfront developments and other urban public spaces that belong to everyone and can create a sense of peace and respite in the city. This is the case for Montreal, which experiences extreme weather conditions for half of the year, but in warmer months, the city’s inhabitants flock outdoors in search of sunlight and nature. Montreal has increased availability to these urban oases with an initiative to reinvent public spaces previously perceived as seedy and undesirable, or as insecure due to their use for parking.
“Ruelles Vertes”, which translates to “Green Alleys”, is an initiative that started as a residential movement in Montreal in the 1960’s and is now backed by the city government. Its objective is to add to city’s greenspaces whilst simultaneously revitalizing communities. In addition to residential efforts, the project was propelled by Eco-Quartier Montreal in the mid 90’s, a branch of city of Montreal which focuses on environmental education at a citizen level. The initiative’s participative nature is a good example of different ways in which cities can foster urban change that comes from the citizens. Residents of certain areas can apply for alleyways behind their homes to become a “Ruelle Vertes” and are provided with knowledge and resources to create urban gardens, add greenery, and bring art into their neighborhoods. It is very common for murals and decorations to be placed in the alleys. In the summer months, the beautified alleyways create an attractive space perfect for a relaxing stroll. The concealed alleyways act as green walkways that are removed from Montreal’s noisy streets and provide pedestrians with peaceful, attractive and safe walking routes. By implementing this strategy to create something new from a pre-existing element, the initiative is an example of urban revitalization at a citizen level, its finest form.
An example of an alley that participates in the Ruelles Vertes intiative. Photo by Andre Williams.
The initiative was started for a number of reasons that benefit urban communities in Montreal. Alleyways have been perceived as undesirable and often unsafe spaces; by transforming them with nature and art, the initiative aims to help regenerate places that have been subject to urban blight. The plants and trees used by the Ruelle Vertes are native to the region and support local birds and insect species; the vegetation also helps address the heat island phenomenon, extremely common in many Montreal neighborhoods.
Beyond those benefits, this initiative has created unique and communal spaces in Montreal that support mental health and wellbeing. These green and quiet alleys expand accessible green space provision in the city; by doing so, they help create a sense of peace, safety and inspiration in places that previously had the opposite effect. They have stimulated positive changes in pedestrian security as public gardens and fostered urban safety and additional pedestrian life by slowing down vehicular traffic.
The Ruelle Vertes initiative has also stimulated public life in alleyways through the form of localized activities in the summer open to visitors and residents alike. These activities are mostly free of cost and have included films, gardening workshops, conferences, coffee-talk events, guided tours of alleys, games for children, and concerts. Through a resurgence of public life one can observe a resurgence of public health.
For more Ruelle Verte's guide to greening alleyways click here
About the Author
Dr Hongwei Dong, Associate Professor in city and regional planning at California State University, Fresno, shares his latest research on mental health and wellbeing in Beijing.
A study by China's CDC shows that more than 100 million people in China have mental health problems and more than 16 million have severe mental illness. At the same time, China is experiencing fast urbanization and more than 100 Chinese cities now have more than 1 million residents. Can we promote people’s mental wellbeing through better design of our urban neighborhoods? In order to answer this question, our research team conducted a case study in Beijing, the capital city in China. The results of this study are published in Landscape and Urban Planning.
Our study focuses on 16 typical Beijing neighborhoods that were identified by senior urban planners from Beijing Municipal Government. Survey questionnaires were brought to the 16 neighborhoods at the end of 2015. Survey participants described their mental wellbeing and evaluated both the built and social environments of their neighborhoods. The survey results suggest that mental wellbeing varies widely in the studied neighborhoods (the neighborhood that reported the best mental wellbeing scored about 50% higher than the lowest). Residents living in neighborhoods that are further away from the city center tended to have slightly better mental wellbeing.
So what explains such variation?
To answer this question, we measured and tested a series of factors that potentially influence people’s mental wellbeing:
1) Perceived neighborhood built environment, such as availability of green space, walkability, neighborhood safety, neighborhood accessibility to a variety of destinations, and easiness of driving and parking
2) Perceived neighborhood social cohesion which is measured based on whether and how people get along and help each other in a neighborhood
3) Observed neighborhood built environment such as land use density, mixed land use, and distance to the nearest park
4) a series of personal characteristics such as physical health, age, education, family structure, home and vehicle ownership, etc.
