Urban design is defined as “the manipulation of the physical environment” by the late University of Washington Professor Meyer Wolfe. Urban design pursues multiple objectives for multiple clients i.e. the people of the city and their requirements. It addresses the sensory environment through which a human perceives and behaves in a physical environment. This is reflected through understanding the cultural behaviors, economic factors, and functional activities of the surroundings. (Mrsc.org., 2020)
While urban design is typically thought of as addressing only the large-scale features of interventions, the success of an urban design intervention is determined through its implication across a range of scales. Ultimately a project acknowledges and addresses the conditions within the boundaries of the project, its implications on the larger surroundings, as well as its implications on an individual. (Mrsc.org., 2020)
Cities and buildings have an impact on people, not only in the physical realm but psychologically. According to the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health, when compared to people living in rural areas, people living in urban cities have a 40% higher risk of depression, 20% higher anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia. The link between poorly designed buildings and cities, and the mental well-being of an individual is more direct than one would assume. (The Hindu, 2020)
Access to Nature
Across all socioeconomic variations and age groups, researchers consistently find links between mental health and wellbeing, and urban green spaces. Access to nature has been associated with reduced chances of depression, stress, and an improvement in social and cognitive functioning.
Three principal theories \combine to explain the positive impact of green spaces. Edward Wilson’s Biophilia Theory postulates that humans have a biological need that is satisfied when they are in contact with other species. Roger Ulrich’s Stress Reduction Theory proposes that the distance from one’s daily grind and bustle is what makes green space’s effect fruitful. (Design Council, n.d.)
Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory explains that natural settings capture people’s attention without the need to concentrate which is what actually helps them feel more relaxed. While these are all theories, they all have a part to play with the mental health benefits people obtain from greenery. (Design Council, n.d.)
Furthermore, green spaces can reduce exposure to air pollutants which in turn has positive effects on mental and physical health. Air pollutants have been implicated in various cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Furthermore, there is also evidence justifying a link between air pollution and depression. (Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, n.d.)
However, merely incorporating greenery into a design is not sufficient. Inaccessible or poorly managed green spaces that feel threatening could deter its use and benefits. Ironically, without maintenance, these same spaces could turn into places of fear, dark corners, poor sightlines, and concealed entrances that might make the users feel unsafe and illegal activities could commandeer the space.
Social Spaces and Safety
Humans are social creatures, interaction on all scales- from close relationships to feeling part of a community—becomes an essential component of their wellbeing. Social interaction builds confidence, empathy, feelings of belonging, and support and helps cope with the adversities of life. Hence, there is an extensive potential for creating spaces that facilitate positive and safe social interactions. Flexible public spaces through street furniture, the orientation of entrances, and seating to promote social interaction. It also includes creating vibrant and stimulating building facades to avoid monotonous extents of blocks that could trigger negative thoughts or press on the isolation of a person and reduce social interaction. (Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, n.d.)
An important aspect of a person’s mental and physical health is the feeling of insecurity in the course of their daily routine. More often than none, fear can trigger the ‘fight or flight response’ in the body that secretes stress hormones. While this is an evolutionary function to save people, low-level threats can keep the body in an unnatural habitual state of preparation which can cause long-term negative effects on the mind and body. Through designing an intensive street network, with well-lit active roads, and mixed-use buildings a sense of security and safety can be instilled in a neighborhood. (Design Council, n.d.)
Compact walkable neighborhoods could potentially provide for natural, daily social interactions. However, in cities, people tend to encounter hundreds of people every day, and it is important to maintain the sense of privacy of an individual as well, so the social interaction must be mediated to avoid overloading and chaos. It is the quality of social space and interaction that makes a difference rather than quantity.
Active Space for Exercise
Exercise is not just a need for physical health but also mental health. Exercise is an effective antidepressant medication for mild and moderate depression and can help reduce stress, anxiety, some symptoms of dementia, ADHD, and schizophrenia. Among the bustling busy lives, people lead in urban cities, people struggle to incorporate exercise into their daily lives. (Design Council, n.d.)
An opportunity for incorporating exercise into the fabric of the city itself is by designing active transportation networks, including pedestrian and bike protective lanes, and a convenient network between different parts of the city. Along with promoting exercise, it also reduces vehicular traffic and speed which overall reduces noise and air pollution in the city. The act of seeing and interacting with people is more likely on a pedestrian or bike path than in vehicles.
Furthermore, good public transportation networks encourage walking between bus stops and destinations. Mixed-use buildings in a neighborhood play an important role in locating residential areas near facilities like markets, schools, libraries, sports grounds and can further encourage walking.
Transportation and Connectivity
Transportation is an integral part of city life. Well-connected and affordable transportation allows people to move efficiently, linking communities and places and provides access to opportunities like employment, education, and interaction. Hence, it can make the city more affordable and accessible for people of low-income groups. Economic disparities are often highlighted through segregation quite distinctly in cities.
By the sheer affordability of real estate, and the development and amenities a neighborhood has to offer, people of lower socioeconomic groups tend to be more prone to crime, dilapidation, and adversity. Numerous researches determine the link between sub-par built environments and urban drug and alcohol abuse, and crime. This usually stems from their feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem, and high frustration.
Furthermore, time spent commuting is time away from leisure and social activities, as well as sleep. Stressful commutes are often associated with increased stress, anxiety, and aggression. Research suggests that commuter stress is highest among car drivers leading to road rage which makes them more prone to accidents. Whereas it is moderate for public transit users and lowest for walkers and cyclists. These are some of the reasons why pedestrianization as a concept is becoming increasingly popular among designers and the importance of pedestrian safety, creating pedestrian plazas, and enhancing public transportation networks has become the need of the hour. (Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, n.d.)
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for people-centric design and the psychological implications of it, now more than ever. The dire need to design the public realm for good health—physically, mentally, and in terms of reducing the risk of infection—has been made abundantly clear by the global crisis.
It is essential for not just urban designers to take mental health and wellbeing into account but also public health experts, policymakers, planners, and clients involved in commissioning projects. Mental health is a pressing matter and adds value to urban design like no other factor. It is the key to achieving complete success in cities all over the world.
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