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].

Why Is Compliance A Dirty Word?

Have you ever had people crawl under their desks when they see you coming?  Yes, I have! I didn’t take it personally.  After all, I was coming to see the manager about a new compliance framework.   While the dive under the desk was done out of jest, and there were a few chuckles afterwards, the act of hiding does show how many people feel about compliance.

So, this got me wondering:

Why is compliance such a dirty word?  Why do people try and run away from it?

To delve deeper I asked an esteemed workshop panel in a workshop a few days ago and got a very interesting response.   In the panel members experience, as soon as practices are enshrined in legislation or regulation, all you get is compliance and not quality.

Hang on, the opposite of compliance is not quality.  Why are the two things seen as mutually exclusive?

To understand this even further let’s take a step back to the definitive work of Bob Tricker in 1994 and his explanation of the key governance roles of a board.

Here we begin to see the separation between the concepts of performance and conformance.  However, Tricker defined conformance not just in terms of making sure management were complying with the law, but it was also monitoring and supervising management to ensure they were meeting the needs of the community and stakeholders.

Over time, this last bit seems to have gotten lost somewhere, and all people focused on was the distinction between compliance and performance. Compliance and performance have begun to be seen as opposite sides of a coin.  But they were never meant to be portrayed to be in conflict with each other.  Tricker proposed compliance and performance activities were complementary, and both essential for good governance.

Given that today the focus of compliance is meeting legislative obligations, the next question then is why are certain practices or activities actually legislated in the first place?  And here was my aha moment….

When you look closely at the things people and organisations are being ‘forced’ to do through legislation, they are things that really do enshrine the needs of the community and fundamental good business practice.  These are things that the government believes are so important that they cannot be left to chance to be done out of goodwill.  These are practices that are so important that they need to make sure everyone is doing them.  That is why they are legislated in the first place.

And so the way I see it, the obligations imposed in legislation represent the minimum standards of performance expected of an organisation operating in that state or country.  Perhaps then, instead of using the word ‘compliance’ we should be using the term ‘minimum standards of performance.’ 

If this is the case, then maybe the focus is not just on whether you are doing what is required (whether you are ticking the box), but why you are doing the activity and how.  What mindset and intention are you bringing into these minimum standards of performance?

Read More and Learn More at Medium.com

If you would like to chat more about your compliance and performance challenges send us an email at contact@3rd-edge.com. We would love to hear from you!

[1] Kiel, G. and Nicholson, G., 2003. Boards That Work: A New Guide For Directors. McGraw-Hill.

[2] Trapp, R., 2020. Even Today, Having A Strategy Is More Important Than You Might Think. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogertrapp/2019/02/28/even-today-having-a-strategy-is-more-important-than-you-might-think/#330c1c99649f&gt; [Accessed 15 October 2020].