Boston, MA

Creating more bike and pedestrian-friendly spaces in Boston could promote mental health

Peter Gordon

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(Boston, Ma) Several panelists at a recent online event titled “Designing Cities for Mental Health,” said the mental health of city residents could be linked to how urban space is utilized. This connection could have implications on how increasingly bike and pedestrian-friendly cities like Boston recover from the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The restrictions faced by city residents around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic brought home just how much urban design can affect mental health,” said David Broz, the event's moderatot. “City dwellers with poor pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, limited access to parks or plazas, or no nearby public spaces for human connections suffered in isolation”

One solution to this is creating what Jennifer Roe, Director of the Center for Design and Health at the University of Virginia and speaker at the event, called a “restorative city,” or a city that places mental health, wellness, and quality life at the forefront of urban planning. One attribute of such a city, Roe explains, is an active city.

“An active city integrates physical activity into everyday urban life and enables mobility for all citizens. Physical health is interrelated to mental, social and cognitive well-being,” she said.

According to Roe, the mental health benefits of active cities include a reduced risk of depression and anxiety, improved stress regulation, improved brain health and memory functioning-all of which can play a role in healthy aging and healthy child development.

Several advocacy groups in Massachusetts have advocated for attributes of an active city in Boston. The Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition recommended in their 2019-2020 Boston Report that the city promote a shift towards methods of transportation such as walking, biking, and public transit in order to reduce the number of cars on the road.

Meanwhile, The Boston Cyclists Union is calling on the city to add 10 miles of protected bike lanes in the next year and 10 more in the year after that, with the #BostonBikeBudget petition.

The reimagining of public space is a part of Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s “Joy Agenda,” which states some of its priorities:

  • “Creating spaces to reflect on and share what joy means to Boston and re-imagine more equitable policies and practices that promote joyful access to public space and other services.”
  • “Providing a range of ways for residents to safely reconnect with family, friends, and neighbors through engaging both virtually and in our vibrant public spaces.”

Additionally, Michelle Wu, City Councilor, mayoral candidate, and a big fan of block parties, has called for a “Summer of Play” in Boston, which promotes mental well-being and recovery from the pandemic in part by closing public streets from cars and allowing residents to hold community events such as block parties.

“Imagine music and community events in every park, block parties in every neighborhood, and every bit of Boston’s diversity reflected in the vibrancy on our open streets,” Wu said. “Let’s supercharge our recovery, support local artists and small businesses, and help communities heal through an intensive focus on infusing arts and play throughout our neighborhoods.”

People’s well-being in a post-pandemic world is a major issue in Boston and across the country. Roe sees this as an opportunity to address the often-stigmatized issue of mental health.

“Every day we open the newspaper we see some of the tsunami of mental health issues that COVID has released,” she said. “But also, COVID allowed us to talk more openly about mental health because we've all suffered emotionally and socially, and we need to capitalize on this opportunity.”

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My name is Pete. I'm a long-time resident of Boston and I'm interested in stories that effect the people there. Particularly how policy surrounding housing, transportation, and use of urban space effects less privileged and underserved communities. I'm also interested in art and the role that it plays in people's lives.

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