Mental health issues are on the rise with the urban environment increasingly thought to have a negative impact. As cities in the North West get busier, bigger, and more developed, what can be done to make them more bearable?
Manchester-based landscape architect Owen Byrom has some ideas.
He established Headplace, a privately-funded research project, in 2018, in order to gather information and present his proposals to alter major “pain points” in Manchester.
Headplace is in part an extensive research project which centres around plans to make Piccadilly Approach, Piccadilly Gardens and Market Street more inclusive for people who suffer from mental illness.
The project was developed with anxiety-based disorders in mind, as he found that “anxiety is the most common disorder.” However, he also considered ideas based on emotional and suspicion-based disorders like depression.
As arguably one of the busiest areas in Manchester’s city centre, which can be a triggering experience for people with anxiety, Byrom noted Piccadilly Gardens’ surprisingly positive historic link to mental health.
“Piccadilly Gardens already has a strong connection with mental health. Before it was the public space we know today, it was the site of a psychiatric hospital. The old gardens were once walked by the patients of the hospital in order to alleviate their symptoms.
“The area currently ranks second on the most uncomfortable spaces in Manchester. The space is dominated by transport stops, irrationally placed interventions and a poorly maintained series of laws.
“Despite already including both blue and green spaces, the configuration of the space does not have any major benefits and does not fulfil its potential,” he said.
Byrom looked to many similar research projects in order to create alternative designs for Piccadilly Gardens.
One such example is Urban Mind, which collects and measures the effects of both urban and rural surroundings on mental health.
The app prompts the user to input how they feel in their location three times a day for two weeks. At the end of the trial, users receive a report summarising their experiences.
The app shows how people can be impacted by access to green and blue infrastructure, seating areas and easily navigable walkways.
According to Andrea Mechelli, a professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London, and one of the creators of the app, aspects which should have a positive impact can have surprisingly negative effects on people.
“You think putting in a park should immediately make people feel better; after all it provides access to green, and possibly blue, infrastructure, and connotes happiness. However, if the benches are positioned in a way that doesn’t provide enough shelter or privacy, or too much, and the walkways are narrow, and it’s by a school so it’s busy or provides a thoroughfare for students, this can make what should be a positive experience into a negative one for people.”
He went on to say: “It’s about understanding and measuring the impact of spaces, like cherished spaces” and then relaying that information back to “local communities so that the positive spaces, those which promote social and health value, can be protected.”