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Can Urban Environments Be Designed for Better Mental Health?


More than half the world’s population lives in large cities. Cities offer many opportunities and advantages. However, research suggests that urban environments can be bad for our mental health – incidence of depression and psychosis are higher among people living in cities, for example. Though the reasons behind this are not well understood, the increased stresses of urban living and increased isolation and loneliness are among possible contributors.

People crossing street

Researchers and planners have long looked at connections between urban environments and health. Leaders from the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre, which promotes healthy urban planning, have produced a new comprehensive guide for integrating health and wellness into urban planning. Recent research is providing more insight into how urban environments influence mental health in particular, and what changes can be made to improve mental health and well-being. With new tools and data available researchers are further clarifying how urban environments influence our mental health.

One area of substantial research is the benefit of natural environments or green spaces which can provide a calming atmosphere, evoke positive emotions and facilitate learning and alertness. Experiencing nature helps people recover from the mental fatigue of work. Some research has found that activity in natural outdoor settings can help reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children. Research reported in the journal Scientific Reports used satellite imagery, local tree data and local health data in Toronto, Canada to quantify the benefits of trees in urban streets. They found that trees along streets are associated with a significant health benefit and that even small increases in the number of trees along streets can improve health.

A group of researchers set out to study the complex functioning of the urban built environment and its impact on mental health. They chose to study Torino, Italy, because a large database of population health was available. They gathered data on the structure of the city, service (e.g., libraries, transportation, sports facilities, entertainment, etc.) and looked for connections between this data and use of antidepressant medication in the cities’ population.

They concluded that the key factors contributing to reduced risk of depression were accessibility to public transportation and a more dense urban structure (rather than sprawl). This was particularly true for women and older adults. Women and older adults who lived in places more accessible to public transportation and in more densely populated areas were prescribed fewer antidepressant medications. While this population-based study cannot identify cause, the researchers suggest that both of these factors could reduce stress by increasing opportunities to move around the city and to participate in social activities.

People in Park

Researchers from the University of Waterloo conducted a study using smart phones and a wristband sensor to better understand the connection between urban design and mental health. In New York City, Berlin and Mumbai, researchers took participants to different settings around the city streets while monitoring their psychological and physiological states with the phones and sensors. They found that long, featureless facades led to people being unhappy or bored. Open facades with many doorways were most appealing. Similar to previous research, people had positive response to green spaces. They found that in very dense urban areas, even a small space for respite from noise and crowds such as a quiet churchyard could provide psychological benefit.

If you’re interested in being part of the research on this issue, you can participate in the Urban Mind project, a pilot study on city living and mental wellbeing. The study is a collaborative effort led by King’s College London. Participants will use a smartphone app to monitor their environment, activity and mental wellbeing.


  • Giulia, M. et al. The Effects of the Urban Built Environment on Mental Health: A Cohort Study in a Large Northern Italian City. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2015, 12(11), 14898-14915
  • Wolf, KL and Flora K. Mental Health and Function – A Literature Review. In: Green Cities: Good Health.
  • Kardan, O., et al. Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center. Science Reports, 2015, 5:11610.
  • Barton, H., Thompson, S., Burgess, S. and Grant, M. (2015)The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being. Routledge.


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