How green, pedestrianized, cycle-friendly and play-friendly streets promote good mental health
On a recent visit to New York City, I strolled through the middle of Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the city’s 20 sites for the city’s Open Streets program, created in response to the pandemic, which has been made permanent. The good vibes on Vanderbilt on this sweltering Saturday afternoon were palpable as I spotted the barricades that made room for hundreds of people of all ages to walk, cycle, skate and play. It is a space that provides immediate joy and welcome relief from noise, exhaust fumes and the general stress of automobile traffic.
By comparison, Chicago’s Slow Streets program (the city calls them “Shared Streets”) was adopted after the pandemic was over and is not as extensive as many of its peer cities, but this should not prevent the city to expand and make the program permanent. As recent “Downtown Future Series”Conference hosted by the Chicago Loop Alliance discussed, Urban Design that allows residents to easily and safely interact with the outdoors and plays a major role in physical and psychological well-being.
The hour-long event was titled “Designing Cities for Mental Health” and featured two speakers: Jennifer Roe, author of the upcoming book “Retorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health” and Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of Friends of the Chicago River . Moderator Dave Broz, director of architecture and design firm Gensler, opened by observing: “The pandemic has made people realize how urban design can affect mental health. City dwellers with poor pedestrian or cycling infrastructure or limited access to parks or squares or no areas nearby for interaction with the public suffered in isolation. “
Groz said that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety was three times more common in 2020 than in 2019 and depression was four times more common. Emerging from the pandemic, heightened awareness of mental health issues provides an opportunity to rethink public space, prioritizing the well-being of citizens over industry interests and the speed and storage of cars.
Groz then introduced Roe, who described the seven pillars of restorative cities that she identifies in her book: green cities with fair and well-maintained green spaces; blue cities that have equitable access to water; sensory cities designed with pleasing sound, olfactory and visual elements such as lighting design and public art; neighborhood towns that facilitate social relations; active cities that promote multimodal transport and integrate physical activity into everyday life; playable cities that provide space for structured and unstructured play; and inclusive cities designed for people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, socio-economic strata and cognitive abilities and needs.
Obviously, these concepts overlap: programs like open streets can be designed with plantings, public art and playscapes, and even blue elements like fountains, while still providing space for socializing. neighborhood, active mobility and play. As Courtney Cobbs recently wrote for Streetsblog, the pedestrianization of roads around schools not only makes these streets safer for children coming and going to school, but also adds an essential space so that they can run freely.
Like Cobbs, Roe cited Barcelona’s superblocks as an example of urban design that integrates physical activity and mobility into everyday life. “These are mixed-use communities, multimodal streets, with street connectivity, subsidized and integrated transit, street trees and urban greening,” Roe explained. “The mental health benefits of such a design include reduced risk of depression, anxiety, better stress regulation, improved brain health and memory function, all important for healthy aging. child health and development.
Frisbie presented the importance of access to water, parks, wildlife, restored landscapes and trails for mental wellness. She also noted how the trails along the river can raise awareness of environmental issues. Frisbie said the media began contacting Friends of the Chicago River about the river’s sewage and flooding after the Riverwalk was built. “The Riverwalk was designed to be flooded, the city knew it would happen, but no one cared because they didn’t understand there was sewage in the water, but when the Riverwalk was under water, suddenly they cared, ”she said. “The river’s message having this serious problem – 85 percent of those occasions are gone – but it still happens, and people need to be made aware of it and say it’s unacceptable.”
During Q&A, a participant asked about the availability of data correlating, for example, kilometers of cycle paths to mental health statistics to help advocates advocate for infrastructure investments. Roe said more data is needed on the link between physical activity and mental health. However, Frisbie cited a study that found that for every dollar spent on developing blue / green corridors, $ 1.77 was created in local wealth. She also noted the danger of gentrification with the development of the river banks. “At the same time, we are giving the river back to people because it was fenced in, we have to be careful not to pull it out,” she said. “The development of the blue / green corridor increases land values, but not so much that property values skyrocket. “
Broz closed the hour by saying that a return to the old normalcy, with commuters returning to fill cabins, is a “miscalculation of human behavior.”
“There are aspects of a new normal that are better than before,” he said. “We discovered the river system, we discovered our neighborhoods, we discovered our neighbors and we realized that we don’t need to take a plane for a 45-minute meeting across the country. We don’t need to sit in a car to get to the office to have time to focus. The business districts of the city center are transformed into social districts. And with the river, Millennium Park, and world-class museums, Chicago is well positioned to make that transition and perhaps better than many cities around the world.
Broz cited the Loop Alliance’s upcoming Sundays on State program starting July 11, which will pedestrianize State Street from Lake to Madison on Sundays throughout the summer for a block party, as a step in that direction.