When we design, every team member at VMDO considers how our work can promote the health and well-being of individuals and an entire community. With empathy and compassion, we design with a strong desire to improve and enhance our livelihoods. Currently, a growing number of American adolescents and adults struggle with some type of mental illness, and access to affordable resources that promote health and well-being is critical to promoting health. So, when considering the growing mental health crisis, designers at VMDO began exploring how greenspace and parks can promote well-being and provide proven physical, emotional, mental, and social benefits. Many of our team members doubled down on ways we could connect people and nature within our built environments and communities—and how greenspace and a connection to nature promote well-being.
But first, it’s important to better understand our built environment and how to design with wellness in mind due to the current state of our nation:
- In America, 1 out of 5 adults suffers from a mental illness, but around 60% of them don’t receive treatment.
- In 2019, 20% of the US population were diagnosed with a mental illness—which is 50 million people.
- Half of U.S. adults who have a mental illness (nearly 27 million people) are battling mental illness without treatment.
- 10.6% of American youth suffer from major depression. These youth are among the most vulnerable of our population and are the future of society (NAMI, 2022).
- Those suffering from depression are 40% more likely to develop heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
- Over a third of those diagnosed with a mental illness experience substance abuse which leads to further dramatic physical consequences.
- Individuals who are suffering from mental illness are far more likely to experience sleep-related problems such as sleep apnea and insomnia.
- There is a strong link between those suffering from mental illness and chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and arthritis (PlanStreet, 2022).
Additionally, when considering the COVID-19 global pandemic, the World Health Organization found that in the first year of the pandemic, “global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%” (WHO, 2022). A few explanations of this increase include the unprecedented stress caused by social isolation from the pandemic, loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after losing a loved one, financial worries, and so forth.
In an effort to address these growing problems and provide adequate care and resources after the first few years of the pandemic, VMDO continues to focus its efforts on promoting health and well-being through design by implementing evidence-based design methods that promote well-being—such as access to natural light, green space, and the outdoors—in every building.
One major reason VMDO has focused on increasing access to green space is because a growing body of research has found that access to green space can improve individual health and wellness. For instance, a sweeping 2019 nationwide study of approximately one million people in Denmark found that childhood exposure to green space – forests, parks, hiking trails, etc.– reduces the risk of developing an array of psychiatric disorders during adolescence and adulthood. As the largest epidemiological study to date documenting a positive connection between green space and mental health, this research reaffirms what we’ve known all along – that access and views to nature, coupled with immersive learning and sustained exposure to natural settings, serve as effective strategies for enhancing health and wellness. Layered onto this knowledge is now specific evidence that green space-focused planning and design are effective early intervention tools for reducing mental health problems later in life.