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Urban Design Affects Mental Health

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June 14, 2019
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Aerial view of Central Park, New York. Original image from Carol

Aerial view of Central Park, New York. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Landscape Influences Mental Health

It’s important to be aware of, and responsible for, our individual mental health and do whatever we can to create positive relationships and function well in our work and family life. But there’s a broader perspective on how to nourish mental health and that’s in the design of the community we live in.

The mission of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health is to encourage planners and local governments to build communities that are in harmony with
essential psychological needs.

The World Health Organization describes mental health as “...a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

The built environment and landscape create a setting that influences individual mental health and has a combined effect on people and the community.

Our Surroundings Impact Mental Health

All the daily activities of our lives affect our mental health. If our activities induce satisfaction, relaxation and rejuvenation they can balance out the natural stresses of our rushed and frenetic lifestyle.

Research on housing, green space, the “blue space” of water, commuting and places to connect with neighbors show how these elements impact our psychological state. It is important to realize that some people are more prone to dealing with stressors in daily life and the built environment, while others can be negatively affected by one or a combination of these potentially stress-creating factors.

Reducing Stress by Improving Your Commute

Traffic jams get on our nerves. Some people get so angry with other drivers our society even had to create a name for it - road rage.

Commuting by train in cities takes away some driving stress, but adds the stressors of crowding and some unpredictability as to scheduling. Trying to squeeze into an overcrowded subway car in New York, Boston or San Francisco on the way home from work, and having the door slide closed in front of you, only adds tension at the end of a busy workday.

Bicycling in heavy traffic is nowhere near a relaxing bike ride and even walking in densely populated or unsafe areas can cause anxiety.

Pleasant commuting, for instance, a walk that includes green space or a relaxed train ride, can alleviate anxiety.

Higher Density is an Additional Stressor

Urban environments are associated with higher levels of psychiatric disorders, according to the Mind the GAPS Framework by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health.

“Cities are associated with higher rates of most mental health problems, compared to rural areas. City dwellers have an almost 40 percent higher risk of depression, 20 percent more anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to more loneliness, isolation and stress,” according to the educational organization based in the United Kingdom.

The GAPS Framework includes essential elements of urban design:
Green space, including natural areas in neighborhoods and on routes where people do routine activities, like shopping
Active places, for outdoor exercise
Pro-social places, public areas for people to gather, especially vulnerable groups such as immigrants, children and older adults
Safe places, with a sense of security, good lighting, traffic control and welcoming walking routes

Exposure to Nature

Exposure to nature can help alleviate stress, depression and anxiety.

The results of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that just by transforming vacant city lots into green space decreased depression among participants by 40 percent. That study also found that 60 percent of the participants reported an improved state of overall mental health just because they lived near the lot that had been made into green space.

Another study detailed in the International Journal of Public Health found that when people look at a natural landscape they have an immediate ability to recover from stress.

Researchers on that study of natural areas reported that “...these effects concern their attention, conscious mental processing, behavior and physiological reactions. While looking at a landscape that is perceived as pleasant, negative feelings and thoughts, which were previously induced by negative stress exposure,are replaced by positive feelings such as interest, cheerfulness and calmness.”

These findings and the efforts to build and design environments that promote mental health are community and society efforts. Individuals and mental health advocates can collaborate with local governments, architects and landscape designers to make more of these positive environments a reality.


Gardiner, Joey, “City Dwellers Are Prone to Depression- Are High-Rises to Blame?The Guardian, March 16, 2017

King, Jacob, “Community Greening Interventions Have A Positive Impact on Community Mental Health,” Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, July 31, 2018

King, Jacob, “Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community Dwelling Adults,” Journal of the American Medical Association, July 20, 2018

Abraham, Andrea; Abel, Thomas; and Sommerhalder, Kathrin, “ Landscape and Well-Being: A Scoping Study on the Health Promoting Impact of Outdoor Environments,” International Journal of Public Health,, September 2009

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