by William Heard
Chicago School of Professional Psychology, US
By the year 2030 more than 70% of the population will be living within densely packed cities across the world. While living within groups has been a staple of our society, beginning with the early cavemen, there has been a shift in the environments that we call home. Over the course of the last few centuries, we have begun creating environments that are more organized, and packed with more people than ever before. Densely-packed cities are one example of the environments that we have cultivated in order to help deal with over-population. These cities bring with them a host of positive attributes to our health and well-being. For instance, James Hamblin (2014) mentions that cities that contained more compact street networks also showed lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
However, along with the positive physical effects, research has shown countless negative effects on a person’s mental health. One such effect comes from the never-ending amount of stimulation that the body receives from walking around in the more densely packed areas of the cities. This stimulation puts a relentless demand on our ability to pay attention and process information. Sullivan and Chang (2011) state that if a person does not receive respite from stimulation, their brains will become fatigued to the point where they become inattentive, socially withdrawn, irritable, impulsive and accident prone. Similarly, chronic noise pollution can also contribute to children's behavioral problems in schools and daycare centers around the world. Furthermore, in the book Happy city: Transforming our lives through urban design, Charles Montgomery found that psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, were the most common in neighborhoods where the people had the thinnest social networks. Along with schizophrenia, older adults who lack strong social ties show higher rates of mortality, suicide and overall decreased health.
Isn’t it contradictory to create spaces that are meant to be as efficient as possible when those very places are actively preventing us from reaching our peak? Luckily, along with the research on how our mental health is influenced by the environment we live in, there has also been a ton of research on how to counteract the negative influences. While the number of proposed approaches are endless, a few show promise in promoting positive environments for mental health.
One of those ideas uses green and blue spaces within urban environments to decrease stress and mental load. Wells and Evans (2003) found that the impact of life stress lowered among children who lived in neighborhoods that had natural settings. This buffering effect was replicated with adults and the elderly as well. Wells speculates that green spaces increase variability in an urban setting, thereby moderating the over-stimulation effects if people are able to see them.
Another possible explanation could be that natural settings inspire people to mingle and build social connections, thus bringing us to another well-established resiliency factor that decreases the negative effects of the urban environment. While the way we interact with our built environments is important, our overall resilience appears to come from social connections that we form and the natural settings that foster them. Social networks and the perception of social belonging and support are a buffer against depression, anxiety, and other adverse consequences that come along with living in environments that cause mental fatigue. It appears that realtors' “location, location, location” mantra has more to it than resale value; Montgomery (2013) found that the person’s social ties could be determined by the distance they traveled for work, and that the farther you travel, the less of a network you create. More specifically, it appears that people whose commute more than 45 minutes, one way were 40% more likely to get a divorce, showing that social ties aren’t just important for your overall mental health; they can also impact relationship vitality.
Much like New York’s High Line park, Chicago’s answer to the lack of green spaces within the city was to build the 606, an elevated walkway that features greenery, parks and other outdoor activities for the community. Another option is to build below. Having run out of room to build green spaces above ground, New York also created an underground park that uses filtered light to grow a natural setting.
Major cities in the United States are doing their best to find unique ways to address the unwanted mental health effects of urban settings. I am curious though: do you feel they are doing enough to foster resilience within their populations, or should they being doing more? What potentially odd but creative ideas do you have?
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: