How city life can make you crazy
SCREAMING sirens, overcrowding, traffic – life in the city isn’t always relaxing. These stressors aren’t simply inconvenient or irritating, though; research has suggested that urban living has a significant impact on mental health. One metaanalysis found that those living in cities were 21 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder – mood disorders were even higher, at 39pc. People who grew up in a city are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as those who grew up in the countryside, with a 2005 study suggesting this link may even be causal.
Urban stressors appear to have a biological impact, too. A 2011 study from the Central Institute of Mental Health at the University of Heidelberg found that city living was associated with greater stress responses in both the amygdala and the cingulate cortex – areas linked to emotional regulation, depression and anxiety. This increased activation, the research team said, could have a “lasting effect” both on the brain’s development and its ongoing susceptibility to mental illness.
The studies are part of a wider field of environmental psychology that seeks to understand how individuals interact with their environments, and how those environments can affect our social lives, relationships and even our mental health.
The issue is hotly debated. For example, it’s often believed that open-plan offices promote prosocial working and avoid the drab monotony of cubicle working, but other studies claim that it can instead be bad for productivity and well-being.
Co-housing is often promoted as a way of encouraging community spirit. Many people who live in these communities – usually private bedrooms with communal kitchens or social areas and shared maintenance responsibility – have reported increased happiness and connection with other residents. But other studies have stressed that tenants can lose their sense of individualism and privacy.
Layla McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, says these debates are complex and dependent on a number of nuanced factors. The think tank was set up to encourage more rigorous evaluation on the way we design our cities, and what impact it can have on mental wellbeing. She isolates several elements that she believes have a positive influence: access to nature or green spaces, the design of public spaces that facilitate physical activity and encourage social interaction, and living and working in spaces that feel safe.
But what about particular kinds of buildings? Brutalist structures like the Barbican estate in London are not always considered to be so positive for mental health, with many condemning brutalism’s depressing aesthetic. Yet despite some calling it London’s “ugliest building”, the Barbican is a perfect example of the positive attributes outlined by McCay. Full of greenery, lakes and balconies, the estate also gives pedestrians priority over cars and features mini town squares where residents can socialise, work and relax.
The estate is well lit and designed with good sight lines, meaning residents feel safe – a huge factor in their mental well-being. But this can be a difficult line to tread. Though well-lit areas are generally considered to reduce stress by increasing feelings of safety, it has been argued that darkness is a luxury not afforded to those living in council housing. If you live in an estate where bright lights shine in your window, you may lose sleep or feel exposed and surveilled; darkness, on the other hand, can be more subtly landscaped to provide a sense of value, safety and beauty.
But if a so-called ugly building can still be positive for mental health, what role does beauty and aesthetic have to play? Despite beauty being a subjective term, recent research has found that “inhabitants of more scenic environments report better health”, but again this often comes back to the presence of nature. Indeed, neglected environments can contribute to mental ill-health – dilapidated neighbourhoods and abandoned shops or houses can make us feel unsafe, with run-down environments found to contribute to anxiety and persistent low mood.
Though high-rise housing was initially commended for its views, larger rooms, sense of “urban privacy” and efficient use of concrete, it was later suggested that the designs gave rise to various social and mental ills: increased crime, suicide rates and behavioural problems. High-floor dwellers were most at risk when it came to the negative impacts of such living environments because they were apparently most likely to isolate themselves. Such buildings were roundly condemned by British author JG Ballard, who felt that the “rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives” he saw in high-rises would allow “the psychotics” to take over.
Though Ballard’s doom-laden vision of high-rise living may seem compelling – especially considering the anti-social reputation of such estates – more recent research suggests that the buildings are not as intrinsically flawed as we might first imagine. Rather, the social ills found in such environments may be more closely related to poor maintenance than anything innate. Reports have found that “risky” facilities such as broken lights and windows, litter, graffiti and non-functioning CCTV may have more to do with increased crime rates – and anxiety-inducing fear of crime – than the physical environment itself. So mental illhealth may increase once the physical environment has deteriorated.
Shopping centres also appear to refute the physical determinism of much environmental psychology. Often considered to be vast, unhealthy behemoths designed to disorient and dazzle us into spending money we don’t have, shopping malls could, in fact, be beneficial to individual and societal well-being. One team of researchers argues shopping centres may possess “mentally restorative qualities” that could rival even natural settings. Again it suggests that healthy factors – greenery, a focus on safety, good maintenance, a sense of openness – could significantly reduce stress, no matter how buildings themselves are designed or interpreted.
This isn’t always the case; privatised public spaces like shopping malls often limit activity and use design to control behaviour. Though these spaces may feel and seem as if they are public, they are privately owned, meaning that our rights and behaviours are constricted and controlled. This in turn can contribute to a sense of anxiety.