by David J. Stinson

On Thursday, September 7th 2017, CBC interviewed Professor Nicholas Rose from King’s College, U.K. on his sociological studies for an upcoming Mental Health and the Mega-city workshop in Switzerland. Professor Rose discussed the apparent link between higher rates of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia and city life. There were no definitive answers on causes: noise, congestion, smells, wealth gaps, social exclusion, limited access to nature, etc., except for the subjective experience of stress.

This was reminiscent of research released several years ago from Stanford University that cast doubt on the town building enterprise. The headline referred to the benefits of nature, but the subheading stated that “urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness.” One early commenter even went so far as to say, “The facts are here: the towns are killing us!” Does this demonstrate that urban places are bad? It is a topic certainly worth of study, especially since humanity became homo urbanis in 2007; the global suburban and urban population now exceeds the rural population.

What one research abstract said was that “a 90 minute walk in a natural setting decreases both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex,” and that this kind of activity is “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.”  Apparently, “a 90-minute walk in an urban setting has no such effects” (Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross, 28 May 2015).

This is not the first study to notice that being in nature improved one’s mental health, however it should not lead to the conclusion that being in an urban area will impair one’s mental health. We began to stop building towns in the 1920s and quit in earnest after the Second World War and the predominant development pattern worldwide is now suburban, not urban.

In a genuine town, a 5-10 minute walk will provide easy access to either nature or to cultural amenities but it also offers casual contact with acquaintances and neighbours. Such incidental interactions have been shown to actually improve our mental health (Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, 2013). 

In the aforementioned research abstract which stated a person taking a 90 minute walk in an urban setting does not experience the same positive effects of spending the same amount of time in nature, test subjects walked on the El Camino Real in Palo Alto, California; a noisy street with three to four lanes in both directions, which indicates the presumed urban area is really suburban in its design.

By contrast, the open area that test subjects walked in appeared to be a manicured civic space, rather than a wild space. Nonetheless, the stated significance of this study could be true: that “accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” but it could be equally true that well-designed urban places may also be vital for our mental health in a rapidly urbanising world. Using a finer-grained distinction between urban, suburban, rural, and natural areas will help such studies adequately assess the impact of such places and aid in the design of better towns and cities.

David J. Stinson RPP, MCIP, P.Ag. is on the Program Committee of the Lakeland District and a partner at Incite Planning.


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