Editorial| Public Goods

Safer Spaces: Integrating Mental Well-being Features Into the Urban Built Environment

Rethinking how public housing and public spaces are designed and how urban communities can benefit.

By Aziff Azuddin | 7 July 2020


During the Covid-19 Movement Control Order (MCO), our study on mental well-being revealed that just under a half of Malaysians surveyed reported experiencing negative emotions. Among the key factors behind this was an individual’s immediate living conditions during the MCO period, in particular in urban areas, where over 70% of the Malaysian population resides.

We propose mental well-being elements be explicitly integrated in future revisions of policies, regulations and guidelines dealing with the design and building of public housing, public amenities and public spaces.  It is crucial that mental well-being as part of the built environment should not be taken for granted , because as the Covid-19 MCO has shown, the impact of this can be far-reaching and long lasting.

The built environment refers to urban spaces and infrastructure designed for human activity. The term built environment encompasses how various items, such as parks, buildings, streets and residential and work spaces are designed. It concerns the space’s impact on human and environmental health.


Mental well-being and the built environment

Well-being weaknesses in residential spaces

During the MCO, news reports on public low-cost housing residents revealed that families were living in cramped spaces and unsanitary conditions. These shortcomings are not new, and have been highlighted before the MCO. A 2018 study showed that low-cost housing residents stated that their housing design was not sensitive or conducive towards their personal and social needs. They were also unhappy with badly-maintained amenities. Studies have shown that these shortcomings in living environments have a long-term negative impact on mental well-being.

In the design process, architects often explore holistic approaches and solutions to integrate mental well-being and community life into the built environment. This is clearly reflected in the objectives and scope of work outlined by the housing and urban well-being committee of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM). Despite this effort, why do we still see weaknesses in housing units, especially in public low-cost housing?

Architects we have spoken to indicated that these shortcomings often occurs at the planning and design phase. While official design guidelines may have features that indicate an implicit understanding of mental well-being, very often, this does not translate into the final product, as guidelines are not binding. An initial design goes through several filtering phases where the concept is adjusted based on cost, design feasibility, regulations and client expectations. Often, explicit well-being features are only included if it is desired or requested by the client.


Extending residential spaces: shared amenities

In addition to the residential spaces, amenities also contribute towards the mental well-being of its residents. Low-cost public housing is typically high-rise, where by design, there are limits to an individual’s access to spaces such as gardens, unlike in landed residentials.  This is a longstanding area of concern for low-cost housing residents: a University Malaya study of low-cost housing residents identified access to amenities and a well-designed interior environment as a priority.

Indeed, a study that looked at the quality of urban spaces in the UK identified outdoor private spaces such as personal balconies contributed to better overall well-being for residents who stay in flats. The same study also found that residents desired shared spaces such as garden rooftops and communal spaces.

Thus, the inclusion of amenities in low-cost public housing, such as balconies or garden spaces, plays a pivotal role in addressing the mental well-being needs of its residents.


Beyond shared amenities: public spaces

Designing the built environment should consider more than just the well-being features of interior spaces. Currently, urban built environments contribute to negative mental well-being due to light and noise pollution, urban heat islands, and built-up density among many other factors. This has to do with how the built environment is designed in general.

We also need to think about how public spaces affect the social life and well-being of those using the space. Design interventions such as social spaces, meeting points, activity spaces or even street lighting are parts of the larger picture of urban design. These elements contribute towards positive well-being, both individually and in communities.

As an example, as part of making Kuala Lumpur more pedestrian-friendly, the city council announced pedestrianising 10 major roads in the city by 2025. This is commendable, as pedestrianising urban spaces is shown to improve well-being by encouraging walking and making streets safer. Yet, despite the Kuala Lumpur City Council’s efforts, traffic experts indicate that walkability in the city is still not as safe nor as accessible as it should be.

What might be the consequences of not heeding well-being in public urban design? A 2011 study of Kuala Lumpur shows that the lack of proper urban planning may potentially turn the metropolis into a heat island. This is supported by studies showing how this phenomenon results in adverse health effects on urban communities. The same study makes recommendations for increasing green spaces in the city to manage the negative effects of the built environment.


Green spaces and urban well-being

Beyond urban concrete and glass, green spaces are also an important feature of the built environment. A body of research has shown that the importance of green spaces and mobility in the urban environment also contributes towards the overall well-being of urban communities.

By the same token, green spaces such as parks are increasingly shrinking and fragmented due to aggressive development. A body of literature has shown how green spaces in urban areas contribute to overall well-being alongside promoting public health activities in the communities.

A local study of green spaces in Kuala Lumpur confirms this relationship, where residents who have benefited from these green spaces called for continued funding for these parks. Unfortunately, green spaces in Kuala Lumpur are fragmented, occupying only 35% of 243 km2 total areas in the city.


Incorporating mental well-being into the built environment

How can we implement more comprehensive well-being features into the design of our interior and exterior spaces? The first step is to recognise where the existing gaps are. 

One framework proposed by The Centre of Urban Design and Mental Health, known as Mind the GAPS deliberately integrates mental well-being into urban design. The framework operates on four aspects: accessibility to green spaces, active spaces, pro-social spaces and safety and security. 

