Restorative cities: urban design for mental health and social interaction in the COVID-era

Can urban design positively affect mental health? Jenny Roe and Layla McCay share relevant findings from their latest book. Banner image: Shutterstock/lev radin
Restorative cities: urban design for mental health and social interaction in the COVID-era
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.

The pandemic has heightened our awareness of how quickly the world can change, and during the COVID-era we’ve all had to live with a level of uncertainty, anxiety, isolation and loneliness. In turn, we are witnessing a cultural shift in how people are now talking about mental health and seeking support for mental health in different ways. This includes how we access and use our neighbourhood environment: urban parks and green space have witnessed a dramatic increase in use during COVID-19 as people have sought refuge and respite from the pandemic. People have used city streets in new ways to socialise, exercise, dine or shop at a safe distance. The pandemic has shown us just how essential our neighbourhood infrastructure is for well-being. 

As we come to terms with the challenges ahead, we have an unprecedented opportunity to bring new life to our cities. Restorative Cities is a call for a new kind of urbanism that puts mental health and social well-being at the heart of urban design. Fusing evidence and theory from urban science, it offers a new framework for how we can design our cities for both escape opportunities and for greater social stimulation, to reduce the incidence of stress, depression and anxiety, and sustain overall well-being. Drawing on thousands of multi-disciplinary studies in restorative environment research—including psychology, urban planning and design, health geography and public health, among others—it shows how urban design attributes such as spatial forms, colour, nature, water and streets can contribute to mental health and well-being.

The seven pillars of restorative cities.
Source: Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing by Jenny Roe and Layla McCay, Bloomsbury Publishing (2021)

One opportunity for our cities to support mental health and social well-being is through more restorative streets. During the COVID-era, our streets have become important venues for facilitating casual social contact: talking to strangers in a queue for a grocery store, for example, or a regular chat with the local café barista. These sorts of impromptu encounters with strangers are linked to well-being outcomes (Sandstrom and Dunn 2014). Drawing on the rich heritage of urban sociologists like Jane Jacobs, William Whyte and urban planners such as Kevin Lynch and Jan Gehl, our framework focuses on the human-centred qualities of streets that support social well-being. The attributes of city streets that promote mental health and social interaction include:

  • A mix of all kinds of residences, workplaces, shops, cafes and restaurants that bring people out at all times of day
  • Denser, better connected street networks and small-block design, incorporating wide pavements, restricting vehicular access to increase safe walkability and cycling, and integrating markets, pocket parks and outdoor social spaces (seats and picnic tables)
  • Street trees to improve aesthetics, filter air and noise pollutants, reduce heat stress, and reduce the incidence of depression and stress
  • “Fascinating” and intriguing shopfront facades, and other elements of design that promote curiosity and wonder (such as public art, green walls, murals)
  • Legibility, with clearly defined intersections and nodes, and landmarks that aid wayfinding and improve ease of navigation, which in turn improves wellbeing
  • Community amenities facing onto the street (“open doors”) such as libraries, community gardens, local clubs and restaurants supporting food distribution to the homeless

Barcelona’s car-free super blocks provide safe streets for play, walking, cycling and socialising for all ages.

Source: Abigail Chan

Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing demonstrates evidence of the important relationships between many of the above street attributes and reduced risk of depression and stress, and increased conviviality, belonging and altruism, even amongst strangers. We know that our mood lifts when we exchange pleasantries with strangers, as we experience mutual recognition that we are all connected and a feeling of belonging.

These “weak ties” (i.e. people we don’t know very well, including across generations) are critical to our well-being, contributing to our sense of human connection and belonging at a time when so many people across the age span live alone. What is less well recognised—and a major driver of our framework—is how design attributes of our cities and streets can support these ties. 

An emerging area of research in restorative environments explores how some urban design characteristics (particularly nature) can foster prosociality and altruism (Goldy and Piff, 2020). Our hope is that restorative urbanism not only advances individual mental health and social well-being, but also promotes a collective consciousness that embraces empathy and trust— timely sentiments for a world adapting to public health uncertainties, economic, equity and climate challenges, and political strife.

Find out more about Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing (Bloomsbury 2021) by Jenny Roe & Layla McCay

Use the following discount codes to save 35% on this book when purchasing on UK and rest of world RESCITIES35; United States RESCITIES35US; Canada RESCITIES35CA; Australia RESCITIES35AU

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