Mental health, biophilia & economics.
Adapting our public places and retail and leisure destinations to accommodate those with accessibility needs has rightly become a priority. However one of the most common disabilities is often overlooked: mental illness.
22% of those considered disabled report having poor mental health, with mental health conditions also affecting many who are not documented as disabled. How can our public places also support these people?
There are many ways to improve accessibility and remove barriers through tackling organisational policies and procedures and those associated with people stereotyping or discriminating. Addressing physical barriers can be more difficult. This is especially true for disabilities which are unseen, such as mental illness. But there are ways to improve the general population’s mental health that have been overlooked.
Biophilia as a concept has been floating around since the mid-1980s but with the sustainability agenda becoming increasingly important in recent years, it has had a resurgence.
Designers are under more pressure to incorporate the natural environment than ever before, whether this is through bringing nature into a building, increasing the biodiversity of a site, or by mimicking nature in a building through design and materials.
Biodiversity and biophilia are often introduced to a project for aesthetic reasons or due to sustainability aspirations. However these features have additional benefits to mental health. For instance, daylight has been proven to improve alertness and improve moods as well as promoting neurological health (Figueiro et al, 2002). Greenery promotes calm and reduces stress and anxiety levels and has been proven to improve recovery times for illnesses and injuries. The therapeutic benefits of contact with nature, whether real or simulated, have been scientifically proven in controlled laboratory experiments and field studies alike (Heerwagen, 2009).
As a designer I know that often green elements of a design are the first to fall victim to value engineering. Despite these benefits to mental health many clients will consider these non-essential...
... and will need to see an economic driver in order to be persuaded that they are important to the success of a design.
In addition to biophilic design increasing the overall productivity of employees, studies show that well-placed greenery encourages consumer spending and that shoppers are willing to pay significantly more for items in greener retail settings (Terrapin Bright, 2012 and Joye, 2010).
There has also been research to prove that sales in departments which are naturally lit consistently outsell the same departments in the same retailers which are artificially lit. The link between sales and natural light has been found in a number of retail chains in the US, with sales improvements due to natural light ranging between 20-40% in studies.
Profits gained from increases in sales far outweigh the economic benefits of increased productivity and savings from energy costs (Heschong, 2003a).
Our society’s interaction with nature is becoming scarcer as we evolve into a primarily urban-dwelling population.
As this interaction dwindles, biophilia will become an ever important aspect of our placemaking in order to fulfil people’s inert urge to be in nature. If we can take advantage of design elements which not only contribute towards bettering physical and mental health but can also offer environmental and aesthetic benefits while rationalising them through their economic profitability this is a truly sustainable approach to our placemaking: social, environmental and economic sustainability.
Maria is an architect and urban designer, and a LEED and BREEAM AP.