Creating places that promote mental wellbeing in children and young people

February 3, 2022

In my last blog, I discussed the link between wellbeing and our environment. Something I touched on that hasn’t gained nearly enough attention in the media is how the pandemic has highlighted the inequity in the way our public spaces and places are designed, and the potential impact on children. 

Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on the well being of our children, with many not feeling safe as they head off to school. Without a doubt there is a heightened level of anxiety for them as they are told to wear masks in school all day, stand 2m apart and not hug people. 

As a Royal Town Planning Institute Ambassador, I often spend time with young people, promoting planning as a career, and something that typically comes up is frustration at the lack of access to open space and things to do for children and roads dominated by cars. The more creative children will usually wax lyrical about how they’ve designed houses, shops and whole towns using Minecraft or Roblox – a lockdown passion for one of my daughters. 

A report by the RTPI on the links between the built environment and mental health highlighted local neighbourhoods as having a significant impact on mental wellbeing. Factors, including green space, access to amenities, and aesthetics are all integral in shaping an environment that promotes healthy physical and social development for young people. 

Unsurprisingly, the “beauty” of a neighbourhood can affect its residents’ mental wellbeing; perhaps surprising is how much. The Glasgow Centre for Population Health suggests that people who considered the attractiveness of their neighbourhood to be ‘very good’ rather than ‘poor’ were three times more likely to have high mental well-being. 

Often the areas lacking in beauty, green space and local amenities are the ones that are the most deprived – a fact that is not entirely surprising. A 2018 study showed that people living in these areas of England were twice as likely to be referred to psychological therapies services as those living in the least deprived areas. 

The recent Mental Health Awareness Week, put mental health high on the agenda but as planners, we have an important role in creating safe and healthy spaces for children after all sustainable development shouldmeet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Our children should be inspired by the places and spaces they frequent. 

I have listened to Wayne Hemmingway on more than one occasion talk about how he grew up in Lancashire and how he enjoyed playing out and the sense of adventure it brought and how any one of the neighbours would give him his tea and then he’d play out some more; probably until it went dark if he was anything like me as a child. Would Wayne Hemmingway have aspired to pursue a passion for good urban design had he not experienced a sense of adventure in his early years borne by a sense of community and freedom to play out? It may sound idealistic and you might say the world has changed but can our streets and neighbourhoods be designed with children in mind?


How can planners have a positive impact on the mental well-being of children and young people? 

Consulting young people during the design process

Inviting children and young people to describe how a place makes them feel and what they need from their environment to be happy and healthy is a great place to start. The team will be far better informed and can design a scheme that reflects the specific and unique needs of the local community. This could be done through design competitions, focus groups and consultation events. 

Educating children on the importance of places and spaces

This is something I love doing in my role as a RTPI Ambassador. Young people know more than anyone the importance of good public spaces; it’s our job to educate them on where planning comes into this. Our young people will be designing the cities and towns of the future, so we must show them the importance of building community-driven spaces and places. 

Creating national planning policies designed to promote safe and healthy open spaces 

It’s clear there are tangible benefits associated with access to open space for all ages. This has been particularly important during the pandemic. Playing in a purpose-built playground being watched over by parents is a constrained form of play. There are, however, added benefits for children who are able to stretch their sphere of play to do things like climbing trees and exploring new areas. This fosters independence, requires problem-solving and independent thinking – great skills to develop as children grow up. 

Open space policies could be designed with the end-user in mind, to provide a more enriching experience for the end-users, as opposed to compliance with minimum standards. This means creating formal, informal and incidental opportunities for play and adventure. 

Designing streets where pedestrians are prioritised 

Streets dominated by traffic, and even parked cars, do not create successful environments for children in terms of the safety of their health. Not least as it’s difficult to see a child crossing a road when it’s lined with parked cars and almost impossible to play out on a busy road. 

 Residential estates can be designed with children in mind, ensuring there is sufficient space for off-street parking for residents and visitors without the need to park on street. 

Creating clear pedestrian and cycle routes. In my view this means creating a proper footpath or cycle path as opposed to a shared space for cars and pedestrians – do you remember the Home Zone initiative where cars and pedestrians shared the same space? I may be old fashioned in my approach to this but children are generally told to stay on the footpath and to stop, look and listen before crossing. Is a shared space just too confusing for children? 

Creating legible streets that feel safe 

One of the things children fear most when they are given the freedom to roam is getting lost. Often in new housing developments, streets can lack hierarchy so it is easy to get confused as to where you are as it can all look the same. This can be said of streets with terraced housing but there is typically a hierarchy with rows of terraced streets leading to primary routes and main roads. Creating a hierarchy of streets with logical routes helps children to navigate their environment. 

Poor mental health is an issue that is unlikely to go away any time soon. As planners, we have a responsibility to create places and spaces that support independence – places that feel safe and inspire children. We are after all raising the planners, urban designers and architects of the future.