Over the last year, one thing which has come to the forefront of the government’s thoughts (alongside substantial meals) is mental health.
What was already an emerging topic was highlighted by the pandemic. Large numbers of people across the county, regardless of gender, race, or class, are facing mental health issues.
Mental illness is said to ‘represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK’. In 2016, the NHS committed to investing £1.6bn in these services by 2020/21, and a further £2.3bn a year by 2023/24 as part of its Long Term Plan to battle mental health issues and add the most value possible for the patients. The number of sick days that employees take due to mental illness is increasing year on year. The NHS is already stretched to its limit, both financially and on a practical level with issues such as staffing.
The importance of our environment and how it affects our physical and mental health has been apparent for years but has been highlighted over the last 10 years and most importantly during the pandemic.
Time confined to our homes has emphasised the importance of higher quality housing, with private outdoor space and an increased need for daylight. Outside of the home, parks and green spaces have been relied on heavily. Playgrounds and parks have been full during both the summer and winter months, with many people viewing their daily exercise and time outdoors as a form of medication during the various restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
A research done in Finland shows that greener parks can boost children’s immune systems. By transforming gravel playgrounds to mini forests children’s immune will see improvements within a month. Exposure to a greener environment can help in lessening the rates of autoimmune diseases, that are spreading rapidly throughout the western world.
Parks and green spaces need to be kept in good condition and expanded where possible. The way our roads function may need to change too. Priority should be given to cyclists and pedestrians over cars. Many high streets trialled pedestrianisation during the pandemic in an effort to support businesses and give more space for cyclists and walkers, which proved to be well received by the communities.
Data published by TFL shows a dramatic increase of both walking and cycling during the past year, with many people shunning public transport and cars, partly to stop the spread of the virus, but also to increase time outdoors and time spent moving.
All of the above is a testament to just how important it is to shift the way we look at planning our cities and the spaces we live in. Accommodating changes necessary to combat mental health issues has become more important than ever.
Homes need to be built with future lockdowns and people’s mental health in mind – meaning they should include gardens, enough space to work and live in, and plenty of natural light. Perhaps minimum space standards need to be amended with this in mind. The current ‘Minimum space standards for new dwellings’ policy states that the minimum m2 requirement for a 1-bedroom apartment is 39m. Which can become quite claustrophobic if you have no outdoor space and access to a little amount of daylight, especially during the winter months.
It is not only our homes that should change. Local Plans need to be adapted to allow for wider pavements, more green space, and cycle lanes. Potential developments that threaten the air and light quality of surrounding existing homes should not be met with approval. Instead, the developments should fit within the environment without disrupting its quality of it. Our environment has a massive impact on mental health and wellbeing and needs to be taken seriously. For there to be a positive change, Planning needs to adapt to the needs of the communities.
The Transport Secretary has taken a step towards bettering our environments by launching a £2 billion package in May 2020 to allow for wider pavements, pop-up bike lanes, and cycle corridors to be built.
Various industries and sectors need to come together for the sake of building better environments for us and future generations. We need spaces and neighborhoods that are greener, safer, and more pro-social with a goal to benefit our mental health and wellbeing, not just during the pandemic, but in the year to come!