Public Space and Mental Health: The importance of engaging communities as we #DesignAgainstDepression

Taylor Campi

The Center for Urban Design and Mental Health[1] (UDMH) recently celebrated World Health Day[2] with a flashmob… of tweets.

The theme of this year’s World Health Day was “Depression: Let’s Talk,” in response to a staggering rise in the rate of depression worldwide in the last decade. Planners, architects, and other placemakers posted photos and videos of ways to #DesignAgainstDepression. Tweets discussed the importance of engaging children, places that facilitate physical and social activity, and the connection between greenspace and mental well being.


The suggestion that our built environment impacts our mental health is not a new one. Studies have shown links between mental health and public spaces, urban greenery, and the design and scale of city buildings. Cities should be mindful, however, not to single out one factor as a panacea for improving wellbeing in every situation. So many factors play a role; some strategies will be more effective in one context, other strategies will be more effective elsewhere. In fact, a recent study on Singapore parks, “The Relationship between Natural Park Usage and Happiness Does Not Hold in a Tropical City-State”[3] (the title says it all), sheds light on the need for cities to investigate the unique nature and need of their communities before investing in ‘typical’ or ‘common sense’ green space solutions.

One reason why earlier studies of the beneficial effects of parks may not be so relevant in Singapore is the heat and humidity there. Singaporeans are now accustomed to highly regulated air conditioning. Even more significant, however, may be the major finding in this research that “extraversion and emotional stability increased subjective well-being, positive affect and life satisfaction and decreased stress and negative affect.” This suggests that in Singapore, a more powerful mechanism than parks for increasing wellbeing may be to redesign housing, urban fabric, and urban places to strengthen social networks.

Okay, if we can’t make generalizations about public space solutions to public health problems, what can cities do?

Here’s one generalization we can make: The communities we hope to help should have some level of control over how their spaces look and function. Community-driven projects not only bring people together, and thus strengthen social networks; they’re also much more likely to address a neighborhood’s needs than projects planned by city staff with no personal connection to the community.

Chelina Odbert, co-founder of the Kounkuey Design Initiative[4], recently told CityLab about a community-led project called Play Streets that aimed to turn neglected public space into a place for play, social interaction, and physical activity. Gang members were among the neighbors who came out to help with set-up at one of the program locations, which Odbert notes is an important piece of the project’s success. “By not excluding them or directly saying, ‘We’re trying to get rid of you,’ and by recognizing that these are also members of the community who want to see improvements, they are part of the solution.”

These are the kinds of issues and strategies we shall be discussing at the 54th IMCL Conference in Santa Fe in October. Join us!