Sanity and the city: Five ways urban design can promote your mental health

Good design can overcome the isolating nature of urban settings.

Living in the "big city" offers many amenities and conveniences, but the big city can also be a crowded, noisy and isolating place. Feeling connected and having a supportive community is a very important part of mental health. But are the 80 per cent of Canadians living in urban areas getting the support they need?

Researcher Candace Nykiforuk and her Policy, Location and Access in Community Environments (PLACE) Research Lab team provide five ways the design of urban environments can promote mental health:

  1. Foster social connections.

    Spaces that are designed for people to gather, meet or bump into each other encourage social connection and interaction.

    "When we have opportunities to socialize, or even recognize neighbours on the street, we are connected to a larger social network," explains Nykiforuk. "This is positive for our self-esteem."

    Town squares, parks with facilities for gathering, or initiatives like the City of Edmonton's Buddy Benches all foster community social interaction.

  2. Encourage physical activity.

    Physical activity is an effective way to help prevent and reduce depression. Urban amenities such as bike lanes, walking trails and recreation facilities can help encourage daily physical activity through exercise and active transportation.

  3. Provide access to green space and nature.

    "Neighbourhood greenness is strongly associated with mental health and has been shown to reduce psychological distress," says Nykiforuk.

    Wild spaces, urban gardens and street trees are ways of incorporating green space and nature into the urban environment.

  4. Create feelings of belonging and acceptance.

    How do you know when you're "home"? Urban design features such as wayfinding maps, inclusive public washrooms and child-friendly spaces are ways that the built environment cues feelings of belonging and acceptance.

  5. Reduce noise, light and air pollution.

    "Mental health and physical health are interrelated," explains Nykiforuk. "A good night's sleep is fundamental to supporting our bodies' physical and cognitive functioning."

    Clever urban design tricks like planting grass between tram tracks can go a long way in reducing noise pollution and helping urban dwellers get a good night's rest.


Learn how other cities are designing for mental health at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health.

Advocate for change in your community and use your voice during Canadian Mental Health Week using the hashtag #GetLoud.


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