While in rural environments the mental health stays a taboo, due to more often than not a patriarchal social patterns, it is the cities that we associate with higher rates of most mental health problems: an almost 40% higher risk of depression, over 20% more anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to more loneliness, isolation, and stress. 

But good mental health is not only essential for the well-being of an individual but is also a pillar in achieving resilient, sustainable cities. According to Urban Design Mental Health, one in four people globally will experience mental health problems: mental health disorders account for 7.4% of the burden of disease and are now the leading cause of long-term disability worldwide.

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On the B-side, good mental health can improve our enjoyment, coping skills and all our social interactions, professional achievement, employment, reduce physical health problems, heart conditions included… And whether our mental health is under a positive or a negative force depends greatly on the physical and social environment.

Besides the pre-existing risk factors like poverty, homelessness, health problems, previous trauma, and crisis; social factors like minority status, negative disparities that cause physical and psychological segregation into neighborhoods, prejudice, discrimination, etc, environmental factors are also impactful, yet often looked over while increasing stimuli, and stripping away protective factors.

How? Cities are densely populated, streets crowded, noisy, polluted in terms of air, water, and soil, but also sight – every corner of major cities is hectically trying to convey a message. It leaves us susceptible to stress and to fight it, we often overdo it and hustle ourselves into social isolation and further on depression, anxiety, and sometimes ecological hypothesis of schizophrenia, as stated on the same site.

Having often very poor access to nature, little to no time to exercise daily, and spending our leisure hours commuting, we are deprived of our protective layers. We feel frightened, we sleep less, our privacy is breached, and we lose ties to an old network of friends and family back home.

Right next to heavy meds, pricey engineering, or de-rooting your life again from the city dweller routine you just established, the scientists are proposing simple, affordable, and healthy nature-based solutions to fix up our urban environments.

There is now a mountain of works proving how urban design can work for our physical health by reducing obesity, lung diseases, etc, but mental health is still a sort of aftermath or simple chain reaction to previously mentioned actions. But we do know for certain that cities affect our mental health and vice versa.

Although we still need to learn, urban design does have a gigantic potential in promoting good mental health, help prevent illnesses, and aid people with problems, but it is crucial to engage architects, urban planners, developers, policymakers, and environmental experts.

There are dozens of key “hows”, but let’s look at some of them:

1. Access to Nature: It promotes exercise, gives pleasant surroundings for social interactions, we have a natural urge to be in contact with other species (just remember the “awww, puppy-effect”), it gives us a distance and different perspective to our daily fuss, it pleases the eye, its meditative… So it would be beneficial to be able to walk in tree shades, have a good, green office window view, grab lunch in some garden…

2. Open Gyms: It is free, it’s 24/7, could involve socialization, but only if we want it to. There is something to tiring our body to brighten up our spirits. Regular exercise can reduce depression and works wonders for our self-esteem, and quality of sleep, but also dementia, ADHD, and even schizophrenia… Our cities should provide everyone an opportunity to introduce working out in our daily routine. Think public transportation: if we felt safe walking or cycling around anywhere at any time, roads (read pollution, noise, stress) would become significantly de-clustered. Also, access to free sports courts integrates low-income and minorities into the social plexus. 

3. Socializing: Needles to say, a good social network keeps us sane, empowered, emphatic, boosts our wits, kills loneliness… So, urban places should facilitate our social interaction while still minding our privacy needs. Wide, shaded pedestrian lanes allow us to bump into someone and say hi, multipurpose areas direct folks with different needs to meet and interact, and even building facades can decide whether we choose to drive or walk through the neighborhood.

4. Looking Over The Shoulder: Besides the risk posed by other humans, urban dangers also include traffic, poor getting around, pollution, etc. It’s pretty self-explanatory. If I’ve been robbed in that particular neighborhood, I’m unlikely to walk, socialize or relax there again. Feeling unsafe lifts chronic stress and anxiety levels so cities have to work on crime prevention and it’s feasible through simple steps like clearly dividing public and private spaces, enabling natural surveillance by making areas visible…

5. Sleep. We all lack it even though it is one of the most important mental health shields. And yet, cities are all about neon, noise, and crowd. The roaring of machinery, siren here, alarm there, construction site… All these pretty much mess with our biological sleep mode. Even if it doesn’t wake us totally, it shifts us from that deep sleep to lighter stages, and we get up exhausted. When sleep-deprived, we tend to think more dark thoughts and invent dark future scenarios. It goes something like this: people with mental health disorders are more likely to have sleep disorders, like insomnia. People with insomnia are four times more prone to developing depression, and depressed people with insomnia respond to treatment poorly. Quality insulation, trees, vertical farms, and other noise blockers can secure our good sleep. Also, traffic can be restricted during certain parts of the day, street lights could be pointed downwards

6. Air should not have scent or color: The effects of air pollution on our mental health are still to be fully discovered, but the connection with the depression is more and more evident. Also, there are links between autistic spectrum disorders earlier in life, cognitive decline, and psychotic disorders later.