Neighbourhood social environment is most associated with mental wellbeing
It turns out that neighborhood social environment exerts a stronger influence on people’s mental wellbeing than neighborhood physical environment. People who reported better interpersonal relationships in their neighborhoods tended to have better mental wellbeing. Such a positive association, however, was weaker in newer neighborhoods that were built after 2000. We suspect that this is likely because social interactions and mutual assistance are declining when housing is being commercialized in newer neighborhoods. It could also be due to the fact that it takes time to form a close-knit neighborhood.
Living near a park was the main physical environment association with mental wellbeing
A few physical environment factors can also lead to better mental wellbeing. Consistent with previous findings, living close to a park helps to promote mental health. Land use density and mixed use, however, did not seem to have an impact on residents’ mental wellbeing, after taking into account of other variables. Satisfaction with neighborhood built environment had only a marginal positive effect on mental wellbeing. On the other hand, when asked if neighborhood built environment is important or very important, a majority of respondents said yes. This study found that neighborhood physical environment is important for residents, but has a minor role in determining their mental wellbeing. This finding is puzzling for us and may require more research.
The question of cars
Lastly, the study reveals a challenge that Beijing’s urban designers and planners have to face: with a quick increase of vehicle ownership, should neighborhoods be designed to be conducive for the use of private cars? Our study finds that residents who own cars tend to feel better when they live in neighborhoods that are conducive for driving and parking but vice versa for residents who don’t own cars. Designers and planners have to decide how to make a balance between walkability and easiness of driving in a neighborhood.
Read the full research paper
Note: Access to this journal paper requires payment
Dong, H., & B. Qin. 2017. Exploring the Link between Neighborhood Environment and Mental Wellbeing: A Case Study in Beijing, China. Landscape and Urban Planning, 164: 71-80. DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2017.04.005
About the Author
Kevin Lau from the Chinese University of Hong Kong describes his latest research from Hong Kong on mapping built environmental factors associated with depression in older people.
The health and well-being of citizens is strongly associated with the living quality of the high-density urban environment, for example: crowdedness, compactness, pollution, and urban heat islands. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable as their mental health can be less resilient. We therefore need to know how our built environment affects the health and wellness of elderly people so that we can provide a better living environment for promoting active ageing in our society.
Photo from South China Morning Post - read full article
CUHK Jockey Club Institute of Ageing was established in 2014 and has been working towards making Hong Kong a global age-friendly city. We have been working on how the built environment affects mortality, geriatric depression, frailty and cognitive function. Based on a large-scale cohort study started in 2001, we obtained a wide variety of health outcomes for our research studies.
For urban designers, it is important to identify the features of our built environment that affect the health and well-being of elderly people so that we can design better living spaces for them to age healthily. We identified high risk areas for geriatric depression in Hong Kong based on the results of statistical modeling and spatial mapping.
The results of this research in brief
We found that areas experiencing rapid redevelopment have the highest association with risk of depression in older people because of the vastly changing physical and social landscape. The changing building form is associated with changes in the composition of community amenities and social environment.
Planning and design of future development will have to take into account such changes and prevent the deterioration of living quality of elderly people.
Read the full research study here: Spatial Variability of Geriatric Depression Risk in a High-Density City: A Data-Driven Socio-Environmental Vulnerability Mapping Approach
Read a South China Post article about designing an age-friendly Hong Kong.
About the Author
October 10th is International Mental Health Day and this year's theme is mental health in the workplace. Unemployment is a major risk factor for mental health problems, and being employed usually protects our mental health. But since we spend a large portion of our days working, our work environment can have a wide range of effects on our wellbeing. This can affect how we feel, our relationships with friends and family, and importantly, our mental health. A challenging workplace can contribute to and exacerbate problems like stress, anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use, while a supportive environment can help staff thrive.
The World Health Organization says: "A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains. "
Workplace design for better mental health
Many of mental health challenges at work stem from relations with colleagues, degree of support, and working hours - but design also plays a role. In developing a workplace that supports mental health, let's look at some of the opportunities for workplace design. Then at the end, watch architect, Shigeki Irie, discussing how he implemented these ideas in his design of the new Coca-Cola Japan HQ LEED Platinum building in Tokyo.
Nature: Natural settings are good for our mood and stress; they can also increase stamina and concentration, which may affect productivity. Nature can be integrated into the workplace in various ways, including views, plants and water features within the office, and nature analogues such as materials and patterns (e.g. use of wood) and other decor (e.g. artwork) that evoke nature.
Physical activity: Workplaces should be set up in ways that encourage regular physical activity in the course of people's ordinary workday, such as designing buildings that favor the use of stairways, and providing other exercise opportunities.
Social interaction: Workplaces should encourage appropriate social interaction, both formally and informally. This may involve routing decisions around the workplace, design of rest areas and meal areas, and also connect to community linkage. Being in an office building all day can create feelings of disconnection and isolation: how can designers counteract this and maintain a sense of place and connection to the local community?
Circadian lighting: Many workplaces are indoors and a lack of natural light can affect people's sleep. Since sleep is an important protective factor for mental health, and poor sleep can exacerbate mental disorders. Leigh Stringer, author of The Healthy Workplace, says: "Circadian lighting in workplaces takes into account natural and artificial light, a certain intensity of light at the desktop height level, and the presence of high light levels for a certain amount of time during the day. Even if your workspace is lit at 500 lux, which is more than enough light for reading and most work tasks, it will not necessarily reset sleep schedule."
Choice and control: Feeling in control of your workplace environment reduces your risk of workplace stress. This includes being able to set up or select different styles of work spaces depending on individual preferences, for example providing multiple settings, or flexible use of individual work stations. It also includes being able to control noise - sometimes background noise can help people concentrate; other times it provides a stressful distraction.
CASE STUDY: Coca-Cola HQ, Tokyo
At our UD/MH Tokyo dialogue, Shigeki Irie, the architect in charge of the LEED Platinum Coca-Cola Japan HQ design, explained how he integratated principles of good mental health into the design of the building. To deliver nature exposure, physical activity, social interaction, circadian lighting, and community connection, he used a 'handshake design' to deliver a staircase running up the side of the building whose glass walls provide views of greenery and local streets. This staircase constitutes a venue in itself, with 'communication steps' to hold meetings, to relax and to have lunch. Also for lunch, he brought the office's cafeteria, previously underground, to an area overlooking a park, so that the room is now bright and surrounded by nature. He further enhanced connection and communication through opening up the office to enable people to see each other, and by enacting the Japanese concept of engawa, creating a welcoming area where the outside and inside interact (a concept rather like the American porch). And increased physical activity opportunities by creating bike parking and showers - unusual for a Tokyo office building.
Watch Shigeki Irie's talk here:
Designing for good mental health is the responsible choice - and it makes good business sense. Read more about mental health in the workplace.
Today, October 1st, is International Day of Older Persons. This year the theme is enabling and expanding the contributions of older people in their families, communities and societies at large. The World Health Organization recognizes that a key component of achieving this is through the creation of age-friendly environments:
Age-friendly environments foster health and well-being and the participation of people as they age. They are accessible, equitable , inclusive, safe and secure, and supportive. They promote health and prevent or delay the onset of disease and functional decline. They provide people-centered services and support to enable recovery or to compensate for the loss of function so that people can continue to do the things that are important to them - WHO
Urban design for ageing populations?
From the perspective of architects, planners and other city designers, age-friendly environments contribute to good mental wellbeing by enabling older people to access nature, meet friends, get exercise, conduct useful tasks, and participate and contribute to their communities. By enabling these actions, good design can enable participation in the community for people of different abilities, improving quality of life, and reducing the risk of mental health problems like loneliness and depression, including for people with dementia.
Mind the GAPS
Urban designers and planners can particularly contribute by designing high quality spaces by 'Minding the GAPS':
Read more: Download the World Health Organization Global Age-Friendly Cities Guide (2007) and check out Wisconsin's example of a Dementia-Friendly Communities toolkit.
Join: Is your city an age-friendly city? Join the World Health Organization's network.
First Washington DC, then London, and now Tokyo. On 1 August 2017, the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health delivered our Tokyo dialogue in partnership with Japanese think tank Health and Global Policy Institute. The event brought together architects, urban planners, health professionals, policymakers, academics and others from the Tokyo area to learn and share knowledge and experience at the nexus of urban design and mental health. The talks were filmed and once subtitled, they will be shared online, along with better photos. But for now, a quick summary.
