Forest Bathing, Mental Health and Walkability in Japan


Mimi Kirk and City Lab report on  a concept that is getting more and more attention-how do you design and plan cities and spaces to optimize the mental health of all citizens?  This is also the work that noted landscape Cornelia Oberlander has been advancing  as part of the Margolese Prize. A Tokyo-based psychiatrist Layla McCay notes that while mental illness in Japan is comparable to other countries, fewer people seek treatment for it. With stress seen as a major contributor to mental illness in Japan, and high suicide rates, the The Center for Urban Design and Mental Health recommends “that cities incorporate four main themes into urban design to support mental health: green spaces, active spaces, social spaces, and safe spaces.”

In reviewing Tokyo’s  streets, McCay noted that governmental officials and planners “tend to approach urban design with a view toward improving physical health rather than mental well-being.” But parks and walkable places  also assist with emotional well-being, and “thanks to their focus on greenery, walkability, and beauty, many of the spaces designed to help improve physical health exert similarly positive effects for mental health problems like anxiety and depression.”

Tokyo actually has a program that allows citizens to create green rooftops, wall surfaces, and reclaim unused spaces and parking lots. There are tax incentives. There’s also the 2003 “Ordinance on the promotion of Stylish Townscape Creation” where residents partner with professional landscapers to plant next to their property lines with potted plants, creating a green oasis on side streets. There is also a push to bring more greenery and light indoors  into office spaces and shopping malls to minimize workers’ stress and maintain sleep circadian rhythms.

We’ve heard of the term “forest bathing” or immersing in nature. Tokyo has five official trails west of the city accessible by train for forest walks, with some companies mandating visits to the trails as part of their employee health and wellness plans. Tokyo has by design embraced the “Barcelona Superblock” concept of keeping automobiles on main arterial roads with smaller streets having minimal traffic. The accessibility of Tokyo’s public transit has also reinforced keeping traffic on the main roads, and for high usage of the Tokyo transit system. In Tokyo “the city’s automobile ownership rate is only .46 per household—similar to New York City.”
McCay is now reviewing data from Hong Kong, Wroclaw, Poland; Montreal; and Morristown, New Jersey and asking other city researchers to contribute their findings of their own places. “This is the first step in a process in which cities around the world learn from each other about urban design and mental health,” says McCay. “Even if societies think differently about mental health, the challenges are the same and the people are the same. We can all teach each other.”
And there are direct inferences for Vancouver -as we allow for higher density buildings do we forego the park standard of providing 1.1 hectares of park for every 1,000 new residents?  And are those green parks going to be within the a five-minute walk of every resident? How do we go about creating walkable  continuous green and park like experiences in emerging dense residential areas?