There’s been quite a lot of focus on how to design and plan cities to improve physical health – for example, looking at how to reduce obesity or respiratory problems. But urban design and mental health still struggles to gain recognition as a specialty in its own right. The few specialists working in this area struggle to get funding or get published. There is also the simple question of finding each other.
UDMH tries to provide all of these things. It brings together mental health and public health experts, urban designers, architects, planners, geographers, engineers, among others. By translating between the different sectors working in this multidisciplinary nexus and capturing what their research is really saying, UDMH gives city-makers the practical and theoretical tools to actually implement change.
We talked to Layla about urban design and mental health in the coronavirus era, delving into its intersections with social and environmental justice and what can be done to improve urban mental health in these strange and uncertain times.
The pandemic is raising a lot of questions about how we plan our cities for both mental and physical health. And it’s highlighting the importance of creating more liveable and equal cities. What are the main issues emerging out of the pandemic when it comes to urban design and mental health?
The pandemic has suddenly highlighted that many of us are living in confined places in very close proximity to millions of other people. Cities have historically been places where plague, cholera, and other infections have spread. But as infection has done to different degrees in history, this pandemic has triggered public debate about urban design and health. It has really highlighted some of the inequalities in the city. For example, when your movement is restricted to your local area, you start to realise that there are huge disparities in what your local area offers to you. For example, some people have access to beautiful parks nearby where they can enjoy mental and physical health benefits, while others live at a distance from any sort of green space and lose out on these benefits.
So, this whole experience has made us ask: how can we live close together in a way that is good for everyone’s mental well-being? How can we design cities in a way that doesn’t drain us, crowd us or exhaust us, but actually bolsters us and enables us to fully take advantage of the social, cultural and economic opportunities that cities offer? It’s a really delicate balance but think that is where urban design thinking is going to be in the future.