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Sanctuary Spaces: Can thoughtful development improve our mental health?

Last week, an email popped into my inbox from the BPF - highlighting a social media campaign they are running for Mental Health Awareness Week.* 

The campaign invites people to highlight the places in their neighbourhood that lift their mood or give them a sense of calm. The hashtag, for those inclined to join in, is #feelgoodplaces. 

This got me thinking about the link between urban design and good mental health, and in particular, the role that planners and developers have in promoting it.  Are we, as an industry, deliberately creating these sanctuary spaces and if so are we taking the responsibility seriously enough?

Mental Health, much like its physical counterpart, is highly individualised. What helps one person deal with the stresses and strains of life, may well make another person worse. Personally, I find spending time with my rather demanding 7 month old daughter** or getting lost in a good book, ideally on a comfortable sofa with an endless supply of coffee*! is enough to restore some of my equilibrium. For others, it may be running, socialising, or getting out into the sunshine.  So how do we, as planners, design spaces that allow for such a diverse range of 'self-care'.

Below is a link to an excellent article*^, which goes someway to answering this question. The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has coined a framework, which sets out the four main areas where we can make a difference - where sanctuary spaces can be created.  'Mind the Gaps' highlights the importance of:

  • Green Spaces
  • Active Spaces
  • Pro-social Spaces; and
  • Safe Spaces

For designing communities which promote better health and wellbeing.

None of these concepts are new. Designing out Crime has been a feature of new developments for as long as I have been in the profession, but what is relatively novel is the recognition of the impact that these four principles have on the mental health of those living in (and around) the spaces that we create.

Well designed, inclusive, spaces which allow people to get outside to exercise, socialise, or just curl up on a picnic blanket with a good book and a hot drink*% could go along way to encouraging the sense of community and connection that humans need to thrive. 

Perhaps with a little more focus, these #feelgoodplaces can become a feature of every new development project. Making the world a less intimidating place, one scheme at a time.

PS:  given that I did start this article by saying that my daughter was my Sanctuary Space, and she has now woken up, I thought I would let her have the last word. Her contribution to this article is as follows:


 From which we can all learn a valuable lesson: It is not a good idea to let a baby bash on a keyboard....


*which, just in case you didn't get the handy email reminder, is this week

** currently asleep

*! often required as a result of spending time with said demanding 7 month old

*^ by Layla McCay, the Director of Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, which is published on the Design Council's website. Definitely worth reading in full.

*% I refuse to believe I am the only caffeine addicted bookworm out there.... 

An increasing body of research is accumulating to explore how urban planning and design can help mitigate risk factors and contribute to better mental health and happiness in the city. There are four key areas of opportunity for urban planners and designers. These can be conceptualised and applied using a framework called ‘Mind the GAPS’: green place, active place, pro-social place and safe place. These four design principles facilitate innovative thinking, yet there is no one city that fully embodies them. Rather, an increasing number of developments within the wider city are incorporating these principles to promote better mental health and wellbeing.”