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Pam Sethi and Deborah D’Amico

Reported mental health issues are emerging at an unprecedented rate. The statistic will soon be that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue or challenge in their lifetime. What this means is that we need to start to reframe not only how we tackle mental health within our traditional system, but how we seize opportunities in everyday encounters to emphasize wellness, throughout our cities and neighbourhoods.

This challenge is not specific to Toronto or Canada. Societies worldwide are trying to better understand the complexities of living in the built environment, such as over-stimulation and reduced natural elements, and how these impact our wellbeing. They are also exploring the intersection of space design and societal resiliency, and how we can fuse utility with mindfulness in the way we access and traverse our urban homes.

While more conventional materials like asphalt and steel will likely always be part of the landscape, what opportunities can we optimize within the negative spaces? How can we design wayfinding to create better navigational experiences, or preserve human touch service points where they’re most needed? What is the best way to integrate green space and technology in our design thinking, striking a balance between connecting and disconnecting? And how can we continue to respect the individual, their diversities and experiences, while we generalize wellness solutions? How might we contribute a mental health lens to this discussion, one that takes into consideration a broad spectrum of needs as we reconceptualize our daily living and environment?

Renewed mental health policies, best practices and design guidelines, as they relate to cities and urban environments, should be developed: a Mental Health Design Playbook for developers, planners and city municipal, provincial and federal policy folks. One that uses a “health in all policies” approach, and considers mental wellness and social and economic determinants of health as critical factors in how we redesign public spaces and built environments for better public and mental health. A holistic approach using upstream determinants – better housing, nutrition, psychological supports, early childhood, income, and activity/walkability plus more.

Improving mental health, either through programming and space redesign, using improved biophilic and natural design, and other approaches (e.g. natural light, vegetation, safe spaces) has shown to be key in improving mental wellbeing, productivity and stress levels. This in turn links to improved social and economic capital over time – a win-win for everyday citizens, employees, employers, and society as a whole. This would be a cultural shift in how we value mental wellbeing and its experience in our built environments.