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Built environment can improve mental health, UVA professor says

A headshot of Jenny Roe
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Jenny Roe is a University of Virginia professor and runs The Center for Design + Health in the School of Architecture. She co-authored "Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing."

Jenny Roe is co-author of 'Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing.'

Can urban design and planning take a toll on the mental well-being of city dwellers?

One researcher at the University of Virginia thinks so. Jenny Roe is co-author of “Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing,” a book that looks at how cities can put mental health and wellness at the forefront of design.

VPM News Morning Edition Host Phil Liles recently spoke with Roe about the book.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

Phil Liles: Jenny, what is a restorative environment?

Jenny Roe: [A]ny environment that supports your mental health and well-being that might be a short-term recovery from, let's say, fatigue or anxiety or a low mood or stress. Or it might be a longer term, longer lasting building of your mental health capacities.

The book alludes to things that we can see and smell, and those things can help with depression and affect our mood. And, you know, I was thinking about this earlier as I was taking a short walk, is it the environment itself that's affecting our body so much?

I'll give you a negative and a positive example. I have just come back from California and crossing the road, I could almost smell the air pollution, and we're talking about 10 lanes of vehicular traffic. It's not a positive experience. And we know it's super bad for our physical and mental health. So, a trend might be a healing garden; you often find these in health care and hospital contexts where they work with the aroma of plants. They work with the smell of those plants. When you touch those plants, some of those plants emit an aroma. That is one example that can have a very positive effect on mental health and well-being outcomes.

How should the city of Richmond use this kind of research to create spaces for better mental health and well-being?

We have done work with seniors in Richmond, where they have walked very urban environments with no level of tree canopy, versus areas that do have tree canopy, and we see a positive effect of those trees on elders' mental health and well-being.

Those trees are capturing toxins from the atmosphere. They're capturing air pollution. They are providing a level of heat comfort. They're reducing the heat that is experienced as people walk the streets of Richmond. I always say the single most important thing which we can do is plant more of them.

Let's just go 50 years back: How [was] people's mental health and well-being ... compared to now?

Well, there were indeed mental health problems in the 1960s and ’70s. But I think what we're experiencing now is an avalanche. It's been called a tsunami of mental health problems. This has arisen partly owing to COVID and the sense of social isolation that we all experienced. The younger generation are hugely worried, as we all are, about climate change. Politically, I think we're much more divided. And so, there's more strife and discord in our cities.

We really have a huge range of mental health problems. And what I would say is that modern psychiatry is not keeping up with this avalanche of mental health problems. There have really been no new drugs, no new treatments [for] serious mental health problems for a number of years. And what I argue is that the built environment, our cities, play a role in supporting and nurturing our mental health. So, it doesn't need to be just about medications and psychiatric treatments, it needs to be a much wider public health program.

Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.