Nature is Essential to Mental Health in Urban Design

How to seize the opportunity presented by the coronavirus pandemic to prioritize mental health in urban design was the focal point of an insightful virtual discussion June 10 hosted by the Chicago Loop Alliance and featuring Friends’ Executive Director Margaret Frisbie and Jenny Roe, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Design & Health at University of Virginia, and author of the book, “Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety was three times more prevalent in 2020 than 2019, and depression was four times more prevalent. The special event examined critical questions such as “How might a city designed with mental well-being in mind prevent such sharp declines in mental health during a collective crisis?” and “How are leaders in Chicago planning with this in mind?” The program entitled “Downtown Futures Series: Designing Cities for Mental Health” was moderated by David Broz, Principal for Gensler and member of the Chicago Loop Alliance Board of Directors. You can view the one-hour program on Friends’ YouTube channel.

The seven pillars to restorative cities discussed by Dr. Roe, and detailed in her book, dovetail with the mission of Friends, they are: inclusive, green, blue, sensory, neighborly, active, and playable. This is based on thousands of studies that show how certain settings foster psychological well-being and mental health. Dr. Roe said if there are two things any city should do to become more restorative, it’s to increase curiosity or fascination and increase the opportunities for “being away” or escaping into nature.

Frisbie said more and more studies show that spending time outdoors, such as along the Chicago River system, boosts one’s immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves one’s mood, increases one’s ability to focus, accelerates recovery from surgery or other illness, increases energy levels, improves sleep, and offers physical benefits with activities like hiking, biking, fishing, paddling, and simply being outside.

“Living in the city does not need to be devoid of living in nature,” Frisbie said. “We need to look where we live in these urban areas, roll up our sleeves, and work together to make sure we’re taking care of our natural resources. What’s good for wildlife is good for humans, too.”

Questions posed by attendees included how residents can get involved in urban design; how to ensure restorative spaces benefit people from disinvested neighborhoods; how to make nature safe for all to experience, and how to address homelessness in cities.

“Livable cities are sustainable cities, which are also wild cities,” Frisbie said. “If we want to have a future, that is our future, I just encourage you to get out and experience this river, and to pay attention to what else is here. Get out and discover it for yourself.”

Opportunities to get out in the Loop this summer include two brand new programs from Chicago Loop Alliance: the Loop Mural Walk and Sundays on State. You can also visit McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum on the Riverwalk, and explore the Chicago and Calumet River system at beautiful and historic locations profiled on our Inside, Out and About podcast.