The event kicked off with a brief talk by UD/MH Director Layla McCay about the links between urban design and mental health, with some examples from her Tokyo research. If you can't wait for the video, here's a similar talk she did last week at Pecha Kucha Tokyo. If you'd like to read her full Tokyo urban design/mental health case study, it's here.
Next up were eight 5-minute talks from a range of exciting Japan-based speakers, all of whom have worked in various capacities in urban design for mental health. Themes that emerged included:
Here is a brief summary of the talks. These will be available on video in due course:
YOSHIHARU KIM 金 吉晴 氏 is president of Japan's National Center of Disaster Mental Health and the Director of the Department of Adult Mental Health, National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry (NCNP), Japan, affiliated to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. He set the scene with a look at the historical context of how mental health has been addressed in jails and asylums, and the evolution to care in the community - which means designing for good quality, appropriate homes and diverse, inclusive communities that are 'supportive but stimulating'.
NAOMI SAKURAI 桜井 なおみ 氏, in addition to being a social worker, professional engineer, and industrial counselor, is President of Cancer Solutions Co., Ltd and Patient Representative at Japan's National Cancer Control Promotion Council. She discussed her realisation in the UK that urban planning was intrinsic to health promotion. After being diagnosed with cancer, her patient and professional perspectives enabled her to bring these ideas to Japan, including community engagement in urban planning for wellbeing.
MASAHARU SAKOH 酒向 正春 氏 is Director of Nerima Ken-ikukai Hospital and a stroke rehabilitation specialist. He is interested in community design to support patients once they have been discharged from hospital. He discussed the importance of community integration for better quality of life and mental health in order to support rehabilitation after any illness. His work includes the design of Hatsudai Healthy Road (interesting article in English) in central Tokyo, which delivers a wide, well-lit, accessible pavement lined by health and social facilities.
FUMIKO MEGA 妻鹿 ふみ子 氏 is a Professor of Social Work at the School of Health Sciences at Tokai University and manages the Japan Volunteer Coordinators Association. Her talk focused on leveraging urban design to create a sense of belonging in the community, with a particular focus on the opportunities of so-called 'third spaces' in Tokyo.
TARO YOKOYAMA 横山 太郎 氏 is a medical oncologist and palliative care doctor at Yokohama Municipal Citizens’ Hospital. He works on the “CO-MINKAN” project, a privatized community center for healthy urban development. He also supports the development of a VR dementia simulation to increase insight for both carers and urban designers. He proposed that dementia is not a personal problem; it is a city problem: cities should be designed to better meet the needs of the super-ageing population by implementing dementia-friendly design.
Picture: Tadamichi SHIMOGAWARA 下河原 忠道 氏 gives UD/MH Director Layla McCay a demonstration of a VR dementia experience
YOSHIYUKI KAWANO 河野 禎之 氏 is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Center for Diversity and Accessibility, University of Tsukuba. He is also a member of the Dementia Friendly Japan Initiative (DFJI) and World Young Leaders in Dementia (WYLD). He attested: "there is no reason for dementia patients to lose things they enjoy just because of challenges of navigating the city". He proposed the role of urban design in enabling people with dementia to remain in their houses and navigate their neighbourhoods, including safely using transportation.
KANA HISHIDA 菱田 佳奈 氏 works at Tokyu Land Corporation on the development of a dementia-friendly care residence, Setagaya-nakamachi. This project has been delivered in partnership with the Dementia Services Development Centre (DSDC) at Stirling University in the UK. She specifically highlighted the opportunities of integrating dementia-friendly design in terms of colour, engagement with nature, and creating a sense of security and community.
SHIGEKI IRIE 入江 茂樹 氏 from Jun Mitsui & Associates Inc. Architects and Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects Japan, Inc. is the architect of the new Coca-Cola Japan headquarters building in Shibuya, Tokyo, the first HQ building in Japan to achieve LEED Platinum status and the venue of this event. Continuing our tradition of holding our events in architecturally exciting buildings, we were delighted that Coca-Cola Japan agreed to host us - and the opportunity to tour the building was a particular highlight for many architects - and many other locals who have watched it going up.
A focus of this building was connection to nature, to colleagues, and to the community. This meant creating a place of interaction. Irie discussed the specific design features intended to improve staff happiness and mental wellbeing; particularly relevant in Tokyo where people work long hours, and good mental health at work is an emerging priority for companies - and thus for architects and designers. These included:
Finally, Edition 3 of the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health was launched. This edition has a Tokyo theme, and features cover art by the President of HGPI, Ryoji Noritake.
