Mental Health in the cities we live in is an increasingly urgent issue nowadays as we have limited our activities to our own houses due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Rates of various disorders, like anxiety and depression, are high. Urban design and planning is an essential aspect of the hour to promote mental health by focusing on the spaces we use in our everyday lives. It is entirely known that green spaces are good for our well-being and that we can demonstrate a more significant deal of boosting biodiversity.
The changing and unpredictable elements of our physical and sensory environments have a profound impact on risk, experiences and recovery. However, physical activity is the prime aspect of urban planning efforts to enable healthy behaviours. Mental well-being is also the by-product of opportunities for exercise and social interaction in communities and neighbourhood.
Urban designers and planners play an important role in lowering the rates of mental issues, and science has proven than nature affects our brains to the changing ways we design. We, thus, cannot afford to ignore the impact of public environments in mental health. Various instances have proved to increase activity in the parts of the brain corresponding to the ‘flight or fight’ response.
How does Nature Exposure help Mental Health?
Urban green spaces such as parks, sports fields, woods, lakesides, and gardens provide people with a space for physical activity, relaxation, peace, and an escape from the heat. Green spaces are also associated with better air quality, reduced traffic noise, cooler temperatures and more extraordinary biodiversity.
There are in total of two theories on how nature affects the brain, and both are based on nature having a therapeutic effect on cognitive and emotional function. The diversity, glory, calmness has a major impact on restoring the stressed mind to a calm and alert state. In order words, it provides a complete sense of ‘escape’ from the urban world, and this idea is not at all new. It’s a result of more than 40 years of research quantifying specific neurological, cognitive, physiological and emotional effects of ‘nature’ elements. More such benefits listed are –
- increased calmness and rumination,
- decreased agitation and aggression
- increased cognitive functioning
- creative thinking with concentration
Unfortunately, the extent of biodiversity if natural habitats in our cities are declining rapidly due to the increasing urban population and constructions. The regeneration efforts have often focused on green corridors, but even small patches of biodiversity can re-invent and sustain the diversity of plants and animal species.
Why does Biodiversity mater?
Accessibility and affordability of lab and mobile technologies of measuring brain activity have widened the scope of studies of mental health and nature. The researches in this field can analyse the responses to images of urban streetscapes versus forests and can track people’s perceptions ‘on the move’.
Research has shown that biodiversity has a positive benefit on mental well-being and multi-sensory elements like brids and frods sounds or wildflower smells too have beneficial effects on mental restoration, calm and creativity. Senses such as our balance and equilibrium and temperature contribute to us by feeling restored by nature. The crucial role of all these sense play shifts the focus of urban design and planning from visual esthetics and functional activities to experience natural spaces.
Beyond the brain imaging of experiences in nature, there is growing and compelling the contact with diverse microbiomes in the soil and air. These have profound effect on depression and anxiety. Increasing our involvement and interaction with natural elements through touch or getting into dirt for activties like gardening- is psycologically therapeutic and neurologically nourishing.
The concept of ‘biophilia’ isn’t new and the focus on incidental and authentic biodiverstiy helps us apply this very broad, at times unwidely and non-contextual to local environment. This grounds efforts in real-time, achievable interventions. Using the new technolgies and research expands our understanding of the ways our environments affect our mental well-being.
Different natural elements can induce different benefits, like the generic design of ‘green space; on an urban plan, is however aesthetically pleasing, but doesn’t target mental wellbeing. Time too plays an signitficant role and there is no point in having great green spaces if these do not provide good reason or opportunity to linger long enough to experience the restorative benefits.
Despite the numerous studies on restorative effects of forests, these are not most accessible option for most city-dwellers. Urban parks are an alternative, but creative, natural interventions in urban spaces which encourage incidental interaction with green spaces producing many benefits.
What’s with wrong with existing Green Spaces?
Urban parks and green spaces, particularly in residential neighbourhoods are unimaginative, repetitive and lack basic elements with references to nature and they do not encourage walking or enjoying the natural elements for a length of time.
- Paths without shade or protection do not encourage walks or even enough to achieve benefits. There is always a lack of landscape diversity and does little to activate fascination or interest and also fails to offer interest in visiting.
- One such example is football turf, where the biodiversity is removed with other sights, sounds and smells needed for an immersive, multi-sensory experience. Same can even be seen in many suburban footpaths and residential streets.
How can we Improve the Green Spaces?
- Creative uses of incidental nature can be used to capture attention and offer interaction with biodiversity.
- Wel-designed parks and urban green spaces encourage us to linger, to rest, to walk for longer and in turn provides time to maximise restorative mental benefits.
- Urban design has a real impact on mental wellbeing, and sometimes we need to look outside our discipline for data to make it useful.