The Sunday Magazine

How urban design affects mental health

City life can be hard on the nerves — the noise, the lights, the bustle, the endless miles of glass and concrete. And the traffic — just crossing the street can be a terrifying experience with hulking vehicles hurtling down thoroughfares. Robin Mazumder is a PhD student in cognitive neuroscience, and he researches the toll that bad urban design takes on human psychology — and how urban spaces could be made into sources of delight and solace instead of stress.
A person shovels snow on the sidewalk in Toronto after a major snowstorm in February 2019. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

When he worked as an occupational therapist in community mental health, Robin Mazumder once met with a man in Edmonton who had survived a suicide attempt.

Robin Mazumder (James Jackson)

When Mazumder asked him what had prompted him to try to end his life, the man replied, "I'm lonely." 

As an occupational therapist, a key part of Mazumder's job was to assess how people's environments affected their well-being. He suggested they go for a walk in the man's neighbourhood, to look for places where he might be able to connect with other people. 

"This was a community on the outskirts, where a lot of people live in boarding homes … We walked around. We couldn't find any rec centres. There weren't any libraries. We couldn't find any public spaces," Mazumder said. 

"I realized that as a healthcare professional, I was actually quite limited in addressing this on a one-to-one basis, that part of the solution involved changing the built environment."

When working with people with schizophrenia at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, he also noticed that there were some neighbourhoods where they felt more distress, and other parts of the city that seemed to make them happier. 

Mazumder is now pursuing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, where his research focuses on the psychological impacts of urban design. 

He spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about how to build people-centred cities, the psychological experience of navigating Canadian cities as a pedestrian and why he considers sidewalk snow clearance a human rights and accessibility issue. 

Here are some highlights of their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Building height

I examine how people feel when they're surrounded by these tall buildings. That's why I advocate for park space and what I would even call "open space." My research kind of takes a dystopian bent, because I'm looking at the potential for what our cities could be like in a hundred years, and arguably if we continue to densify the way that we are in our cities, with super-high-rise skyscrapers, it could look like a science fiction movie where you can't see the sky. 

My research involves virtual reality and real-world research. In my real-world research, I found that [skyscrapers create] these little microclimates, and you almost get bowled over by the wind. They're just generally not pleasant places. The light is definitely important, especially in Canadian winter cities. Interestingly, there is a report that the City of Edmonton released as part of their Winter City initiative. One of the key elements that they talk about is how tall buildings can block light, and how that can affect the microclimates that exist in the city.

[Especially taking seasonal affective disorder into account], people need to feel the sun on their skin. If you have to walk six blocks to get out into some sunshine, that's kind of concerning.

Sidewalk snow-clearance as a human rights issue

When I was working as an occupational therapist, most of the people I was working with had mental health issues and developmental disabilities, but they also had physical disabilities. I was working with people who were already profoundly lonely, and that got exacerbated in the winter because they couldn't walk outside. There's snow there or it's turned to ice. If they do try to get out, they've slipped and hurt themselves. I worked at Bridgepoint [a rehab hospital in Toronto]. Most of the people there that I was working with were elderly folks who slipped and broke a hip, and that leads to all sorts of other complications. 

So sidewalk snow clearance is something I'm quite passionate about and I think the city should take responsibility. [There are by-laws that say individuals are responsible for clearing snow outside their homes], but that's something I really want to challenge, because enforcing that is extremely intensive. Cities are spending money on enforcement, and I don't think they're doing the best job. But the other problem with that is — imagine a block where you've got 20 houses and every single person except for one [shoveled]. It would make the whole sidewalk inaccessible. Someone using a walker wouldn't be able to use it.

I shoveled my sidewalk when I was a kid. It's part of the Canadian experience. But unfortunately, not everyone does. And also, not everyone can — people with disabilities, elderly folks. There are some programs out there that try to address that, and have volunteers do that. But I think that it's a fundamental human right to be able to access your city. And unfortunately, for a lot of people, for almost half a year they can't.

People-centred design

The idea here is really trying to think about how people experience the city, from the first person. I think that a lot of professionals that work within city building — which can range from urban planners to transportation engineers to architects — it's essential for them to think about how another person would experience what they've created. To me, empathy fundamentally just means putting yourself in someone else's shoes, which translates well to thinking about how people experience the city by foot. But it seems to me, at least in most Canadian cities, that the first-person experience really isn't taken into account. Rather [the goal is] trying to make it more efficient for people to drive through a city.

What makes a happy city 

A happy city to me is a city where people feel at ease. Maybe it's something for us to reflect on — where in our cities we feel at ease, and why we feel at ease there.

A happy city to me is one that is an equitable city, where people regardless of their identity are able to participate as much as they choose to within the civic commons, and feel like they belong. 

I think a happy city gives people access to beauty, whether that's architectural, whether that's public art, or whether that's a beautiful park with some trees in it.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.