What if we could design out stress from the city

We are heading towards an urban future which the human brain is not wired for. Most of us will live in cities and urban environments which, without a new approach to design, will exacerbate stress and poor mental health. 

In the frequently-cited statistic, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 20501

That’s an extra 2.4 billion people living in cities between now and then.

However, multiple studies have shown that:

  1. urban living stresses us out; and 
  2. our brains are hardwired for nature and require regular access to it to maintain our health and well-being2

Current trends reflect this. Over the last five years, mental health disabilities amongst urban inhabitants have increased by 83% in the UK. Globally, urban dwellers having a 20% higher risk of developing anxiety disorders and a 40% higher risk of developing mood disorders3.  

Worryingly, it’s suggested that only 13% of urbanites across the world live close enough to nature to reap its benefits for mental health4.

Can we de-stress the city through design?

 At WSP, our Future Ready Landscape programme is looking at how the design of our cities can help reduce the onset of depression and anxiety, while also recognising the specific needs that sufferers have, to enable them to lead fulfilling lives. We aim to create spaces within our cities that: 

  1. do not cause stress; and
  2. provide safe, comfortable spaces and opportunities for recovery from stressful experiences

This challenge of “de-stressing” the city is further complicated by the fact that 80% of buildings standing in the western world today will still be standing in 20505

How can we provide areas of refuge in an already built city?

© FAL ARCHITECTS / LondonNewcastle (Promoter/Developer)

Remove, Retrofit & Reactivate

For de-stressing the city, simple interventions can equate to quick results. Such measures include reducing noise or removing excessive clutter, such as signage, clashing materials and poor legibility which can contribute to sensory overload (abundance of stimuli triggering anxiety).  However, more involved intervention typologies can be more complicated.  These revolve around land use and how we can use space in the city more efficiently and introduce new experiences of nature for well-being.  

Broadly, we should aim to: 

  1. Remove / Reduce clutter and stressful stimuli;
  2. Retrofit / Integrate experiences of nature within existing built form; &
  3. Reactivate derelict spaces

A significant barrier to designing stress out of the city is in part, the city itself. Within our cities, space  is limited & fragmented.  Vacant sites contribute to anxiety and low mood due to perceived risk of crime6. Interestingly, a 2018 study from Philadelphia reported greening of vacant sites led to a drop of over 60% of self-reported poor mental health for those living nearby. These interventions don’t need to be expensive or large in scale either. For instance, the above interventions cost $1,600 per vacant lot7  and studies show psychological mood increases with higher levels of biodiversity, more so than increases in green space area8.

Further application of Biophilic design (which aims to enhance human wellbeing through experiences of nature & preferred spatial environments)9  can create routes that are perceived to be quieter, enhance wayfinding and can even provide shelter and escape from crowded areas, thus reducing triggering stimuli to help anxious individuals feel safe, giving them the time and space to recharge. 

By weaving multiple, frequent, micro-experiences of nature into the urban fabric, we can create more opportunities for stressed individuals and those with anxiety disorder to escape the noisy, daunting and uncomfortable spaces of the city. One approach to micro-retrofit within the city is evident in Vestre’s Parklets 2.0 programme, part of Oslo’s car-free city life project. 

Vestre Parklets

© Vestre

Understanding what ‘good’ design means to different users

Incorporating green spaces into the city’s network is not enough to reduce stressful experiences alone. A cluttered and crowded green space that does not possess the qualities to make one feel safe or lacks refuge will also result in negative experiences. We need to understand that stress is only one component of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. We need engage to a greater degree with those whose mental health is more vulnerable to the negative effects of urban living. Only then can we implement effective, locally appropriate design responses.

A call to action

Nearly half of the human population is already living at urban densities which have been linked to increased incidences of depression10
This calls for drastic, but achievable action. 

Removing traffic from the city reduces sensory overload and noise to lower stress. Look to the success of Oslo’s car free pilot schemes. Can we do better?

 Re-activating derelict sites, requires minimal costs for resource limited communities, but improves mental well-being, as shown by trials in Philadelphia. It’s an inexpensive and scalable strategy with significant benefits. 15% of land within US cities lies vacant. Can we do more?

We spend 90% of our time indoors. 75% of children spend less time outdoors each day than prison inmates. Can we make the outdoor office & classroom more attractive options?

At its worst, we can’t see the night sky within our cities. Our hormone production, which regulates our mood, is disrupted by overexposure to light pollution. Can we bring back the night? 

People can’t engage with nature or each other if they’re looking at their phones. Can we provide refuge from the internet?

This is a challenge to designers. A start to designing out stress from the city. 


This blog is part of WSP’s Future Ready Landscapes series. As part of our Future Ready programme, it explores the emerging landscape responses needed to tackle current and future societal, environmental, resource and technology challenges. Our Future Ready Landscape design ethos prioritises people-centred solutions and harnesses the power of technology to create a better tomorrow. We develop landscapes that support cooperative communities, embed green infrastructure and lead to more compassionate cities – where humans and our natural resources can thrive in a shared urban future.


  1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision (ST/ESA/SER.A/420). New York: United Nations.
  2. Browning, Ryan & Clancy (2014). 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. New York: Terrapin Bright Green. p 1-4.
  3. McCay, L. (2015). We should think more about the link between urban design and mental health. Available: https://www.citymetric.com/skylines/we-should-think-more-about-link-between-urban-design-and-mental-health-1321. Last accessed 30th September 2019.
  4. McDonald et al. Sustainable Earth (2018) 1:3 https://doi.org/10.1186/s42055-018-0002-5
  5. BBC. (2010). Buildings threaten UK emission targets, report says. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8469070.stm. Last accessed 30th September 2019.
  6. Jackson & Kochtitzky (2010). Creating A Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health. Washington DC: Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse. p 8-10.
  7. South EC, Hohl BC, Kondo MC, MacDonald JM, Branas CC. Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults: A Cluster Randomized Trial. JAMA Netw Open. Published online July 20, 20181(3):e180298. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298
  8. Fuller, R.A., K.N. Irvine, P. Devine-Wright, P.H. Warren, & K.J. Gaston (2007). Psychological Benefits of Greenspace Increase with Biodiversity. Biology Letters 3 (4), 390-394.
  9. van den Berg, A.E., Y. Joye, & S. de Vries (2007). Health Benefits of Nature. In: L. Steg, A.E. van den Berg, & J.I.M. de Groot (Eds.), Environmental Psychology: An Introduction (47-56). First Edition. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. p406.
  10. McDonald et al. Sustainable Earth (2018) 1:3 https://doi.org/10.1186/s42055-018-0002-5