Cities may make the brain more susceptible to mental-health conditions, notably depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. A study from 2011, published in the magazine Nature, shows that city inhabitants have a stronger reaction to stressors than those living elsewhere. The study shows that the agitation that city-dwellers experience can be linked to public transportation delays and traffic jams. It also shows that urbanites are less able to cope with negative emotions than people living in rural areas. In research from 2010, Peen, Schoevers, Beekman, and Dekker demonstrate a strong correlation between urban life and poor mental health.
Although it’s challenging to determine precisely how a complex environment such as a city affects the brain, scientists are investigating the differences in the way that people living in cities and rural areas process stressful situations.
More than two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, so mental well-being in cities is becoming increasingly important. Mental illnesses already represent the world’s largest health burden after infectious diseases, and the costs in lost productivity, disability claims, and treatment is rising. In Germany, the number of sick days for psychiatric-related illness doubled between 2000 and 2010. According to some estimates, up to 40% of disability claims for work absences in North America may be related to depression.
Given these considerations, how is it possible to create smart, human cities that enable people to live well-balanced lives suitable to their own needs? For a start, cities must function as a service to citizens, putting the people that live, work, and visit them at the center of the design. This may mean that certain long-established urban priorities need to change.
“We know that nature can reduce stress,” says Simone Stavenuiter, Senior Designer, Experience Design at Signify, formerly known as Philips Lighting. “The obvious thought is to create more greenery and parks in cities, which of course would be ideal.” Stavenuiter believes there may also be other solutions that can have a positive effect on the mental and emotional well-being. “For instance, by creating light effects in public spaces that mimic certain natural scenes and that allow us to just stand still for a moment or give us a sense of joy—this can reduce stress.”