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REIT Says Better Design Can Improve Mental Health And Save Societies Money

One of the U.K.’s largest REITs has released a new report arguing that better-designed cities and real estate schemes can improve the mental health and well-being for city dwellers, and so save governments money. 

British Land’s report, "A Design For Life," said that with 44 million people living in cities in the U.K. alone, better placemaking is needed to help combat the stresses created by city life.

British Land's Paddington Central Scheme

And the benefits are tangible. In the report, British Land said that the British government could save up to £15B between now and 2050 as a result of better designed cities and real estate schemes.

That was broken down into £3.6B of savings for the government from reduced treatment needed for mental health issues, £5.4B in improved productivity from workers taking less time off due to stress and associated issues, and £6.3B in increased economic output due to more people in work.

Cities have particular mental health challenges, figures from the Centre for Urban Design & Mental Health cited in the paper show. That study found that urban dwellers have an almost 40% higher risk of depression, 20% more anxiety and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to more loneliness, isolation and stress.

How does physical environment affect mental well-being? The report cites the following examples: Blank walls, sharp angles and traffic noise all trigger stress responses, people exposed to nature in cities tend to be more generous and helpful, and people walk three times as far along streets lined with small shops than through car parks.

The report provided examples of how better design and placemaking can address these issues:

  • Introducing more communal seating and recreational areas encourages social interaction and relationships, one of the most powerful drivers of human health.
  • Planting abundant greenery opens up opportunities for people to encounter nature during their daily lives, which studies show boosts well-being and productivity.
  • Improving walkways and cycle facilities empowers people to live more active lifestyles, which is critical to health, happiness and productivity.
  • Making people feel safe and secure through good design of roads, walkways, street lighting, landmarks and wayfinding, so that low-level threats don’t trigger the fight-or-flight response.

The report sets out a distinct policy to help put health and well-being at the heart of urban development by enhancing the U.K. government’s existing Enterprise Zone policy. The private sector would be incentivised to put good design at the heart of their development plans. Under these Urban Wellbeing Zones, planning applications would be fast-tracked on the condition that proposed developments contribute to community resilience and well-being.

“It’s vital that we place more emphasis on earlier health interventions and look at new and innovative ways of supporting people to lead healthier, happier lives,” Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said.

“This research highlights the potential benefits of supporting people in ways that don’t involve a clinical setting, and shows that putting physical and mental well-being at the heart of development is a step in the right direction in improving the health of the nation.”