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Rethinking Our Cities for Mental Health

Roe, JennyThe pandemic has caused us to think differently about how we design our cities for health.  In a new book, Professor Jenny Roe, sets out how we might live differently using a new template for urban design that focuses on mental health and wellbeing.

Jenny Roe is Professor and Director of the Center for Design & Health in the School of Architecture, University of Virginia and Honorary Professor in the Urban Institute, Heriot Watt University, UK. An environmental psychologist and former head of Landscape Architecture for an international architectural practice, she has written extensively on the impact of the environment on health and wellbeing including for the World Health Organization and The Lancet.  She has over 15 years’ experience in the use of ‘restorative environments’ to build healthier urban societies and communities including a vital role for urban parks and green space.

As we face surges in the new Delta variant worldwide city dwellers are experiencing continuing pandemic anxiety and uncertainty.  At the same time, we’re witnessing a cultural shift in how people talk about mental health and the strategies people use to support their wellbeing.  This includes how we access and use our neighbourhood environment around us.  Urban parks and green space have witnessed a dramatic increase in use during Covid-19 as people seek refuge and respite from the pandemic.  Our city streets have become hubs for socializing, for getting to know our local shopkeepers and neighbours, to favor local grocery stores and cafes over big supermarkets and malls.  For many of us our choices have changed – and continue to change – as we manage new ways of working and living.

Jenny’s new book, co-authored with psychiatrist Layla McCay, called Restorative Cities, sets out a new way of designing cities, and one which places mental health at the forefront.  It argues that smarter city planning can ease the stressors experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic and boost mental health for city residents. The book provides a new template for how to design ‘mentally healthy’ cities – cities that foster stronger social ties, that reduce stress, depression and anxiety, that make residents happier and sustain overall wellbeing.

Drawing on 1000s of robust, scientific studies from public health, psychology and urbanism Restorative Cities presents an integrated framework of seven basic principles that include: the green city (bringing nature right into the heart of a city); the blue city (providing access to water); the sensory city (designing for the full sensory range); the neighbourly city (urban design that builds stronger and more sociable communities); the active city (design for walkability, cycling and other modes of active travel); the playable city (design for all age play that nurtures curiosity and discovery); and the inclusive city (design for social inclusion, health equity and for diversity). And above all, the book argues, we need to ensure the equitable distribution of the above resources for mental health equity.

As one example – the design of ‘restorative streets’ that can boost mental health – might include:

  • Multiple uses and facilities, a mixture of all kinds of residences, workplaces, shops, cafes and restaurants that bring people out on the street at all times of day;
  • Urban greenery and street trees that are so strongly linked with restorative mental health;
  • The inclusion of ‘fascinating’ shopfront facades, and other attributes of street design that promote curiosity and wonder (such as public art, green walls, murals);
  • Safe ‘bumping’ places where people can mix and mingle on an impromptu basis; dog walking areas, street chess, mini-markets and food stalls, for example.
  • Comfortable streets that restrict vehicular access and promote walkability and other modes of active travel including cycling.
Barcelona’s car-free super blocks providing safe ‘restorative streets’ for play, walking, cycling and socializing. Source: Abigail Chan

Restorative Cities Book CoverThe principles are not meant to be a rule book but to fuel creativity, discussion and thought amongst urban designers, architects, practitioners in public health, medicine and across multiple academic disciplines.  The ideas are beautifully illustrated by Spring Braccia-Beck, a graduate from UVA’s School of Architecture (class of ’16), who also designed the front cover, illustrated here.

The way we work, communicate, socialize, travel, shop and consume goods has been changed by pandemic restrictions.  Many believe we won’t return to city life as it once was.  Whilst the pandemic has brought many awful things, it’s also created an impetus for change.  Right now we have a zeitgeist opportunity to build back for a more equitable recovery that must include how we design and build our communities for mental and social health. Restorative Cities sets out a new template for how this can be achieved.

Buy the book from any bookshop or order direct from Bloomsbury to receive a 35% discount. Discount codes:

UK and rest of world: RESCITIES35



Australia: RESCITIES35AU