The issue of mental health in Australian cities is a major problem, one marked by the occurrence of unusually high anxiety and depression rates in metropolitan areas. How can we as building designers help? Well to answer this, we must take a close look at the possibilities of urban design.

Using research which informs us of the benefits of nature and biodiversity, we need to rethink the spaces used in everyday life.

Mental health issues can be exacerbated by unpredictable and ever-shifting elements of our physical world, which may impact the related experiences of risk, recovery and experiences.

Many urban planning efforts make accommodations for exercise and recreation, which of course do contribute to an individual’s mental health.

Yet we must go deeper, really delving into the fields of neuroscientific research and tools. Nature may be the greatest source of healing for those dealing with mental illness; and, sadly, our cities’ natural habitats are decreasing rapidly.

Green and public spaces are treated as separate entities in urban areas. Regeneration efforts emphasise sizable green corridors. Yet smaller sections of biodiverse nature can accommodate many plant and animal species.

Furthermore, nature does not affect us the same way, all of the time. A remote natural space can carry many dangers in its borders. Nature, while curing many problems, can cause a few as well.

It’s a good thing, then, that the affordable accessibility of lab and mobile technology, like fMRI and EEG measuring brain activity, has expanded studies of mental health and nature. Researchers can investigate responses to pictures of urban streetscapes as opposed to forests. They also keep track of people’s perceptions of both as they are out and about.

Research reflects that biodiverse natural surroundings benefit psychological health. Sensory pleasures such as floral scents and animal sounds soothe and calm the mind.

Exposure to nature also restores our natural sense of balance and equilibrium. This is why it is particularly vital to design urban spaces to accommodate people of all abilities and health conditions. And the focus has to be, not just on the look of a natural space, but the way it makes us feel.

Neuroscientific research also reveals that an area filled with many elements of interest inspires engagement and motion, which in turn make us healthier.

In addition, contact with different microbiomes in the soil and air helps to alleviate anxiety and depression. Touching the earth is very therapeutic. Conversely, air, noise and soil pollution enhance the risk of mental illness in cities.

Designers and planners must create multiple opportunities for city dwellers to be one with nature. And beyond “biophilia,” we must design realistic opportunities for natural interaction. Bringing nature and science into the city is sure to make any metropolis a happier, healthier place.