Four ways local governments can support mental health through community design

Cassidy Paxton is a former BC Healthy Communities Researcher.

Characteristics of the built environment in which community members live, work, play, and learn have an impact on mental health. Community design decisions made today can have lasting impacts on your community, creating elements that will influence mental health for years to come. In this article, we’ve presented four potential methods by which local governments can promote mental and social wellness when designing the built environment of their community.


The “built environment” includes the human-made or modified physical surroundings in our communities. Aspects of the built environment include transportation networks, neighbourhood design, housing, food systems, and natural environments.[i] These aspects also influence community members’ mental health and social well-being.

Mental health is not merely the absence of mental illness. Mental health is a state of well-being in which individuals realize their potential, and are able to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community.[ii] The built environment can promote positive mental health by fostering place attachment and increased social connectedness among community members. Communities designed with mental health in mind are well-connected, diverse, and inclusive.

Members of your community who live in neighbourhoods that are well-connected, multi-modal transportation friendly, full of opportunities for engagement with greenspace, built with a range of healthy housing options, and designed with place-making in mind will notice the positive impacts of the healthy built environment on their mental health. Not only do healthy built environments foster positive mental health, they also can promote enhanced physical health and well-being, economic co-benefits, and an overall greater sense of community.


Through planning, policies, processes, and/or programs, local governments can design communities with features that promote positive mental and social wellness.

Actions local governments can take include:

1. Increase community connectivity. Communities that promote mental health offer opportunities for social interaction through active transportation options, such as walking, biking, and public transportation. Active transportation networks allow community members to conduct day-to-day activities without spending too much time in their vehicles, and allow people of all ages and abilities to participate in the community. These community characteristics have protective effects on mental health through an increase in trust and social connectedness among community members, and reduced social isolation.[iii] Communities can enhance connectivity by prioritizing active transportation in street design, making active transportation networks and public transportation safe and accessible for all ages and abilities, and design routes that are connected and

support multi-modalities. By creating communities that connect people to other members of the community and services, residents can experience a substantially greater sense of community, along with greater feelings of trust and stronger attachment to place.


  • Planning and Policy – The #BIKETORIA project is being led by the City of Victoria, in partnership with an international team of cycling and city-building experts who will work together to design and support the implementation of a world-class cycling network for Victoria. In Nelson, BC they have developed an Active Transportation Plan to provide community members with a range of options for getting around the community.
  • Partnerships – The City of Terrace collaborated with ICBC to change traffic patterns on some streets to increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians.  The changes reduced Kalum St from four driving lanes to two and created a middle turning lane and bike lanes.
  • Rural Communities – Rural or smaller communities may have unique needs, but active transportation networks are still a possibility. Opportunities such as wide paved road shoulders like in Haliburton Village, Ontario allow for a safer cycling experience or a   “Park the Car and Get Movin’!” campaign, like in Minden Village, Ontario, which encouraged people to park their cars in free parking areas and walk to do their errands when they are in town.

Learn more about prioritizing active transportation in the Healthy Built Environment (HBE) Linkages Toolkit (pg. 20 – 30).

2. Increase access to greenspace. The benefits of green space in communities—especially urban areas—are well documented. Greenspace refers to both maintained and unmaintained environmental areas, which can include nature reserves, wilderness environments and urban parks. Individuals who have regular access to and engagement with greenspace report reduced levels of stress, depression, and anxiety, and improved concentration and cognitive functioning.[iv]  Research has linked both the quality and quantity of greenspace to increased social cohesion in neighbourhoods and reduced feelings of isolation.[v] Increasing access to natural settings promotes physical activity and provides a setting for social interaction. Green space integrated into all designs can provide the community with a multitude of mental, social, and physical health benefits.


Learn more about incorporating natural environments into community planning in the HBE Linkages Toolkit (pg.31—39).