Thank you to our partners and supporters in Japan who helped make this event possible:
Health and Global Policy Institute (HGPI), British Embassy Tokyo, Coca-Cola Japan, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, and the NGO Promotion Committee for Healthy Cities.
Ryoji Noritake (HGPI President) and Layla McCay (UD/MH Director) after the event
By Tom Mayes, vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust, USA
What scientific evidence supports historic preservation? We study the economics of historic preservation and know that it supports a vibrant and sustainable economy. We research the environmental and energy impacts of historic preservation and know that the greenest building is the one that is already built. We research what people like and know that they prefer old places. But what about the so-called “softer” benefits of historic preservation? What studies support those notions of belonging, continuity, memory, and identity that we all feel?
Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. How do everyday people perceive and value historic places? | Credit: Tom Mayes
Although there is abundant anecdotal evidence indicating that older and historic places provide a sense of belonging and identity that is beneficial for people’s emotional and mental health, the health benefits of retaining and reusing such places have not been studied extensively. In four decades of research about the impacts of place attachment and place identity, very little has focused specifically on the factor of age of place or the distinction that age provides. Although I don’t doubt the deeply held attachments people feel for old places, I do think we will be more influential with policymakers if we have solid scientific studies to back up the perceived softer benefits of preservation. Or, as one of the other fellows at the American Academy in Rome said to me, “Show me the studies!”
It helps to go to the source. At the invitation of Jeremy Wells, professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland and incoming chair of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), David Brown, chief preservation officer at the National Trust, and I spoke at a plenary session of EDRA’s annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in June. EDRA’s purpose is to advance and disseminate research, teaching, and practice toward improving an understanding of the relationships among people, their built environments, and natural ecosystems. The theme of the conference, “Voices of Place: Empower, Engage, Energize,” sounds exactly like a preservation conference theme. And, in addition to a historic preservation track, the conference also featured tracks about cities and globalization; health and place; cultural aspects of design; and sustainable planning, design, and behavior—among others. Jeremy has long been an advocate for conducting more scientific research about people’s relationships with old places. He invited us to speak expressly for the purpose of spurring EDRA members to conduct more research that could help us shape preservation practice to better meet people’s needs.
Period Garden Park in Madison, Wisconsin. People appreciate the layering of historic communities and the associated sense of discovery and mystery. | Credit: Tom Mayes
The timing of the EDRA conference couldn’t have been better. This spring the National Trust released Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future, which, as David Brown said, “signals a philosophical shift toward using preservation to serve people and help them flourish.” Preservation for People recommends that the preservation field “support and publicize research on the health, economic, community, and sustainability benefits of preservation,” including through partnerships with entities performing environmental health research to study the impact of older and historic places on human health. And in November, when we gather in Chicago for PastForward 2017, an entire track of sessions dedicated to health and historic preservation will include a panel on environmental psychology and historic preservation.
At the EDRA conference, David and I shared information about what preservationists say and believe about historic preservation, beginning with the ideas of continuity, memory, and identity from the “Why Do Old Places Matter?” essays and highlighting key themes from Preservation for People—especially the idea that historic preservation should be about helping people flourish. Jeremy discussed which aspects of historic preservation have been studied from a social science point of view and which haven’t. He focused on the following ideas:
Jeremy Wells, incoming chair, welcomes attendees to the Environmental Design Research Association conference (EDRA 48) at Momona Terrace, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed convention center in Madison, Wisconsin. | Credit: Tom Mayes
Jeremy also raised a number of questions about historic preservation, hoping to spur additional research:
We must be open to the possibility of reshaping preservation practice in response to what we hear. For example:
Carillon Tower at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. | Credit: Tom Mayes
In addition to the plenary session on historic preservation, the conference included a meeting of the Historic Environment Network and a full historic preservation track. Here are some key, relevant ideas I heard while attending some of those sessions:
This post originally appeared on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog. Preservation Leadership Forum is a network of preservation professionals brought together by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Forum provides and curates cutting edge content, offers online and in person networking opportunities, and brings new, diverse perspectives to the business of saving places.
Sanity and Urbanity: