Union Court and Happy Thoughts

For many years in Australia and other countries, mental health has been a social issue that has often been swept under the rug. Talk to your parents about whether they received any guidance on the topic in their schooling years, and it’s likely that the answer will be a strong negative. Even amongst the current generation of university students, our high school introduction to mental health most likely came from a few externally sourced volunteer organisations, giving us a general run-down of what words like depression and anxiety meant.

However, slow progress is being made. From the early 2000s, organisations such as Beyond Blue have been working to raise awareness with campaigns such as Suicide Prevention Day. Social media has often provided the vehicle for these initiatives, like the #stopsadshaming campaign that was popular in 2014.

All in all, while the current statistics about the mental health situation in Australia may paint a gloomy picture, awareness about mental health is definitely on the rise. And one area in which research is uncovering important findings is the interconnectedness of mental health and our environment.

This is not an entirely new area – links have long been seen in Britain and other northern hemisphere countries, where many people are affected by “seasonal affective disorder” – an illness that someone creatively abbreviated to SAD. Sufferers of the disorder are prone to heightened levels of depression in line with seasonal fluctuations, hence its other name – the “Winter Blues”. Little wonder why the Brits constantly complain about the weather.

But while controlling the weather is beyond our control, society does have the means to improve mental health through careful consideration of our built environment. The main medium through which this can occur is the development and maintenance of “green spaces” in urban settings. Green spaces – essentially areas of natural vegetation – have received a great deal of attention in recent years, with researchers and NGOs attributing reduced obesity levels, improved air quality, and everything in between to these pockets of vegetation scattered around the city. Importantly however, were the findings that green spaces have positive effects on perceived stress levels and quality of life.

It is obvious why this is important in an age of rapid urbanisation. But how does all this affect us here at the ANU? The first blueprints for the redevelopment of Union Court have been recently released, and the plans do mention some typically attractive environmental sounding words, like “green spine” and the “garden campus”. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether these slogans actually represent a substantial intention to properly integrate the new Union Court design within the campus’ natural environment. Current plans, which include taller buildings, an ANU tower, and a predominantly urban feel to Union Court, don’t look promising for those who enjoy a bit of greenery between classes.

So what do we want: an ANU skyline, or to be able to see the sky?

With the already significant inclusion of natural vegetation in our campus (far more than our neighbours Sydney or Melbourne could hope for), and Sully’s running right through the middle, there is ample opportunity for integrating green spaces in the new Union Court design. So to the planners – for the sake of our health, don’t pass it up.