3. Invest in healthy housing. Homes are where we spend a majority of our time, so it makes sense that the type and quality of housing we live in contributes to our overall mental health and well-being. Healthy housing is housing that is safe, affordable, and accessible. Housing should also be well integrated into the community and linked to transportation networks so that individuals can easily participate in the community. Local governments are required to plan for housing that meets the needs of the community over at least five years, but a range of healthy housing options in the community (including diversity in type, density, and tenures) will promote positive mental health by reducing stress related to financial strain, poor quality housing, and over-crowding, and  increase people’s housing stability. Local governments can promote mental health by investing in healthy housing, whether through the development of a healthy housing strategy, implementing housing quality standards, or including principles of healthy and inclusionary housing in community planning.


  • Policy – As part of a larger healthy city strategy, the City of Kelowna is in the process of developing a healthy housing strategy that will guide policies, regulations, and programs to achieve a diverse and affordable range of healthy housing options.
  • Process – Develop housing agreements to maintain housing stock for vulnerable populations. In Squamish, the District went through the process to develop a housing agreement to facilitate development of seniors’ affordable housing.
  • Planning – Include healthy and inclusionary housing policies in your community’s Official Community Plan (OCP). The District of Ucluelet included policies for resident housing, affordable housing units in new developments, and inclusionary housing policies in their OCP.

Learn more about healthy housing in the HBE Linkages Toolkit (pg. 49—56).

4. Prioritize place making, public art, and heritage conservation efforts. When community design includes “everyday public spaces,” community identity is strengthened. Elements such as street furniture, communal seating, public art, and natural features can encourage social interaction and place attachment.[vi] The aesthetics of public spaces encourage use, collective ownership, and community pride. Community design that incorporates elements to promote place making can strengthen people’s sense of belonging in the community and promote connectedness and positive mental health.


  • Policy – Include policies that promote place making in your community’s plans. The City of Victoria included a chapter dedicated to place making in their Official Community Plan.
  • Partnerships – Pendleton, South Carolina is a small rural community with a population of approximately 3,000 residents. The town has partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts to create a master plan for the revitalization of the town’s historic town square. The plan will include designs for the surrounding streetscape, public art, and performance spaces to foster cultural activity.
  • Initiatives – The Grey to Green initiative in Sheffield, United Kingdom aims to create vibrant public spaces by incorporating more green space and public art into the city to enhance the environment and reduce barriers between different areas of the city. There are benches along the area to offer a space for sitting and enjoying the sights, along with works of public art, made from steel and stone, to share insight into the former lives of parts of the city centre.

Learn more about place making in the HBE Linkages Toolkit (pg. 62 – 63).

Investments in community design that promote mental health can pay dividends in the well-being of community members. All communities—big or small, rural or urban—benefit from healthier built environments. Through our PlanH program, in partnership with the Ministry of Health, we offer funding and support opportunities to help your community support mental health through changes to the built environment.

Interested in how you can improve well-being in your community? Reach out and talk to us about how BC Healthy Communities can support the process.


Caldwell, W.J., Kraehling, P., Kaptur, S., & Huf, J. (2015). Healthy rural communities tool kit – A guide for rural municipalities. University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.

BC Centre for Disease Control. (2018). Healthy Built Environment Linkages Toolkit: making the links between design, planning and health, Version 2.0. Vancouver, B.C. Provincial Health Services Authority.


[i] Provincial Health Services Authority. (n.d.). Healthy built environment.

[ii] World Health Organization. (2014). Mental health: A state of wellbeing.

[iii]Lund, H. (2003). Testing the claims of new urbanism: Local access, pedestrian travel, and neighboring behaviors. Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 69, no. 4, pp. 414–428, 2003.

[iv] BC Centre for Disease Control. (2018). Healthy Built Environment Linkages Toolkit: making the links between design, planning and health, Version 2.0. Vancouver, B.C. Provincial Health Services Authority.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

Author Credit: Cassidy Paxton

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