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
Sanity and Urbanity: