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Designing our city for good mental health

Catherine Carter

Did you know that city dwellers record higher rates of most mental health problems than their rural cousins?

According to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health in the United States, citizens of our global cities are almost 40 percent more likely to suffer from depression, 20 percent more likely to be anxious and face double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to higher rates of loneliness, isolation and stress.

Globally, one in four people will experience mental health problems. Mental health disorders account for 7.4 percent of the burden of disease, and are the leading cause of long-term disability worldwide.

Our buildings influence how we feel about the world around us. And this means architects and planners, designers and developers play a critical role in creating places that support good mental health.

Suzanne Moulis is a registered landscape architect as well as chief executive officer of Canberra-based Moulis Legal. She says there are strong links between health, mental wellbeing and easy access – physical, visual and social – to natural environments.

“The quality of this environment – in areas such as amenity, safety, visual appeal and connectivity – influences how likely we are to engage with it, both physically and mentally, and determines how we feel when we are moving through it at a pedestrian pace,” Suzanne, the former national vice president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, says.

Suzanne Moulis

Suzanne Moulis

There is compelling evidence that “green time” helps everyone from adults with anxiety to children coping with attention deficit disorders.

Just one study from the UK, published in the Environmental Science and Technology in 2013, found that moving into an urban area with green space has a long-lasting positive impact on people’s mental wellbeing – much more than a pay rise or promotion does.

Astoundingly, the researchers found that even people who had won more than $1 million in the lottery slipped back to their baseline mental health within six months, while people who had moved into communities with lots of green space were still happier after three years.

But green space is just one of the four main themes in urban design that can support mental health. Active spaces that promote physical health are also important, as regular exercise can act as a mild antidepressant. Social spaces that encourage natural interactions between people – whether that’s window shoppers or dog walkers – can reduce people’s sense of isolation and loneliness. And safe spaces – in terms of crime and traffic or even places that are easy to navigate if you are in a wheelchair or living with dementia – also play a role.

Brindabella Park

Brindabella Park

“If we don’t feel safe or are compelled take a long, circuitous route, if there’s no shade, shelter or places to rest then we are more likely to use a car than walk, or to stay inside,” Suzanne says.

“Designing buildings and open space that encourage meeting and social interaction makes a critical contribution to mental health,” she adds.

Milica Muminović is Assistant Professor Architecture at the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Arts & Design. She says there is an important distinction between art and architecture – one which affects our health and wellbeing.

“Generally art is located in galleries and we get to choose to experience it. Architecture is, however, public. We can’t look away. That is why architecture and cities have great impact our everyday life and thus, on health and wellbeing.”

The design of our city influences our everyday life and the way we move around the city and buildings, but also “the way we experience and live poetically,” Milica says.

Milica says that as our lives have accelerated to light speed, the secret is to take time to pause.

Milica Muminovic

Milica Muminovic

“As designers and architects, we have ethical responsibility to design good spaces. For me, good architecture interrupts the fluidity of everyday life. It makes us pause, reflect, admire and relax.”

While Suzanne says we are “blessed” with good quality open space in Canberra, we can do better – and most of that is about ensuring we have the right infrastructure in the right places.

“Good design ensures kids can get to school safely by foot or on bicycle, that individual developments consider connectivity and permeability, that there is space with deep soil provided for large tree planting to provide shade, amenity and environmental benefits – these all contribute to how likely we are to get out and enjoy the outdoors,” Suzanne says.

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For Milica, the secret is to build in such a way that jolts people out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. It’s about creating the “poetic moments that make us stop and just appreciate life”.

As a planned city, Canberra has good bones – with ample green space and connections with nature. Our low-slung built form is far from the concrete jungle of other cities, and we do not face the same challenges as high-rise cities.

What we do have, perhaps almost uniquely in terms of world cities, is a mix of medium density apartment living and detached homes in the suburbs. I know that some people are concerned that our suburbs are under threat from densification around shopping centres, for example, but we’re not talking tower blocks in densely built up areas. Instead, done right, we have the potential to create lively communities able to support shops, businesses and public transport – and to create active, vibrant places that inspire people to connect, interact and enjoy life.

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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