How city life can make you crazy

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

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.

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