Cardinal Property Management Blog

Taking Up Space: Mental Health Emerges As A Design Priority

Cardinal Property Management - Thursday, April 27, 2023

Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki’s article in The Builders Daily posted on April 6, 2023. In it Teri addresses wellness and well-being in residential communities. Great information for established communities as well.  

As the cliché goes, you can see a broken arm, indicating physical pain, but can’t as easily see the signs of someone struggling with mental illness.

For years, out of sight out of mind made it easier to ignore. Or worse yet, to sweep under the rug. Since the pandemic there has been a huge increase in the number of people struggling with mental health, and data from Mental Health America, the nation’s leading non-profit dedicated to helping people live mentally healthy lives, indicates that trend is not reversing. Their website features a free mental health screening test here: Mental Health Test. Tests among web users have seen a 600% increase in use since 2020. More than 20,000 people a day engage with that screening test, and seven of every 10 of them are 24 years of age or younger.

According to the World Health Organization:

Mental health is a state of well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.”

The homes, neighborhoods, and towns where people live have an outsized impact on people’s sense of community and belonging. The built environment may be one area we have more control over than other factors affecting mental wellness, but only if we design and create with intention.

When the environments where we live are not set up to support our mental health, we continue to create greater risks for people to develop anxiety, depression, and our relationships suffer,” says Schroeder Stribling, President, and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), and a lifelong social justice advocate with a particular interest in homelessness and poverty.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month – defined as such by MHA in 1949. This year organizers are taking a broad approach to the natural and built environments and the role they have in supporting mental health. Also in May, JP Morgan Chase Headquarters in New York City will be host venue for the Global Wellness Summit’s second annual Wellness Real Estate and Communities Symposium: Wellness Communities & Real Estate Symposium – including investors, developers, planners, educators, architects, and senior leaders from around the world, for open discussion on the latest ideas and innovations in wellness real estate. TBD’s John McManus shared his voice as part of a media panel during the first annual Symposium. Post-pandemic, there is more focus than ever on this, and mental wellness specifically.

Community design to support mental well-being.

Most of us can recognize the feelings of stress, loneliness, and depression. But when we approach land planning primarily through the lens of efficiency, and old models of financial returns, the role our physical environments play in raising or lowering our stress levels can get lost in the spreadsheets. Ironically, designing places where organic, authentic connections occur can cost less than older more conventional development models. When consumers are asked, they place less value on the shopping list of built amenities.

Clubhouses cost more than trails, and they are considered “very important and would influence my purchase decision” by just 22% of 3,000 respondents in wave 3 of the America at Home Study – the lowest ranked amenity of all tested. Nature and open space hikes and activities scored 58%, trails scored 48%, as did large parks with open fields and greenspaces. The highest-rated “built” amenity on the list of very important is a walkable café, coffee shop or casual eatery, at 43%. Places to connect, take a break, and have a conversation, after enjoying all that fresh air and open space.

The suburban experiment is less than 100 years old and worth challenging, particularly the large lot single-family land planning and its impact on the “sense of community” so lost today. Mental Health America’s Stribling recalls it this way:

It starts with relationships with your neighbor. Do you know your neighbor well enough that they can help you when you need it? Community is all about relationships that are supportive.”

A silver lining of the housing attainability crisis is more housing diversity, smaller, denser neighborhood design where proximity means more engagement and relationships with neighbors, less large scale built amenities, and more open common community spaces. Not only is this financially efficient – it is what home shoppers want.

Design at the community scale is really the first scale at which physical frameworks and spaces get defined, so this is the perfect place to start," explains Andrew Watkins, Principal, Director of Urban Design & Planning at JZMK Partners. "Whether it is a new residential community or urban district, this scale defines the spatial relationship between uses, building types and open space frameworks—streets, parks, and natural spaces. The ability to weave open spaces and built spaces together to create a place that consistently and equitably provides access and connections for air, light, views, and movement is what intentionally supports mental well-being.”

Community elements impacting mental well-being

  • Neighborhood design that encourages spontaneous and supportive relationships and a sense of belonging
  • Access to outdoor spaces (even small ones!) to relax, gather, enjoy views of nature – don’t ask “is that wasted space”, but rather how might we turn an odd-shaped edge condition into a place to get outside and breathe
  • Places to play, walk, recreate, and decompress
  • Easy access to things that meet basic needs for healthy food, quality medical care, public transportation

Supporting the Humans Inside the Home

  • Tidiness and lack of clutter.
  • Storage solutions.
  • Sleep friendliness.
  • Spaces that promote comfortable privacy and communal living.
  • Access to quality light, air, and sound.
  • Connections to outdoor spaces.

Inside the home all these factors impact our ability to manage the chaos and challenges of life.  

“Since COVID, people have an increased sensitivity to sound, to chaos, and just the emotional effects of living life today,” says Kate Pourhassanian, CEO of Unscripted Interior Design. Pourhassanian and her team handle interior design, and art procurement for commercial developers, custom and production home builders. She says commercial developers have been among the earlier adopters of wellness real estate overall, likely because of their longer exposure to various wellness certification and compliance programs.

In their work with Stepping Stone Communities, on the  80-unit Trailhead Community apartment development in Northern Colorado, 50% of the units are allocated for adults with developmental disabilities, 25% for working professionals, and 25% for active seniors.

We realized how spaces designed to support mental wellness and the overall physical environment intersect,” Pourhassanian says. “The way people experience space is through their lens, and when you think about it, most of us are atypical and multi-layered human beings,” she says.

The challenge in neighborhood residential design is to allow for that.

No matter the size or type of home, ancillary and secondary spaces provide some of the greatest opportunities to support mental well-being.

Things like a drop zone where I can let my outside life drop and enter my sanctuary or safe zone. Making sure in some climates there’s a mudroom, more storage needs are not going away, so utilizing back pantries better. The relief that people feel, they don’t always have words for why, but they know physically when a space reduces chaos and clutter. The body keeps score. We feel chaos,” says Pourhassanian.

She advocates getting interior design involved at the charrette level, to consider spaces from the inside out, the connections between floorplans and outdoor elevations, and how life happens there.

Talking about mental health and well-being no longer carries a stigma. It’s a foundational domain of overall well-being. We often think of the built environment impacting our physical health. It’s equally important to take seriously the effect of the places and spaces we create have on mental health and well-being.

Article reprinted with permission.  View original article here: