Designing Cities for Mental Health

Posted in News Story

On March 4, 2021, the Georgetown Urban Health Collaborative welcomed Layla McCay, Director for the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, a health systems and international public health specialist, and a psychiatrist by training. As part of the Urban Health Collaborative Speaker Series, McCay addressed the Georgetown Community with her lecture, “Designing Cities for Mental Health: The Next Frontier in Multidisciplinary Public Health.” In her presentation, McCay spoke about her path to this work, the ways in which urban environments impact mental health, the opportunities that exist to improve mental health at the population and city levels through innovative urban design, and she gave us a preview of her new book, titled, “The Restorative City,” which will be available August 12, 2021.

To begin, McCay defined mental health and the potential of urban design to improve mental health at the city and population levels. The UN estimates by 2050 69% of the world’s population will live in cities. City dwellers are more likely to develop mental health disorders than their rural counterparts, depression is the number one driver of disability worldwide, and mental health has huge economic costs. Despite this, five years ago there was little being done to research the connection between mental health and urban living and how to address these issues. It was within this setting that McCay set out to form her organization, which today sets guidelines and frameworks for cities to leverage the nexus of urban design and mental health. 

McCay says that planners must remember to “mind the GAPS” by making sure that cities have green spaces, active spaces, pro-social spaces, and safe spaces. McCay discussed the potential of designing urban environments in order to help us regulate our emotions and recover from demands of everyday life. In framing this potential, she focused on 7 pillars that can help cities promote health and mental wellbeing. These include the green city, the blue city, the sensory city, the neighbourly city, the active city, the playable city, and the inclusive city. By designing cities that prioritize proximity to nature and water, create spaces where people can have meaningful social interactions, designate spaces for people to be active and engaged, and finally ensure that communities are accessible and safe for all people, we can help protect against the factors that make urban environments such contributors to mental health disorders globally. 

McCay concluded her presentation by noting the importance of space. The framework for a restorative city is not just about preventing harm, it is about providing people with the opportunity to thrive in their environments. The impacts of COVID-19 have brought this issue to the front of the global landscape and it is no longer an option, but a moral responsibility, to act upon. McCay recognizes that responsibility and is excited about the future of this field. 

The Georgetown Urban Health Collaborative thanks Layla McCay for taking the time to share her passion and expertise with our students and faculty and showing us the importance of investing in public mental health and designing cities to be resilient environments where citizens can thrive. 

A recording of this lecture is available, please contact