Existing guidelines in Malaysia already incorporate some of the above aspects: however, this needs to be better integrated as part of an active process rather than merely a box-ticking exercise. While the guidelines imply an acknowledgment of mental well-being in the built environment, this often translates poorly in reality, as evidenced in the examples of shrinking green spaces, and lack of public low-cost housing amenities to name a few.

In the following section, we use the Mind the GAPS framework to highlight potential areas where changes can be made, so that mental well-being is more explicitly incorporated in our policies, regulations and guidelines.


Aspect 1: Accessibility to green spaces

Green spaces, an area of vegetation in an urban environment, is typically realised as parks or gardens. The provision of green spaces are currently designated in planning guidelines of state governments, although its form differs depending on where it is being built. 

More weightage should be given to designing green spaces into the built environment, not simply as a checkbox but as a consideration for well-being. In cities such as London, the expansion and preservation of green spaces are designed into policy. London aims to have 50% of green spaces in the city by 2050, recognising its benefits. In fact, a 2017 study on the economic value of health benefits that London’s urban communities get is £27 for every £1 spent on public green spaces.

Currently, Malaysia is implementing its Low Carbon Cities Framework, which is a holistic approach towards environment sustainability. There is an opportunity to update the framework to also accommodate for urban mental well-being. Examples can include enforcing a binding green spaces target, and redirecting taxes to the development of green spaces.


Aspect 2: Activate active spaces

While parks may serve as spaces for exercise; active spaces can also be realised through more minor design interventions such as accessible footpaths to encourage walking, or even bicycle lanes in the city. Studies have shown how physical activities contribute to better mental health

Although bicycle lanes are already designed into select spaces of Kuala Lumpur, the experience of using it is less than ideal as these lanes are typically blocked by private vehicles or its usage is not respected. In these cases, enforcement paired with design interventions are necessary to make these active spaces safe to use.

As an example, the New York City Planning Department published guidelines on integrating active spaces into every aspect of urban life, both social and economic. The guidelines take into account walkability to amenities, pedestrian access and optimal stair locations to name a few.

While Malaysia does not have any guidelines directly addressing the implementation of active spaces in design guidelines, the government acknowledges the need of a healthy society. This is exemplified by the MyHEALTH portal aimed at increasing public awareness towards physical well-being. There is an opportunity here for the government to examine how the built environment can contribute towards the encouragement of healthier physical and mental lifestyles.


Aspect 3: Pro-social spaces

The importance of pro-social spaces – spaces designed to encourage a sense of community –  is supported by studies showing that social ties improve mental health. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls these “social infrastructure”- shared spaces where people meet one another, form connections and develop a sense of community. 

Examples of pro-social spaces are neighbourhood libraries or community centres, or smaller scale interventions such as street furniture. In America, public libraries are seen as “opportunity institutions”. Vulnerable communities, such as migrant communities, the elderly or homeless, access public libraries to attend community classes, get help with job applications and access a range of community resources otherwise not available to them.

In Malaysia, public libraries are still exclusively regarded as spaces of knowledge. This limitation of imagining a library’s role limits the potential for a design approach that considers these spaces as pro-social. Refreshing our approach to the built environment, as well as how we think of “social infrastructures”, allow us to encourage community developments in these spaces.

Other examples are internet centres established in low-cost housing areas. While its core purpose is to encourage digital literacy among underserved communities, there is also an underlying pro-social aspect, where if designed well, can function as an informal community space.

From a policy perspective, there are efforts by the government to address the development of community life. This is done through the National Community Policy. However, the document lacks any indication in which the built environment is seriously considered in improving well-being in communities. There is an opportunity to implement pro-social spaces into local authorities’ design guidelines and allow for an acknowledgement of the built environment in developing communities.


Aspect 4: Safety and security

This aspect of the framework is concerned with building a safe and secure environment, or “safe spaces” that contribute to one’s mental well-being.

In part of design guide and implementation, Australia’s Northern Territory extensively outlines community safety and how that can be realised in the built environment. The guideline examines the use of spaces and outlines well-being considerations to contribute towards safer, more realised community life. 

Examples of designing safe urban environments are pedestrian walkability, accessibility to different forms of mobility such as cycling or public transport, or protective environments to deter crime.

Currently, state by-laws address safety design pragmatically. For example, fire safety design guidelines discuss space use and design interventions extensively. While this is commendable, improvements can be made to also extend this same principle across well-being, where explicit consideration is given towards smaller built environment elements such as pathways, lighting and amenities maintenance.

Design guidelines should account for safety in a more holistic perspective, as opposed to addressing the specific safety issues to be solved in the built environment.


Conclusion

Various studies have shown how spaces, interior or exterior, influence mental health and well-being. Green spaces such as parks and rooftop gardens are not simply part of the urban feature: they are important in contributing towards the urban community’s mental well-being. The same goes to design interventions such as safe and accessible public amenities that encourage the fostering of community life. The Mind the GAPS framework discussed above provides for these different aspects of urban well-being.

Currently, well-intentioned well-being considerations do not necessarily fully translate  into the built environment. There is a need here to embrace mental well-being prominently in the planning and design process of the built environment. To enable this, mental well-being considerations need to be explicitly integrated it into design guidelines, policies and regulation, and where possible, make these considerations binding.

This is key in realising safer, thriving spaces for urban communities to grow in. And as Malaysia moves into rapid urbanisation in the coming decades, these urban spaces are more important than ever.