Urban design and mental health - Tokyo

There are some wonderful people doing amazing work in all kinds of areas; so many it is almost impossible to keep abreast of all developments.

I give one example here. An organization called The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH).

Although the majority of people now live in urban areas, we rarely, if ever, stop to think whether, by more intelligent design, the high incidence of mental health associated with urban living could be decreased.

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health curates and creates research and dialogue to inspire, motivate and empower policymakers and urban practitioners to build mental health into their projects for a healthier, happier urban future.

Its journals are full of really useful, well researched, information, and articles published by the Journal are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, something I wish other organizations who are devoted to improving society would follow.

I pick out just one article. This is from Edition 3 and entitled Urban design and mental health city case study: Tokyo.

Its authors are:

Layla McCay (1,2), Emily Suzuki (2) and Anna Chang (3)
(1) Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, UK and Japan
(2) Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Japan
(3) Southern California Institute of Architecture, USA

Cycling in Tokyo greenery. Picture by Mai Kobuchi

Cycling in Tokyo greenery. Picture by Mai Kobuchi

From the report we learn: “Tokyo is often considered a city, but it is in fact a metropolitan prefecture (region) comprising 23 special wards, each governed as separate cities, plus 26 more cities, 5 towns, and 8 villages, all governed separately (with national and Tokyo Metropolitan Government influence), creating a complex picture in terms of urban planning. The city has a population of over 13 million, and the metropolitan area extends to a population of 36 million, the most populous in the world (World Population Review, 2017). The centre has a density of 15,187 people per square kilometer, much less than Manhattan (27,000) and Paris (21,000).”

The authors end with the following useful conclusions:

7 Lessons from Tokyo that could be applied to promote good mental health through urban planning and design in other cities

Empower and incentivise city users to install nature everywhere: To green a city where large park spaces may not be available, it is possible to empower the general public to take personal responsibility in contributing to street greenery. A combination of education and incentive programmes can also help to encourage businesses to invest in innovative greening of every available space, including roofs, walls, and public parks.

Nudge vehicles into main streets to achieve natural pedestrian-friendly superblocks: Encouraging motor vehicles to use large, efficient roads and avoid smaller roads other than for access enables prioritisation of pedestrians and cyclists, which delivers opportunities for public street events and activities, and development of green space. Meanwhile, public transport can be nearby and accessible.

Make active transport the most convenient way to get around: An affordable, efficient, reliable and extensive public transport system can nudge a natural reduction in cars and prioritise pedestrians and bicycles around station residential, shopping, social and service hubs. Combined with a culture of biking as a family transport method, this:Promotes walking and biking as the safer, more convenient optionDrives demand for pedestrian infrastructure (such as overpasses and underpasses to access stations and services)Drives demand for fine-grained, human-scale streetfronts that provide welcoming, interesting engaging aspects to pedestrians including shops and cafes. Such streetscapes help reduce negative thoughts, improve walkability and pro-social engagement with neighbours, and help increase feelings of safety in backstreets.Reduces traffic on residential streets, reducing light and sound, promoting better sleep.

Make social exercise easy: Public transit access to exercise locations (from sports facilities to hiking) plus publicly accessible water facilities, lockers and shower facilities for jogging, and convenient public transport accessibility for sports facilities can help facilitate social exercise.

Integrate spiritual centres with the wider community: Temples, shrines, and other types of spiritual centres often contain potentially welcoming public spaces in cities otherwise lacking in available public spaces; the community could be further drawn in where appropriate, for example, through inviting local festivals and retail corridors connecting these buildings’ open spaces to the rest of the community.

Harness indoor public spaces for better mental health: Where wide-open urban public spaces are not available outdoors, innovative investment in interior placemaking can seek to achieve mental health benefits by designing green, active, pro-social spaces into indoor, densely-frequented places such as shopping malls.

Use innovative design to help prevent suicide: Suicide reduction is not simply about physical barriers; psychological deterrents may be explored, such as blue lights and images of nature at high-risk train stations.

5 Recommendations for Tokyo to improve public mental health through urban planning and design

Increase awareness of the links between urban design and mental health: This study revealed limited recognition and understanding of mental health by urban planners and designers in Tokyo. As such, the opportunity to promote good public mental health is not being systematically considered in their projects. Further awareness-raising and education for policymakers could articulate the opportunity and help create demand. Policymakers and professional organisations could develop policies, guidelines and incentives for architects, planners and developers to systematically integrate population mental health considerations into their projects. And architects, planners and other city designers could develop knowledge and skills that would enable them to leverage public mental health to increase the value of their projects. This could result in the integration of better mental health into Tokyo.

Realise the cycling opportunity: Bicycles are currently conceived primarily as a family transport utility and most rides are short; this is great, but to fully reap the productivity and physical and mental health benefits of cycling (including to counteract the effects of long working hours), companies’ insurance policies could evolve to incorporate commuting by bike/reduce commuting responsibility, and investments could be make in cycling infrastructure in the city (such as more protected bike lanes, cycle routes that go through natural settings, and bike parking) and in the office (such as showers, lockers and bike parking). This will help promote longer and vigorous bike rides, delivering the associated health benefits of physical exercise and nature exposure, in addition to environmental benefits.

Harness waterways for better mental health and wellbeing: Tokyo’s waterways remain largely untapped natural spaces that could provide more green and blue spaces for walking, watersports, relaxing and socialising.

Design public spaces for social interaction: Tokyo has fewer obvious pro-social public spaces than some other cities (though may have more regular organised community events than many). Currently, many green spaces are carefully tended and cordoned off, and do not encourage casual use such as picnics and ball games; train station plazas are often empty; areas adjacent to temples and shrines may have further development opportunities; and 'placeless' shopping areas associated with train stations could be improved. Innovative design can help increase opportunities for positive, natural social interactions. This may include street seating, street games, outdoor gyms, nature installation, and public gathering spaces for festivals, markets and other local events.

Optimise the workplace for better mental health: Tokyo’s practice of having long working hours compared to other cities, along with often long commutes, means that Tokyo citizens are missing out on quality time for leisure, nature access, exercise, and socialising on work days. Urban designers can help integrate these protective factors into the ‘work pathway’ to help promote good mental health. This includes the commute to/from work (opportunities for physical activity, nature exposure, relaxing setting, and efficiency, including management of overcrowding on public transport), and in the work setting (access to nature - including views of nature, pictures of nature, office gardens and office greenery, circadian lighting, opportunities for social interaction, privacy, choices about types of workspaces and settings, physical activity within the office, and support of physical activity in office commute.

This article illustrates how, in this case, members of organisations, universities and specialist institutes are responding with practical suggestions which help address the specific concern of the high incidence of mental health associated with urban living.

The full article is available here.