Urban Realities Laboratory, University of Waterloo, Canada
There’s no shortage of research suggesting that cities can be bad for our mental health. The incidence of depression and psychosis is higher in cities, and though the reasons for this are not yet completely worked out, some simple explanations such as exposure to toxins and pollutants that might be found in greater abundance in cities have been more or less ruled out—most of the clues point to more psychological explanations for the malaise that some experience in dense urban environments. Some studies have suggested that the stresses that arise in dense settings may be to blame for producing psychopathologies in vulnerable individuals, and some have pointed to the problems of loneliness and isolation that can arise in cities. City dwellers have to contend with the general problem of living among thousands of strangers, and considered across the broad sweep of human history, this is a recent turn of events and one for which we are not necessarily neurologically equipped. Early humans, like the more social of our primate cousins, would have lived in small groups where everyone knew everyone and could see and understand what was happening in their small social circle most of the time.
Urban design can exert a strong influence on our patterns of behaviour and our stress levels. Both the anonymity of life in a high-rise and the isolation of automobile-centric suburban life can exact a heavy toll on urban residents. Astonishingly, a recent survey showed that one-third of Americans have never interacted with the people who live next-door to them.
But it isn’t just the maladaptive social pressures exerted on us by city environments that cause undue stress and challenges to our well-being. What some might think of as the simple aesthetic of an urban environment—the look and feel of a neighbourhood—also produces a measurable effect on our mental health. One simple and now well-studied example has to do with natural environments. We no longer think of a city’s green-space as an aesthetic bauble or as the “dessert” of city planning that should be parachuted into place as an afterthought. In the past, all too often, public places with natural landscapes were squeezed into a setting wherever they could be afforded and made to work. Now, entire urban landscapes are being dramatically transformed by the careful planning of park areas. For examples of this, one need only look at the Millennium Park Project in Chicago or the spectacular Highline in New York City. Along with the overwhelmingly positive public response to such spaces, there is plenty of hard-nosed science suggesting that exposure to scenes of nature, even very modest ones, can have a dramatic impact on public health. In one recent study, a link was made between the density of urban trees on boulevards and a host of public health variables including rates of heart disease and diabetes.
Beyond the well-documented restorative effects of green-spaces, we showed that many aspects of the urban surround can exert a strong effect on our moods, our levels of arousal, and our attraction to particular areas of the city. For example, we showed that long, unbroken, featureless facades cause passersby to become unhappy, bored, and perhaps even a little angry. In our studies of urban psychogeography in Mumbai, we discovered that in a hyper-dense city, respite from the crowding and noise of city streets in an empty place (like a quiet churchyard) can produce as much psychological restoration as a refreshing oasis of green might do in a less dense environment. We’ve also been able to show that although different types of green-spaces might have entirely different contexts and meanings (cemeteries, community gardens, traditional parks) all can produce a profound health-giving restorative response. Although we don’t yet know how these fleeting changes in thoughts and feelings that correlate with our movements through a city might translate into long-term health measures, it would be surprising if there weren’t such connections, and the current work in our laboratory is devoted to finding them.
There has never been a more pressing time for us to understand the psychological impact of urban development on the human brain.
More than half of the world’s population now live in large cities, and the construction of hyper-dense cores is taxing the abilities of city planners to provide the infrastructure that is needed to provide services and transportation to those who live and work in these dense clusters. But just as important as such bread-and-butter concerns as the provision of good public transport, power grids and sanitation are the psychological affordances of these teeming centers of human activity. With projects such as our Psychology on the Street, we are hoping to contribute to the most important discussion of all: how can urban design contribute to the mental health and resilience of a large population of overtaxed and stressed citizens? How can psychology help to make successful cities possible?
Layla McCay, UDMH Director
I took the photograph at the top of this blog while visiting Medellin, Colombia, and forgot about it until I was thinking about photographs for this website. It seems an apt basis for the first post on the UDMH blog. Medellin is a fascinating place. Named the world's most innovative city, they have shifted from a setting of danger and fear to an urban environment to be proud of. On the day I took this photograph, I visited one of the city's poorest areas to experience their game-changing public transport innovations, and admire their beautiful library. I was enchanted by the 385-metre long escalator and the 2km-long cable car, both linking this previously isolated area with the rest of the city (and in the other direction, providing easy, affordable access to a beautiful mountain park). Strolling through the streets en route to the library, I noted the numerous community spaces and the beautiful use of murals. I particularly loved the mural of a bus as it combines my delight at street art and my appreciation of public transport.
To start off our blog, here's my op-ed from the Huffington Post that was inspired by that trip, musing upon the future of reading and the library as a third space: Why We Should Let Go of Nostalgia and Embrace the Evolution of Libraries.
Sanity and Urbanity: