Why Do Cities Cause Stress?

I was doing some research for an upcoming book when I happened across a very interesting piece of research. It found that when people were presented with pictures of urban environments, none of them felt comfortable. In fact, half of them stated they felt uncomfortable and suffocated. In reverse, when viewing natural scenery, almost all felt comfortable and only 4% felt suffocated [1].

The participants then went through an MRI to see the effect of urban and natural images on the brain function. When exposed to urban scenes, three key areas of the brain fired up:

1. the para hippocampal gyrus — which is used to help process visual complexity

2. the amygdala — which very generally is the threat detector and fear stimulator in the brain. It evaluates the environment, determines what is important or not, and generates emotional responses to those things it considers important.

3. The anterior temporal pole which is associated with negative emotions including fear, anger and unpleasantness.

The brain areas activated most when natural scenes were presented were:

1. the insula which is related to the evaluation, experience and expression of ‘internally generated’ emotions.

2. the basal ganglia whose activation is observed in response to happy memories and pleasant pictures.

Many other people have investigated the effects of the natural environment, and as reported in the book Healing Gardens [2], more than two-thirds of people found that natural settings offer an effective retreat when stressed. In another study reported in Mind, 94% of respondents reported that spending time outdoors induced calmness and a sense of balance[3]. Being in nature helps reduce problematic emotions, such as anger and fear. The connection and interest we have for the natural forms also distract us from pain and boosts our levels of creativity.

I find this curious, as there is a tendency to associate cities with the concept of ‘civilization’. We equate the infrastructure associated with modern societies as indicating our cleverness and advancement. There is also the connotation that rural communities, or those cultures intertwined with nature are somewhat more ‘backward’ then those that live in man-made cities.

The definition of civilisation is to

“bring (a place or people) to a stage of social and cultural development considered to be more advanced”.

But I guess, the most important question here, is how do you define being advanced? How much does the definition rest on economic and technological development, or is a more holistic approach applied? Do you measure being ‘advanced’ by the proportion of your population residing in urban centres, or how else do you measure civilisation? You may have heard of the Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) used as the system of measuring societal ‘success’ in Bhutan. It covers the following nine elements [5]:

The Gross National Happiness Index used in Bhutan

This holistic measure is a long way from the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ focus we hear from our politicians and then a broad sweeping addition to funding in ‘mental health’ to attempt to redress the balance.

So what is it about the urban environment that invokes fear, anger or at least a disposition towards discomfort? When asked about this in Bhutan, residents in urban areas cited things like noise, air pollution, river and stream pollution, crime and violence, litter, footpaths and streetlights as major areas of dissatisfaction. 

Urban residents were less likely to have a sense of belonging and community vitality then their rural counterparts. Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash.

In addition, urban residents were less likely to have a sense of belonging and community vitality then their rural counterparts. This suggests that it is not only the physical aspects of the environment that create stress, but the lack of community connection as well. It is astounding isn’t it — more people and yet less sense of community.

Read more and learn more in our Medium article here.

[1] Kim, G., Jeong, G., Kim, T., Baek, H., Oh, S., Kang, H., Lee, S., Kim, Y. and Song, J., 2010. Functional Neuroanatomy Associated with Natural and Urban Scenic Views in the Human Brain: 3.0T Functional MR Imaging. Korean Journal of Radiology, 11(5), p.507.

[2] Rawlings, R., 1999. Healing Gardens. London: Seven Dials.

[3] Mind.org.uk. 2020. Go Green To Beat The Blues. [online] Available at: <https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/go-green-to-beat-the-blues/&gt; [Accessed 15 August 2020].

[4] Data.worldbank.org. 2020. Urban Population (% Of Total Population) | Data. [online] Available at: <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS&gt; [Accessed 21 October 2020].

[5] Grossnationalhappiness.com. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/&gt; [Accessed 21 October 2020].

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