Heads Together, the mental health initiative spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex, recently launched an initiative aiming to change the way we approach mental health in the workplace.
Mental Health at Work aims to provide people with tools to make workplace wellbeing a priority in any business. It’s a fantastic plan and I’m sure it will support a lot of people. But there is another crucial aspect that can be added to help improve people’s wellbeing and that is good urban design.
The places where we live and work have a significant impact on our health, for better and for worse. A recent study found that people living in urban spaces can have a 40% higher risk of depression and a 20% higher risk of anxiety, in addition to more loneliness, stress and isolation.
But if urban environments are part of the problem, they can also be a powerful part of the solution. Good design can create a destination of choice, increase people’s physical activity and make them feel safe, happy and part of a community.
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King’s Cross is a perfect example of how clever design and placemaking have transformed a location from somewhere people used to avoid to a place people take their families at weekends.
Well-designed public realm is becoming vital to the success of any location. As well as creating a sense of calm and space in an overcrowded city, there is a lot of support for the positive impact green spaces in urban areas can have, including reducing fatigue, stress and headaches and improving blood pressure and mental wellbeing.
Our industry has a fantastic opportunity to create environments that have a positive effect on people’s mental health and overall wellbeing. The benefits of changing our approach to the design of urban environments are substantial, improving not only millions of people’s lives but also the wider economy and potentially reducing public spending.
The report we launched last month, A Design for Life, shows that better-designed urban environments could improve personal wellbeing and reduce reliance on government services, potentially leading to a £15bn boost to the economy by 2050.
In many cases, putting health and wellbeing at the heart of every development opportunity does not require major additional investment, rather a different approach. Five years ago, we chose to focus on placemaking and design at our campus Paddington Central (pictured). We widened walkways, improved cycle routes and added landscaping, green walls and outdoor seating. It’s a place people enjoy working at and our happy occupiers make it a great commercial success for us.
The campus was further improved last month when, as part of London Design Festival, we commissioned a permanent piece of public art by leading designer Snøhetta – an installation that encourages the public to engage with it and enjoy a selection of books.
High-quality design is not a silver bullet eliminating mental health problems, but can be a powerful complement to public services and initiatives such as Mental Health at Work. If every new development in the UK is designed to be a positive influence on our mental health, we may just make living and working in our urban environments an advantage to the wellbeing of millions.
Nigel Webb is head of developments at British Land
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