A new report assesses how Tokyo’s infrastructure affects residents’ emotional well-being, offering lessons for other cities.
Though the Japanese may not discuss mental health as Westerners do, they are still concerned about it. “Urban policymakers in Japan often talk about the problem of stress and how to alleviate it,” McCay says. One example, karoshi, or “death from overwork,” often by stroke, heart attack, or suicide, is associated with high levels of stress. (Japan’s suicide rate is the fifth-highest in the world.) And hikkikomori are young people who withdraw from society and do not leave their homes for six months or more—a condition often triggered by high anxiety in response to pressure to succeed in school or work.
On [Tokyo’s] side streets, it can feel like you’re walking through a park.”
Japanese government officials and planners tend to approach urban design with a view toward improving physical health rather than mental well-being, says McCay. But, she says, through this work, as well as a concern about stress, they are nevertheless creating public spaces, such as parks and walkable areas, that also shore up residents’ emotional well-being. “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,” she says.
In addition, these small roads have little traffic, which allows for a profusion of such greenery—and for pedestrians to dominate. McCay notes that Tokyo has managed to keep its cars and buses mostly to its main streets, so that just a block or two off the principal thoroughfares are tranquil, leafy areas conducive to walking, running errands in small shops, and social interaction. The layout is similar to Barcelona’s superblocks, but emerged more organically, largely as a result of the ubiquity and efficiency of Tokyo’s public transport, which is also mainly accessible via the busiest roads. Residents walk to and from bus and subway stops and eschew cars; the city’s automobile ownership rate is only .46 per household—similar to New York City.
Even if societies think differently about mental health, the challenges are the same.”
McCay’s center is now looking into other cities’ track records, and the next will be Hong Kong. The center is also driving similar research for cities including Wroclaw, Poland; Montreal; and Morristown, New Jersey, and invites other researchers to contribute studies of their own cities.
“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.”
This piece was first seen on ‘CityLab’ August 21, 2017.