Bet­ter-de­signed cities can play a key role in fight for our men­tal health

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - CHRIS GRIGG

Ev­ery year, one in four peo­ple liv­ing in the UK will ex­pe­ri­ence a men­tal health prob­lem. That’s an in­cred­i­ble 16 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer­ing from a range of prob­lems in­clud­ing de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Not only does it place a huge bur­den on the suf­ferer and their fam­ily, it has a knock-on im­pact on so­ci­ety and the econ­omy.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent gov­ern­ment re­view, poor men­tal health con­trib­utes to be­tween £33bn and £42bn of lost costs to em­ploy­ers ev­ery year. Peo­ple af­fected are less pro­duc­tive, take more time off work and some have to quit al­to­gether. The cost to the Gov­ern­ment is also sub­stan­tial. Peo­ple who are un­able to work rely more on ben­e­fits, they pro­duce less tax rev­enue and will need in­creas­ingly to use the NHS.

But why is a prop­erty CEO talk­ing about men­tal health?

The cities where we spend our lives sig­nif­i­cantly im­pact our men­tal health and well-be­ing – how you are feel­ing and how well you can cope with day-to-day life. A study found peo­ple liv­ing in ur­ban spa­ces can have a 40pc higher risk of de­pres­sion and a 20pc higher risk of anx­i­ety, in ad­di­tion to more lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion and stress. The way ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments are de­signed af­fects how we feel.

We take our sur­round­ings for granted, yet they uniquely in­flu­ence ev­ery de­ci­sion we make. From how we travel to work to whether we so­cialise, from how safe we feel and our open­ness to new ideas to how healthy we are. And over time, this quiet in­flu­ence af­fects our well-be­ing. But, just as poor de­sign stim­u­lates habits and ac­tions that harm us, good ur­ban de­sign can help us be­come hap­pier, calmer, more so­cia­ble and, ul­ti­mately, live more ful­fill­ing lives.

There are al­ready great ex­am­ples of the power of good ur­ban de­sign. In New York, au­thor­i­ties re­pur­posed a dis­used rail­way into a one-and-a-halfmile ur­ban walk­way and park. The High­line project has stim­u­lated the de­vel­op­ment of sur­round­ing neigh­bour­hoods and at­tracts 5 mil­lion visi­tors ev­ery year.

The Mayor of Lon­don has recog­nised the value of well-de­signed places in his “Good Growth by De­sign” pro­gramme, which seeks to use de­sign to ac­com­mo­date positively the growth in the cap­i­tal’s pop­u­la­tion.

At Padding­ton Cen­tral, we’ve in­vested £10m, trans­form­ing pre­vi­ously ster­ile stretches be­tween the build­ings into var­ied and de­light­ful green spa­ces with cy­cle routes, so­cia­ble pock­ets of out­door seat­ing and ma­ture trees as well as an en­gag­ing dig­i­tal art in­stal­la­tion, in­stalled as a trib­ute to lo­cal com­puter sci­en­tist Alan Tur­ing. This has trans­formed the pub­lic space, cre­at­ing ar­eas where peo­ple from across the cam­pus now con­nect and spend time.

Anal­y­sis in a study pub­lished to­mor­row shows bet­ter-de­signed ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments could im­prove per­sonal well-be­ing and re­duce re­liance on Gov­ern­ment ser­vices, po­ten­tially lead­ing to a £15bn boost to the econ­omy by 2050.

Small changes to ex­ist­ing poli­cies gov­ern­ing the built en­vi­ron­ment could help us re­alise this op­por­tu­nity. One ex­am­ple: by up­dat­ing its vi­sion for En­ter­prise Zones to pair the eco­nomic ben­e­fits that come from busi­ness-rate re­ten­tion with fund­ing for so­cial in­fra­struc­ture, pol­i­cy­mak­ers would help cre­ate ar­eas where peo­ple want to live and thrive, as well as work and do busi­ness. This would en­able de­vel­op­ers and Gov­ern­ment to col­lab­o­rate, fast-track­ing re­gen­er­a­tion con­di­tional on in­vest­ment and de­sign that con­trib­utes to well-be­ing.

A bet­ter built en­vi­ron­ment is not a re­place­ment for bet­ter men­tal health ser­vices or im­proved pub­lic health pro­grammes, but it could be a pow­er­ful com­ple­ment. And with 46 mil­lion peo­ple in the UK now liv­ing in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, the cu­mu­la­tive im­pact of de­sign­ing for life could be im­mense, for us and for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Chris Grigg is chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Bri­tish Land Com­pany

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