Mental health is becoming a greater concern, the second most pressing public health issue in the UK and it’s on the increase. We are mostly well aware that the natural environment coupled with frequent exercise has a positive effect on our mental wellbeing, but with our busy 21st century lives much of our time is spent within the built environment and so what can be done to improve it?
Despite overwhelming evidence that our surroundings can play a huge part in regard to our mental health, it’s still largely overlooked within the world of architecture and planning. Given the severity of the issue and the evidence to support it, this should currently be one of the top priorities within the industry.
Evidence has proven that our built environment can directly affect our state of mind, cluttered spaces and disorganised design can cause a higher concentration of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cities that are difficult and disorientating to navigate can cause the same issue.
Studies have shown that growing up in a city can increase the risk of developing depression and chronic anxiety as well as doubling the chances of a person developing schizophrenia. A main cause for this is thought to be a more isolated lifestyle with less social bonding and community cohesion, this is known as “social stress”. A study has also shown that living in a city can physically change a person’s brain biology, linking urban living to early life stressful experiences.
What can design do to combat this?
A sense of connectivity to a space and direction is extremely important, both in cities and inside buildings. We have an inherent preference to want to know how things relate to each other spatially, so if multiple buildings and avenues look the same, this can be difficult.
Changes in texture or height can help to zone areas, as well as complex and interesting building facades both applicable to interior and exterior and can provide subtle cues towards a sense of ownership and direction. Varying colours can influence a person’s mood and can be tailored to the purpose of a space. For example, the colour red promotes quicker reaction times and the colour blue can enhance productivity.
An increase in green spaces within a city can combat some of the negative effects that living within a city can bring. Even views of greenery from inside buildings. Often green areas within towns and cities can denote preferential walking routes known as desire lines. This can provide an indication of the way in which society prefers to navigate their spaces. Buildings that can be designed with potential or known desire lines in mind, can aid a community’s sense of spatial connection and direction.