Poor mental health is one of the most complex crises facing society today, and young people are the worst affected. Can urban design help?
Our biggest health challenge
As early as 2011, The World Economic Forum concluded that mental illness is the non-communicable disease that gives the single largest negative impact on GDP. According to The Lancet, the costs in disability adjusted life-years of poor mental health outweigh the costs of either cardiac disease, diabetes or cancer. In my own country Denmark, mental illness costs society more than 15 billion EUR annually.
Mental health disorders are the largest single health challenge globally, outweighing all other non-communicable diseases
Young people not thriving
The Cigna 360 Global Well-Being Survey of 12,000 employees across 15 countries – including Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and The Netherlands – shows that 91% of Gen Z participants between the ages of 18-24 felt stressed. That makes mental health an urgent issue for employers that wish to recruit, retain, and realise the potential of the next generation workforce.
City living can be an amazing thing, and may enhance a sense of belonging, trust and community. And we better get used to urbanisation. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in metropolitan regions. However, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, urban environments also pose increased risk of depression (40%), anxiety (20%) and double the risk of schizophrenia.
This indicates that urban systems are both part of the problem and the solution. The problem is more complex than our physical surroundings. Think about broken psychiatric care systems, performance pressure in educational institutions, fragmented family structures, the role of “always on” social media, the looming menace of climate disaster, precarious job markets – and you have the very definition of a “wicked problem” when it comes to young people and mental health.
Cities rethinking mental health for young people
So what to do? Together with more than 150 partners across government, non-profits, researchers and entrepreneurs, the Copenhagen-based Danish Design Center (DDC) proposed seven key principles for a future where young people thrive:
- Relations and care
- Open families
- Lifelong (un)learning
- Community and democracy
- New forms of work
- Prevention and treatment
- Nature on purpose
These principles can be implemented in different ways in an urban environment in the form of new types of institutions and activities.
For instance, instead of traditional schools, you might imagine learning collectives based on principles of relations and care, which are inclusive and support lifelong learning and reskilling for new forms of work – from youth to adulthood. These collectives do not only gather in buildings and labs, but in parks and open recreational spaces.
Community and democracy could mean that neighbourhoods share resources and that marginalised groups are given a voice in local decision-making. Open family concepts might be manifested in more flexible and inclusive notions of family structure, realised through inter-generational housing concepts.
Vorby – our town
We used the seven principles to design the imaginary city of Vorby, which in Danish literally means “Our Town”. The idea is simple. If you can imagine it, then you can design it. Together with partners, the DDC team has made the seven principles come alive through immersive workshop and films played by professional actors telling stories on the future of life in Vorby. There’s a city welcome guide and even a comprehensive city map outlining all the new places, spaces and institutions that would embody the seven principles.
Bringing nature to city living
“Nature on purpose” studies indicate that bringing nature into city life is a key approach to improving mental health. What would city life be like if nature was used more actively to support mental health for youth?
In Vorby, young people are educated not in school but in open learning communities where many activities take place on the nearby lakes and in a bog called “The whisping bog”. In one of the films from the future, a teacher speaks enthusiastically about how children’s learning is enhanced through interactions with the natural environment. “At first, the kids think it’s weird standing in rubber boots in the bog at 7am, but then they listen and slowly they start hearing nature speaking to them.”
Using Vorby as the blueprint, the DDC and the 150 partners now aim to build a series of real-world experiments to intervene in real urban contexts. The idea is to use cities as test beds, prototyping new forms of living, learning, working and shaping urban environments to enhance mental health.
As urbanisation continues, improving mental health in cities will be one of the world’s most pressing challenges. We must reimagine and redesign cities if we are to succeed.
The ongoing work of the DDC on “Thriving Youth” can be explored here.
The OECD work on Urban and cities design can be found here.
Christian Bason, CEO, Ph.D. leads the Danish Design Center (DDC), a non-profit foundation backed by the Danish government. Previously, Christian was Director of MindLab, the Danish government’s innovation team, and Business Manager with Ramboll Management Consulting. Christian is the author of numerous articles and eight books on innovation, design and leadership, including Expand: Stretching the Future by Design (2022). He has published in amongst other Harvard Business Review and Stanford Social Innovation Review and has taught executives at Oxford Saïd Business School, Henley MBA, the European School of Administration and Copenhagen Business School. Christian is M.Sc. in political science and Ph.D. in design, leadership and governance.