3 Key Questions in Mental Health and Urban Design

What is the connection between mental health, happiness, and urban design?

Posted Sep 30, 2020

Engin Akyurt / Pixabay
urban loneliness and isolation despite greater mobility
Source: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay

Many residents of urban areas around the world are able to enjoy the benefits of economic growth, developments in mass transit, and technological innovation. As a byproduct of this progress, however, densely populated metropolitan landscapes pose unique psychological challenges not found in other environments.

1. Why is it important to talk about the link between urban design and mental health?

The connection between urbanicity and various aspects of mental health is well documented. This includes disorders with psychotic elements (e.g., schizophrenia) and non-psychotic elements (e.g., loneliness and depression). For example, greater levels of urbanicity, measured in overall population or density, are correlated with the incidence of schizophrenia. One study found that the risk for schizophrenia in the most urban environment is two times higher than in the most rural environment.

Recent research has explored potential mechanisms linking social exclusion in urban environments to psychosis. Evidence suggests that factors such as social fragmentation and deprivation may play a role. Also, a meta-analysis of psychiatric disorders in rural vs. urban environments within developed countries found higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders in urbanized areas.

It is important for designers and planners to be aware of these issues as they plan public and private spaces in the most densely crowded cities. Of course, urban design alone cannot solve mental health issues, but proper planning can be a key ingredient in minimizing mental health problems and maximizing quality of life for all citizens.

2. What features of urban design have the strongest impact on mental health?

We know that some environments can lead to the erosion of mental health, especially in situations where long periods of social and physical isolation are imposed on an individual. My colleagues and I recently published a study drawing upon sociology and criminal justice research that shows how the psychological consequences of modern urban design often parallel the effects found within solitary confinement in prisons. It seems that small, windowless rooms that confine people for long periods of time are generally not conducive to building self-esteem and life satisfaction—one could argue about its acceptability in prisons, but this is certainly not good for everyday urban dwellers.

On the positive side, I am very excited about new designs that incorporate social spaces and active spaces into the built environment. Social spaces are designed to motivate natural interactions among people. In some cases, it is as simple as installing more seating areas, including benches that face each other, to encourage social interaction. Research shows that people who live in neighborhoods with this kind of space have lower mental distress.

An active space is one that encourages exercise and mobility. The physical health benefits of walking, running, or biking are obvious, but there are also significant outcomes for mental health. For example, regular exercise can act in the same way antidepressants do in treating mild to moderate depression.

3. What about the more social aspects of urban living on mental health?

Social isolation in cities is a growing epidemic. The percentage of American adults who say they are lonely has doubled since the 1980s from 20 percent to 40 percent. According to one survey, 52% of Londoners feel lonely. Cities provide an overwhelming sense of anxiety for many, driven in part by the dense crowds of anonymous strangers that constantly surround us. A large cross-cultural comparison of rural and urban areas in developed countries found that urban living raises the risk of mood disorders by 39%.

Urban design—no matter how well informed by behavioral health research—will not by itself solve the problem of mental illness. It is just one factor in a complicated mix of variables. That said, there are steps worth considering.

Out of all the solutions offered by psychologically informed urban design, I feel that mobility holds the most promise for meaningful change. As urban planners work to develop elements that promote physical health, there is also an opening to fortify mental health. Designers should consider engineering schemes that inspire exercise during commutes, errands, and socializing. For instance, improving walkable spaces by widening pathways and making them safe areas. Because exercise begets more exercise, it follows that mobility will play a greater role in personal routines over time. This is good because regular physical activity has a positive impact on nearly every aspect of psychological well-being.

Central to this idea is the concept of “routine.” For people who are serious about achieving success in an area of self-improvement (e.g., weight management, memory performance, or relationship skills) one of the determining factors is consistency. It is very difficult to lose weight if you eat impetuously six days of the week. By the same token, “mobility as a routine” does not come easily if you only utilize mobility options once a week or less.

©2020 Kevin Bennett Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Bennett, K., Gualtieri, T., & Kazmierczyk, B. (2018). Undoing solitary urban design: A review of risk factors and mental health outcomes associated with living in social isolation. Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, 4:7. https://www.urbandesignmentalhealth.com/journal-4---solitary-urban-design.html

Bennett, K. L. (2004).  How to start teaching a tough course:  Dry organization vs. excitement on the first day of class. College Teaching, 52, 106. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27559192