Designing cities for good mental health
The built environment in a city is carefully regulated so that it doesn’t cause physical harm. However, our mental wellbeing is not prioritised – often due to stigma, but also because it’s considered too complex to manage. However, as more people migrate to cities, increasing numbers are suffering from mental illness. That’s why this aspect can no longer be ignored in urban planning and design if we want thriving, vibrant, sustainable cities in future.
Cities are place of opportunity – economic, cultural and educational – and there are large numbers of people to connect with. Except we also get sensory overload and become isolated despite being surrounded by so many people. Urban planners and developers have a role to play in addressing these issues.
The thinktank City Lab identifies four types of urban spaces that contribute to greater mental health, and all of them occur within mixed-use environments:
- Green spaces
- Active spaces
- Social spaces
- Safe spaces
This does not refer to parks or other outdoor areas that you’d go and see. Instead, it’s what you’d encounter as you go about your daily business. It could be as small as the view from your home or office – whether you see greenery or not.
Mixed-use developments address this need by balancing built and natural environments. This includes everything from gardens in the courtyards of apartment blocks, to public areas with trees, shrubs and shade.
In many cities this is also done at elevation, where a podium level between buildings has areas with greenery and public access. You’ll find exactly this at Harbour Arch, the Amdec Group’s large-scale new development in the Cape Town CBD, where sweeping mountain views and cityscapes add a dramatic backdrop.
Active spaces are part of mixed-use developments, like Harbour Arch, by default. The fact that you’re able to meet most of your daily needs within easy walking distance means regular exercise without even having to think about it; you simply go about your daily business. Walkability is built into the mixed-use DNA.
Personal interactions are decreasing, with people contact often taking place online and via a screen. However, if the spaces where we work and live create environments where we encounter people, it helps to alleviate mental distress and feelings of isolation and loneliness.
A development on the scale of Harbour Arch functions like a neighbourhood by bringing people together in a single location. It’s easy to interact and quickly creates a sense of community.
Security measures can easily seem clinical, sterile and restrictive – for example, when there’s only one entrance, exit or safe walking route. In a mixed-use precinct, security measures are discreet and unobtrusive. People can choose how they move and where they go. It’s a healthy way of life – physically and mentally – because you get both freedom and peace of mind. Mixed-use precincts are in such high demand worldwide because they present all the opportunities of a city, without the negative impact on quality of life.