With an estimated 1 in 4 people living with a mental health issue, and COVID-19 forcing many of us to face additional stressors, psychological health in the UK is a more pressing issue than ever before. In recent years, the link between our physical environment and mental health has been more widely investigated, and it makes sense.
After all, why would the environment we live, work and socialise in every day not affect our mental health?
This is why it is absolutely vital for both local authorities and town planners to consider the mental health implications of our urban and rural developments, whether they be commercial, residential or otherwise.
Here are 4 key ways in which the town planning industry can be instrumental in enhancing mental wellbeing within the population:
1 Encouraging outdoor exercise and exposure to green spaces.
The link between nature and mental wellbeing is well-known and studied – in fact, there is now a whole branch of psychology dedicated to the effects of nature on our mental health. By integrating gardens, parks and green public spaces into our towns and cities, town planners can add seamless exposure to nature into the daily routines of residents. What’s more, increased green space could also boost motivation to take outdoor exercise, which is well documented to have a positive impact on mental health.
2 Reducing isolation and facilitating socialisation.
During the pandemic, the issue of isolation has been thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Developing public spaces that encourage everyday socialisation and interaction can only be good news for residents who do not have access to daily social contact, including the elderly and, as has been well-publicised recently, students.
3 Ensuring accessibility and safety are a top priority.
Town planners are integral in the fight for residential and public spaces that are accessible to all community stakeholders. In fact, accessibility is right at the heart of improving mental health, as it comes hand-in-hand with barrier-free socialisation and daily living. Equally, ensuring adequate lighting and surveillance are present within our neighbourhoods is key in the fight against crime, having a knock-on effect on social cohesion, community spirit and ultimately, mental wellbeing.
4 Carefully designing our neighbourhoods to cater for specialist needs.
Being mindful of the individual needs of groups is of great importance in town planning. For example, designing spaces in which essential shops and amenities are in close proximity to elderly residents, and ensuring housing is available to suit the needs of those living with dementia or autism are absolutely vital for a thriving, diverse and happy community.
The need to make sure our towns and cities are conducive to both the mental and physical health of residents is starker than ever before. By liaising with local authorities, town planners are instrumental in the design and development of communities that can holistically enhance the mental wellbeing of their residents.
The Royal Town Planning Institute have published a practice note Mental health and town planning – Building in resilience which gives advice on how planners can work within the current UK planning systems and with other professionals to take account of mental health when making changes to the built environment.