Green spaces key to improving mental health

The John Michuki Memorial Park in Nairobi on August 13, 2020.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • As Covid-19 ravages our social and economic landscape, we must use it as an opportunity to ‘build back better’ as recommended by the World Health Organization.
  • Urban areas are known as epidemiological incubators of mental ill health because they often ignore the need for this balance.

This past week, the President opened the rehabilitated John Michuki Memorial Park in Nairobi, further directing administrative officials to ensure that their areas of jurisdiction are green and clean. There appears to be a fresh push by government to increase the green spaces in our urban areas and to create opportunities for citizens to enjoy the environment more, even in our city that was once known for being the ‘green city in the sun’.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many problems with the industrial development paradigm we have operated in for centuries.

 A key plank of this problematic approach is the idea that development involves destruction of the natural environment and erection of skyscrapers and other concrete monuments to ‘progress’.

Human settlements

Unfortunately this approach has led to conflict between human settlements and the habitats of other living things, exposing us to new threats to our health and well-being. One of the consequences of this conflict, other than the obvious emergence of new diseases and other physical threats to our health, is a worsening of our collective and individual mental health.

We have argued before that good mental health requires a state of balance between a person’s inner world of being and the environment in which they exist. Urban areas are known as epidemiological incubators of mental ill health because they often ignore the need for this balance, focusing more on enabling industrial development than on the well-being of their residents.

 Indeed, in our recently published paper, ‘Towards mental health friendly cities during and after Covid-19’, we argue that one component of cities designed with the mental health of their residents in mind is an environment that promotes mental health.

Green open spaces

This will include ensuring the availability of plenty of green open spaces, relaxation spaces and benches, pedestrian walkways, cycling lanes, safe road designs, environment-friendly building designs.

The cities RISE platform has envisaged this as part of the Mental Health Friendly Cities (MHFC) framework that also includes interventions in the educational system and in city governance systems that are directly aimed at improving the mental health of our youth in cities and elsewhere.

As Covid-19 ravages our social and economic landscape, we must use it as an opportunity to ‘build back better’ as recommended by the World Health Organization. We must reorganise our public spaces to ensure that people have access to the natural environment where they can rest, reboot, and get their inner world back in sync with nature.

Nairobi has the opportunity to become the most mental health friendly city in the world by applying the MHFC framework, in which we will put mental health considerations in our educational system and design our public spaces in a manner that allows nature to continue shining through.

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