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Making places well, makes people well

10 March 2021

For International Women’s Day 2021 we’re featuring some fantastic women on our channels who are doing really inspiring things. Keeping with the 2021 IWD theme #ChooseToChallenge, we’ve asked them to present a challenge they would like to pose for a more equal world.

In this guest blog for International Women’s Day 2021, Denean Rowe, Senior Development Officer for Centre for London shares her challenge to our industry – keep mental health at the forefront of the way we design places and engage communities. Denean also presents the Ditch the Small Talk podcast, which aims to tackle stigma and encourage open conversations around mental health.   

Up until recently, if you had asked me what it meant to design a place to encourage wellbeing and good mental health, my answer probably would have been trees, benches and a GP that all residents can access easily. I thought of it more as an add on, a nice to have. But with everything COVID-19 related that has happened over the past year, many of us have had to rethink how we live and spend time in our local areas and how they affect our wellbeing. And so, I‘d like to propose a challenge – why don’t we push for design that supports people to have good mental health?

Davidson Gardens, SW8 – a good example

Get communities involved
Most people will argue that community engagement needs to play a bigger role in the development of new places. This often involves consultation surveys and drawings that help residents to see what a new development in their area could look like. But how often do these conversations involve questions about how people interact with an area and how it affects their moods? By asking people to get involved not just in the development of the big picture of a development, but to also share their thoughts on how the communal spaces around their homes could provide support for their wellbeing, then not only would it make for more welcoming spaces; it would also lead to be a better stewardship once the development has been completed.

Daryngton – an example that doesn’t seem to have considered mental health/wellbeing in its design

Make spaces for social connection for free       
London is not short of places to go and things to do but a lot of things are centralised and require spending. That alone can make it difficult for people to get out of the house. Many new developments have rooftop spaces, but those are not often accessible for all residents and this can make some residents feel excluded. By having a common space, whether it is a common room or an adaptable space, people are more likely to make use of it and make connections with neighbours, which can help to ease feelings of loneliness that can lead to further problems.

The courtyard at St. Thomas’ Hospital – a good example

Partner with community organisations
Charities like Age UK, South London Cares and many other mutual aid groups working on the ground to support local communities have been set up to provide support for those in need, but to also help people feel a sense of community and belonging. Developers and other house builders could partner with these groups so that they can continue to provide on the ground support for people. By giving to these charities, not only does that allow them to continue providing vital support within neighbourhoods; it also shows a commitment to supporting vulnerable residents that might not be able to engage with the development process.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution that will make places better for people’s wellness and mental health. But over the past year, many people have come to realise just how much your surroundings can have an impact on your mental health. Developers and other house builders are in a prime position to take up the challenge to design spaces that encourage good mental health.

You can follow Denean at @shortsarky88 or @DTSTpod on Twitter.