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Breathing Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the whole of society, but the shocking finding that a quarter of young people in the UK have felt unable to cope has prompted us to share some insights into how public realm design can improve mental health and wellbeing for young people. This year’s Youth Index report, which surveyed 2,180 16 to 25-year olds across the UK, suggests that more young people are feeling anxious than ever before, and more than half 'always' or 'often' feel anxious.

These statistics are extremely alarming and highlight the need for strategies to reduce young people’s anxiety in everyday life. One approach could be to look at the public realm and the public spaces young people use. After all, there has been one constant among all the distress of the pandemic – our daily outdoor exercise in public spaces.

Ruskin Park pond, a peaceful place to reflect

It is so important for us to get outside, breathe some fresh air and clear our minds, even if it’s just for 30 minutes a day, particularly for young people who are spending hours studying alone at home. Engaging public spaces, whether that be a large park or a street bench, can encourage people to get outside and take this much-needed break. However, our research has found that public spaces need to feel inclusive to the user, in order for them to feel comfortable and safe in a public space and this is particularly important for those suffering from anxiety.

Our ethos is centred around creating playful and inclusive spaces that enhance wellbeing and put people first. Our community engagement work and research into psychological wellbeing in public space encourages us to create spaces that support and enhance mental wellbeing, while facilitating play for all ages and abilities and promoting inclusion.

As part of our Edwardian Park Masterplan we proposed ideas to make the park welcoming and inclusive, ensuring the community feels welcome, safe and able to access and enjoy all aspects of the park. We encourage active engagement by park users through a cultural trail, a wide variety of sports facilities, play spaces and dedicated wellbeing spaces. The park’s close proximity to a major London Hospital was also a key consideration in our masterplan – we were keen to make it a safe space for patients and staff to recover and unwind.

Illustrative views engaging and inclusive spaces in our Edwardian Park Masterplan

Similarly, our East Road project – a secret courtyard for student accommodation – also uses principles of inclusive design to promote mental health and wellbeing. The design provides a number of different ways to occupy the space without feeling "out of place" – something many young people feel, particularly when away from home. The use of a green wall allows students feel a connection with nature. The cor-ten benches and grass beds are adaptable and designed so that you can perch on them, lie on them, sit alone or in groups.

Inclusive design in our Secret courtyard

We aim to ensure that however you use the public spaces we design, you won't look or feel out of place. As the lockdown continues and we begin another year of uncertainty and anxiety, it's more important than ever to get outside and reap the mental health benefits of our local public spaces.


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