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To improve people’s mental health, planning needs to put wellbeing at the forefront of its culture

By James McGowan, winner of the RTPI Practitioner Research Fund in 2019

he RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

The 2021 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, which promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research by chartered members and accredited planning schools around the world, will open for entry on Monday 15 March and close for entries on Monday 17 May. Details on how to enter can be found here.

James McGowan was awarded the RTPI Practitioner Research Fund in 2019.

Thanks to the the RTPI’s Practitioner Research Fund award I’ve spent the last year examining the integration of mental health culture into planning systems and structures.

I was awarded the grant for my proposal, A study into the relationship between the built environment and mental health in the UK and potential policy outcomes’, which aimed to encourage practitioners to get involved in research. Moving from university and having an awareness of this relationship, I saw first-hand this gap with mental health and planning, and the grant allowed me to look further into it.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that planning can have a positive impact mental health. Housing quality and design, access to healthcare, access to open space, air and noise quality, accessibility and active travel, crime, access to healthy food, access to work and training, social cohesion and green infrastructure have all been linked with mental health. The prevalence of issues that fall under planning considerations represents an opportunity for focused interventions in cities and rural areas to improve the wellbeing of their residents.  

The development industry is beginning to take notice of these links, and embrace them in the extensive catalogue of planning considerations. Dedicated journals are being created highlighting the topic, and guidance and advice is being offered to planners, such as the RTPI’s modules. Informal conversations with developers have suggested that wellbeing is beginning to be considered in proposals, given the impact of good design on housing demand. However, at the decision-making level, there remains considerable lack of integration.

A number of barriers to this were identified to this in the research. Firstly, there is an absence of mental health consideration in national policy frameworks and impact assessments, meaning that there is limited specification at the local level. Where mentioned, the language is often vague and lacking detail. Planners can be proactive about the topic, however remain faced with challenges such as data issues, siloed working structures, and the nature of an extremely complicated and often alien branch of public health. The result of this is that mental health is often not reflected in local policies or the evidence bases informing them, and therefore, in local development.

This is not to say that mental health is not considered in policy, nor that solutions lie in simply adding boxes on mental health. The end game is to see developments designed in a way that is considerate of people’s mental health. Policies on accessibility to green space, space standards, and cycling all represent a branch of the topic, and play a role in improving wellbeing. However, to ensure targeted and measured outcomes that improve people’s lives, structural and cultural progression can be made in the industry.

To get there, changes can be made to ensure that planning for mental health is at the forefront of decision making. These include:

  • taking a strategic planning approach – ensuring that mental health is considered in all aspects of planning including transport, economy and housing; creating strategic action plans to improve local mental health issues; implementing design principles; and, using Planning Requirements to invest in accessible and positive public spaces investing
  • revising assessments measures – integrating mental health assessments into existing assessment requirements on both a policy and development level; revising what developments require health impact assessments, such as the introduction of healthy planning questionnaires on small scale developments
  • integrating departments – continued integration of planning and public health to bridge any gaps between the topics, including sharing expertise through workshops, secondments and the creation of new strategic roles
  • identify specific problems and targeted outcomes – although this blog refers to the umbrella term of ‘mental health’ generally, a vast range of wellbeing issues and mental illnesses can be impacted by the built environment.
  • creating a mental health culture – steps can be taken in the workplace to consider the mental wellbeing of employees such as first aid mental health, drop in sessions and internal health and wellbeing groups.

In the UK, one in four adults currently experiences mental health problems, with mental health very much in crisis. Similar to the previous paradigm shift to sustainability, planning can play a part in both prevention and solution. A credible planning system has to be serious about mental health, and a pro-active, results orientated approach can help achieve this. To do this, wellbeing needs to be at the forefront of its culture.

The RTPI's practice advice on mental health and town planning can be viewed here.

James McGowan

James won the inaugural Practitioner Research Fund award in 2019 while working as a Planner for Lichfields. James has a Master’s degree in Town and Regional Planning from the University of Liverpool and has previously published research into community-led planning.

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