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The role of town planning in protecting mental health

by Sarah Lewis MRTPI, RTPI Planning Practice Officer

The 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.


One of the unexpected emotions I have frequently felt since the start of the pandemic is thankful - thankful that I have a comfortable home that I can afford, on a quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance of all the local amenities that I need and with the wonderfulness of Epping Forest at the top of my road.

I have written openly about my mental health in the past, and I do not think I would have coped as well during the pandemic if my living circumstances were different.

I also realise that I am in a fortunate position, and that many are not. In the UK and Ireland, the rates of mental health illness were already high before the pandemic and the health of many has deteriorated over the last 12 months.


Housing and mental health

Research has found that where someone lives can have an impact on their mental health. The mental health charity Mind surveyed 2,000 people in 2017 in England and Wales, and found that 79 per cent of people with mental health conditions have lived in housing that has made their mental health worse.

The quality of the wider built environment is also a determining factor. The Glasgow Centre for Population Health suggests that people who considered the attractiveness of their neighbourhood to be ‘very good’ rather than ‘poor’ were three times more likely to have good mental wellbeing.

The link between green space and wellbeing is well established, but it has been appreciated like never before in recent months. Studies have shown that people experience less mental distress, anxiety and depression when living in urban areas with lots of green space. However, almost 2.7 million people in the UK do not have a publicly accessible local park or green space within a ten-minute walk of their home. These findings have informed the recommendations of the UK Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which stated: ‘put simply, green is good for us … the presence of greenery in the urban environment normally has a positive impact on our mental and our physical health.’


What can town planners do?

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has developed four key principles which are particularly useful for planners who are considering the impact of urban places on mental health:

  • Green places – There are important relationships between accessible green spaces and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Active places – Positive, regular activity improves mood, wellbeing and many mental health outcomes.
  • Pro-Social places – Urban design should facilitate positive, safe and natural interactions among people and promote a sense of community, integration and belonging.
  • Safe places –A sense of safety and security is integral to people’s mental health and wellbeing.

There are certainly many opportunities for town planners to integrate a consideration of mental health into their work. A policy, plan or development may not directly set out to address mental health issues, but by working to achieve other goals there can be indirect benefits. By taking an integrated approach from the start, these benefits can be maximised.


Practice advice

The RTPI practice advice Mental Health and Town Planning shows how planners can work within the current UK planning systems and with other professionals to promote good mental health when making changes to the built environment. It summarises expert advice and outlines key planning policy and good practice.

The RTPI advice, also now available as an RTPI Learn module, also includes a number of case studies, such as the refusal of planning permission for a retirement community near Catterall, Lancashire which would have been separated from the village by a busy road - the inspector concluded it would “create an isolated enclave with limited opportunities for integration with the wider community”.

Another case study comes from Tower Hamlets, one of the most densely populated boroughs in the UK, where the newly-adopted local plan includes policies to protect and improve public spaces, only allowing development where a greater quantity and quality of open space is re-provided.

If you have a positive case study you would like to share, please do get in touch – I would love to hear from you!

[email protected]

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