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Placemaking and the Principles of Neurourbanism

(Where Everyone Knows Your Name)

An abstract painting of people standing along a street talking

If you were to look around Bellingham today, the children you see are the very ones who will be impacted by our current Comprehensive Planning process, a 20-year roadmap designed to help us prepare for our city’s growth.

That’s how quickly we will see the benefits — or the consequences — of our planning decisions. It will feel like the blink of an eye. To ensure that the policies we implement today safeguard our future, it’s imperative that we make the right economic and community decisions for Bellingham’s Comprehensive Plan.

The literal and metaphorical health of our city is at stake. Luckily, there is a growing field of research focused on the relationship between urban living and well-being. In this article, we’ll look at neurourbanism, and examine how considering the health of our communities when it comes to development can help our citizens thrive.

What Exactly is Neurourbanism?

According to the University of Virginia School of Architecture, “neurourbanism is a newly interdisciplinary field of research focusing on the relationships between city life and mental wellbeing. Spanning neuroscience, architecture, urban planning, and sociology, the field aims to help understand the mental health challenges of city living, including stress, anxiety and depression which all appear to be increased in the city.” In short, neurourbanism connects the physicality of a city the mental health of its residents.

Let’s rewind a little. In the beginning of the 19th century, a time of heavy industrialization and development, urbanization picked up. Cities experienced rapid growth as people moved out of rural communities in search of a better life — including jobs and educational opportunities. The influx of people demanded an increase in housing. People who have been paying attention to the current housing crisis might think this all sounds a bit familiar.

In accommodating a rapid population rise, cities actually became a little less human. Although you’re rarely physically alone in a city, you still might feel incredibly lonely, which results in cities being extremely stressful environments. Neurourbanism asks: How can the places we live be more in-line with our health and happiness?

How Does Placemaking Fit with Neurourbanism?

Placemaking is a related concept to neurourbanism. According to Project for Public Spaces, “as both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.”

How can the concepts behind neurourbanism be applied to placemaking? Let’s look at three principles that share overlap between both and what research can tell us: community & belonging, walkability, and access to green spaces.

Community and Belonging

Many modern cities are not necessarily people-friendly spaces, from the lack of contact with nature to noise pollution. While it may seem counterintuitive because of their higher population densities, the fact is that many cities are not set up to enable connection and community. This can be detrimental to people’s physical and mental health. While social density increases within cities, so does social isolation.

An article in The Lancet Psychiatry entitled “Neurourbanism: Towards a New Discipline” asserts:

“A specific feature of pathogenic urban stress seems to be the simultaneity of social density and social isolation, paired with the feeling of being exposed to an uncontrollable environment. Stressors, social density, and social isolation are independent health determinants and seemingly occur more frequently in cities than in rural areas (social stress hypothesis). In the presence of pertinent individual risk factors that diminish an individual’s resilience (genetic, personality-related, sociodemographic including age, poverty, and migration status), this social stress can easily become health-relevant.”

Fostering a sense of belonging through community-first development is a core component of placemaking, and one which neurourbanism shows is a necessity for well-being.


In addition to cities having places for communities to connect, it’s important that those places are walkable. A recent study revealed that urban environments with auto-centric designs can negatively impact mental health, especially for adolescents. Pedestrian centered designs were associated with more positive and restorative emotions. Creating walkable communities will help reduce our reliance on cars, bringing down greenhouse gas emissions.

Human-centric designs also include planning and developing in ways that protect vulnerable populations. The same article in The Lancet Psychiatry cites a 2010 Dutch meta-analysis that found city dwellers have a nearly 40% higher risk of developing mental disorders, and the risk of developing schizophrenia specifically is at least twice as high compared with those living in rural places. If navigating crowded, busy cities is difficult when you’re able-bodied, one can only imagine how difficult it must be for the elderly and people with disabilities. Furthermore, The Lancet Psychiatry article also asserts that other high-risk populations, such as migrants, might deal with the compounding effects of urban stressors, such as social isolation.

Walkability goes hand-in-hand with access to community, which can alleviate some of the mental health burdens urban environments place on all individuals who live there, from adolescents to the elderly.

Access to Green Spaces

Finally, natural urban environments are a key component of healthy cities. Some research has shown an association between access to green spaces and a reduction in ADHD symptoms and behavioral issues. Additionally, nature within cities may support cognitive development, reduce stress, promote positive social interactions, and help generate a sense of meaning in life. All of these factors can help reduce some of the negative effects of living in a city, and support the development of healthy communities.

It’s projected that by 2050, not too long after the window for this current Comprehensive Plan, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities. Where we live, from our cities down to our homes, has a significant impact on our well-being. These are the places where we spend our time, make memories with family, go to our jobs, build our lives. So, it’s imperative that our communities bolster our health, not detract from it. Especially when it comes to our most vulnerable citizens.

Is There a Place for Neurourbanism in the Comprehensive Planning Process?

Local government is so important because it’s just that, local. It’s closer to the lives and needs of the people. And one of the most critical things local government undertakes is the Comprehensive Plan process to help ensure the community is prepared to grow in a way that enables all of its citizens to thrive.

As Bellingham faces a shortage of affordable housing, the development of both homes and the infrastructure required to support those homes is crucial. The City will need to take advantage of grants to properly support that development, but it is not enough simply to build and grow — we must develop thoughtfully and sustainably so the health of our communities is at the forefront of our growth.

Youth living in Bellingham today will be the citizens most affected by the current Comprehensive Plan cycle. It will project what their lives will look like 20 years into the future, including where their families will live, how they will travel, where they may work, and how they will interact with and contribute to their community.

Bellingham has much to offer its residents, including its innate natural beauty, innovative careers, accessibility and eclectic charm. Looking at growth through the lens of neurourbanism may help us retain and improve on these characteristics for future generations.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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