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