Every year Rightmove surveys people from across Britain to find out where the happiest place to live is. The most recent ‘Happy at Home’ survey asked 21,000 people how happy they are where they live based on 12 happiness factors.
The factors are:
• sense of community spirit
• sense of belonging
• feeling safe
• earning enough to live comfortably
• being able to be oneself
• people are friendly and polite
• sports and recreational activities
• artistic and cultural activities
• opportunities to develop skills
• nature and green spaces
• essential local services (doctors, schools)
• non-essential amenities (shops, restaurants).
The top five places in the UK for 2018 came out as Leigh-on-Sea, Farnham, Monmouth, Christchurch and Leamington Spa.
Leigh-on-Sea (The UK's happiest spot)
This may seem a slightly trite place to start a blog about mental health and town planning, but each of the 12 factors in the survey can affect mental health and are either directly or indirectly influenced by town planning.
There is a clear link between the quality of where you live and your mental health. However there has been little exploration of the impact of good town planning on mental health and very little in the way of its inclusion in local planning policy formulation.
Mental health in the UK
In the UK, the rates of mental health illness are high. 1 in 4 people experiences a mental health problem each year. And almost half of all adults will experience at least one mental health episode during their lifetime.
It is positive to see the increased openness and willingness to talk about mental health that has emerged in recent years. The mental health initiative Heads Together, backed by the Royal Foundation, campaigns to tackle stigma around mental health and is just one example of a high profile campaign that’s changing attitudes. A more empathic media approach towards the personal experiences of celebrities like Stormzy, Lady Gaga and Serena Williams is also helping. Mental health issues are thankfully not the shameful secret they once were.
Storing up problems for the future
Despite this openness, society is still creating issues that contribute to future mental health problems. This includes in the built environment. The recent reporting on the office block conversions which are being used as social housing in Harlow, Essex makes for upsetting reading. Residents, often with young children are living in cramped conditions, moved away from their families and support systems with up to a 40 minute walk to the nearest shop or school. How many of the Happy at Home Index criteria will be ticked by the residents in these blocks? The extension to permitted development rights is only going to allow this type of development to become more common. Living in these situations has the potential to create mental health problems for residents.
The links between greenspace and mental health have long been documented. However, this suggests that people just need to regularly get out for a walk in the countryside to feel better. But the link is more fundamental than that. If you live in a place with a poor environment – that is noisy, dirty, overcrowded or isolated it can adversely affect your mental health.
My own perspective
If you have a mental health problem the quality of the built environment can affect how you feel. I had post-natal depression following the birth of my second child. I understood the benefits of fresh air and exercise so would walk every day, However, if I decided to ‘test’ how well I was feeling that day by walking home through polluted main roads, instead of taking my usual route along the riverfront, I would often return home feeling worse than when I left the house.
What the RTPI are doing
Health and wellbeing is very important to the RTPI. Not only do we provide mental health first aid training to colleagues, but we also provide staff with access to a confidential support helpline. We also embed health and wellbeing in our CPD framework through our ‘Health and Inclusive Planning’ theme.
We know that there is a clear link between the quality of the places where people live and the impact on their mental health and that’s why we will be conducting research into the issue over the next few months.
We are also holding a CPD event on Planning and Mental Health in Manchester on 10 September so please do come along.
We would love to hear from you about your experiences and case studies where things have worked well. Please get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Lewis MRTPI, Planning Practice Officer, Royal Town Planning Institute