How the built quality of urban areas can impact our mental well-being: A case study of adolescents

Blog post by Adrian Buttazzoni

4 Jan 2023, 11:25 a.m.
Adrian Buttazzoni

Over half (56% or 4.4 billion people) of the world’s population currently live in urban areas—a number projected to grow in the coming decades.[1] As more people move into cities, their quality of life and well-being is likely to be significantly affected by the composition (i.e., collection of spaces, buildings, infrastructure features etc. in an area) and quality (i.e., state, maintenance, accessibility etc. of such spaces, buildings) of the local environments in which they live, work, and play. To this end, much behavioural and social science research has suggested that urban environments are an important factor that shape human health through affecting the daily behavioural opportunities and exposures (e.g., physical activity, social interaction opportunities, local air quality) that people experience. As current population migration trends indicate increased importance regarding the role of urban environments as a determinant of human health, it is important to understand the precise nature of these relationships.


Urban planning paradigms like pedestrian- and transit-oriented design (PTOD), which focus on developing spaces that are accessible and safe for pedestrians, have frequently been endorsed to improve the health of urban dwelling populations. Specific PTOD concepts that have commonly been promoted in this context include imageability (i.e., distinctiveness of an area), enclosure (i.e., room-like quality of an area), human scale (i.e., pedestrian-friendliness of an area), transparency (i.e., extent to which an area is viewable from a pedestrian perspective), and complexity (i.e., diversity of architectural styles, building colours in an area). The implementation of these PTOD concepts in real-world settings reflects a move toward universal design, or areas that are more accessible and usable for all populations. Such universal designs are especially important for younger populations like adolescents who are still developing cognitively, and are thus particularly vulnerable to environmental exposures. 


Using a tool designed to score the PTOD quality of public spaces, we evaluated six distinct settings (urban park trail, urban lake area, suburban mall, suburban residential street, urban market, urban pedestrian plaza) which varied in their PTOD quality across the five aforementioned concepts. We shot 360o videos of each setting with sound and included them in an online survey which had adolescents consider each setting and how it affected their present emotional state. The results of our study indicated that, among adolescents, public settings which scored higher in their PTOD quality were generally linked to increases in positive emotional responses, along with simultaneous decreases in negative emotional responses. More specifically, the results of our video-based survey suggest that high-quality pedestrian infrastructure (e.g., areas with architectural diversity, landmarks, narrower streets, local shops, sidewalk barriers) can have noteworthy impacts on the emotional well-being of adolescents. As our work only represents the beginning of such study focused on exploring the links between specific design concepts and their objective quality and human health outcomes, however, much more collaborative research across disciplines such as planning, neuroscience, public health, and architecture is needed to piece together how different environmental exposures which people experience on a daily basis in our urban areas impact their physical, emotional, and mental health and well-being.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.

[1] The World Bank. (2022) Urban Development. Accessed October 31, 2022 from,people%20will%20live%20in%20cities.



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