How green, walkable, bikeable, play-friendly streets promote good mental health – Streetsblog Chicago
On a recent visit to New York, I took a stroll down the middle of Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, one of 20 locations in the city’s Open Streets program, created and made permanent in response to the pandemic. The good mood on Vanderbilt on that sultry Saturday afternoon was palpable when I saw the barricades that made way for hundreds of people of different ages to walk, cycle, skate and play. It is a place that is instantly enjoyable and offers a welcome relief from noise, exhaust fumes and the general stress of car traffic.
Chicago’s Slow Streets Program (the city calls them “Shared Streets”) was introduced late in the pandemic by comparison and isn’t nearly as extensive as many of its benchmark cities, but that shouldn’t prevent the city from expanding the program and making it permanent. As the new “Downtown Futures SeriesThe talk, hosted by the Chicago Loop Alliance, discussed that urban design that provides space for residents to safely and easily interact with nature and with each other plays an important role in physical and mental wellbeing.
The hour-long event was titled Designing Cities for Mental Health and featured two guest speakers: Jennifer Roe, author of the upcoming book, Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health, and Margaret Frisbie, General Manager of Friends of the Chicago River. Moderator Dave Broz, director of the architecture and design firm Gensler, opened with the statement: “The pandemic has made it clear how much urban planning can affect mental health. City dwellers with poor pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure or limited access to parks or squares or no nearby areas for public interaction suffered in isolation. “
Groz said that in 2020, anxiety was three times more common than in 2019 and depression was four times more common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After the pandemic, heightened awareness of mental health issues provides an opportunity to rethink public space and prioritize the wellbeing of citizens over the interests of industry and the speed and storage of cars.
Groz then introduced Roe, who outlined the seven pillars for restorative cities that she identifies in her book: green cities with fair, well-manicured green spaces; blue cities with equal access to water; Sensory cities designed with pleasant noises, smells and visual elements such as lighting design and art in public spaces; neighborhood cities that facilitate social relationships; active cities that encourage multimodal transport and integrate physical activity into everyday life; playable cities that offer space for structured and unstructured play; and inclusive cities for people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, socio-economic classes, and cognitive skills and needs.
Obviously, these concepts overlap: Programs such as open streets can be designed with plants, public art and play areas and even blue elements such as fountains and offer space for neighborly encounters, active mobility and play. As Courtney Cobbs recently wrote for Streetsblog, the pedestrian zone around schools not only makes these streets safer for children coming and going, but also provides them with much-needed space.
Like Cobbs, Roe referred to the Barcelona Superblocks as an example of urban design that integrates physical activity and mobility into everyday life. “These are mixed-use communities, multimodal roads with road access, subsidized and integrated public transport, and street trees and urban greening,” said Roe. “The mental health benefits of such a design include reduced risk of depression, anxiety, improved stress regulation, improved brain health and memory function – all important for healthy aging and child development.”
Frisbie presented the importance of access to water, parks, wildlife, restored landscapes and pathways to mental wellbeing. She also noted how paths along the river can raise public awareness of environmental issues. Frisbie said the media began contacting Friends of the Chicago River about sewage in the river and flooding once the riverwalk was built. “The Riverwalk was designed for flooding, the city knew this was going to happen, but nobody cared because they didn’t know there was sewage in the water. “The news that the river has this serious problem – 85 percent of those cases are gone – but it is still happening and people need to be informed and say that it is unacceptable.”
During the Q&A, one participant asked about the availability of data correlating, for example, miles of bike paths with mental health statistics to help proponents argue for infrastructure investments. Roe said more data is needed on the relationship between physical activity and mental health. However, Frisbie cited a study that found that for every dollar spent developing blue-green corridors, $ 1.77 of local wealth was created. She also pointed to the risk of gentrification in the development of river banks. “At the same time we are giving the river back to the people because it was fenced in, we have to be careful not to take it away,” she said. “Developing a blue / green corridor increases land value, but not so much that property values soar.”
Broz closed the lesson by saying that a return to the old normal, with commuters coming back to fill the cabins, was 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 a plane for a 45-minute meeting across the country. We don’t have to sit in the car to commute to the office to concentrate. Downtown business districts are becoming social areas. And with the river, Millennium Park, and world-class museums, Chicago is well equipped to make that transition, and perhaps better than many cities around the world. “
Broz quoted the Loop Alliances upcoming Sundays on State Open Street program starting July 11th, which will traverse State Street from Lake to Madison on Sundays all summer for a block party, as a step in that direction.