Increasing numbers of the world’s population are shifting to live in urban areas. This results in new situations and issues globally.
Different environmental factors are influencing urban dwellers’ physical and mental wellbeing. This is affecting their daily lives and leaving people with serious mental health issues.
Crowded urban environments affect peoples’ physical and mental wellbeing. Depending on the available amenities, access to green spaces, and how residents interact with the spaces, the public realm can greatly influence our state of wellbeing.
The public realm is the public space we use and share with others. It accommodates daily life, and it is a setting in cities.
Here we explore the implications of urban living and high population density on mental wellbeing.
The senses in the city, social bonding, and urban greenery are in focus. Urban designers, planners, and architects must gain a better understanding of how to design better public realm that limits social stress and enhances wellbeing.
Megacities with low-income populations face further and greater challenges. Such as poverty, poor hygienic standards, or safety issues, which trigger additional stressors.
First of all, many environmental factors influence our wellbeing in an urban environment. The most common ones are population density, air, noise and light pollution, design quality, accessible green spaces, violence, and the presence of cars.
Research shows that people who live a city life and people who had an urban upbringing, experience higher levels of social stress. This can lead to different psychiatric diseases such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and even suicide (Lederbogen et al., 2011; Peen et al., 2010; American Psychological Association, 2005).
The negative impacts happen despite having better infrastructure, better socioeconomic conditions, and more accessible health care services than in rural areas.
Social stress is mostly caused by high population density in cities, and it is a factor for increased risk of mental health disorders. This occurs because movements of people create busy public spaces and the city becomes a flow of people.
Nowadays, working from home alone and lockdowns can further accelerate anxiety issues when living in urban environments.
Social stress seems to outweigh other factors such as noise or air pollution when it comes to mental health issues. However, the more densely populated a city is, the higher the pollution levels are because more people generate more movement.
City dwellers experience anger and disgust towards transport-related pollution. It doesn’t enhance positive physical or social wellbeing. Today, people still mostly rely on their cars for getting around which fills up the roads, often causing traffic jams.
Commuting to workplaces takes out the energy in people, even if it is working with the Detroit Lions.
If a part of the city is heavily polluted, in theory, we will more likely to avoid the area because we do not feel good physically, or mentally.
Breathing in car fumes can give us heavy breathing, and walking becomes an unpleasant experience. This will have negative effects on the nearby public realm as we can see it in some town centers where cars took over the scene.
High population density causes higher pollution levels, which can affect people in the public realm.
Why do people stick around in Piccadilly Circus which is a very busy junction in Central London?
Some places can become attractive despite the crowds and pollution. People’s interaction with the space at Piccadilly Circus shows that they are comfortable for a while to sit down and watch others or watch the occasional street performance.
Hence crowded places are not always met with negative experiences. The experience that affects well-being depends on the context of the space and the purpose of the public realm.
High population density triggers many of the negative factors which can contribute to the cause of depression or anxiety. However, governments will not be able to control and impose a limit on how many people can live in a city to ensure people’s wellbeing.
Is it possible to create public realm which enhances positive feelings despite high population densities? Solutions should include reducing social stress and providing people with meaningful experiences in the urban environment. This is to be done through good and smart design of the public realm.
Also, public spaces should encourage people to walk or cycle to reduce pollution generated by traffic.
As mentioned above, different factors influence people’s well-being. The senses we use to perceive the space around us are under examined. Those senses – hearing, smell, touch, sight, and taste – are enabling the meeting of mind, body, and environment.
The environmental factors are affecting our body as we experience noises or smells, which influence our mind, and that impacts our wellbeing. High population density is perceived by more than one of our sensors. We can see, hear, smell, and touch people around us directly or indirectly, even against our wishes sometimes.
Therefore, when we lose control over the situation, it can cause social stress. However, if we feel more in control of our lives and surroundings, we will have positive experiences.
When it comes to physical features and urban landscape, changing landscapes and spatial variation positively affect mental disorders. For example, colors are very important in the urban landscape.
Repetitive and grey landscapes make people bored and uninterested, for example, post-war housing estates.
However, if we think of the brightly colored terraced houses in a beach town, our mood lifts straight away. People respond positively to well-designed and colorful places.
Strengthening the identity of an area can enhance meaningful public realm design to please our senses.
It really frustrates residents if the estate or road does not look good, and it influences their wellbeing. It is important to note that the many physical features of the public realm such as color or texture can be changed.
What makes public realm attractive to people where they feel safe and satisfied? Strengthening the identity of a place through conservation and refurbishment can enhance the public realm.
Involving residents in designing the public realm comes with many benefits. Especially in high-density cities, establishing a stronger neighborhood identity can enhance the feeling of belonging.
Can people express themselves in an urban environment to feel more connected with their surroundings and reduce social stress? Residents of Deptford, in London, created a neighborhood forum and are working on a neighborhood plan.
The community would like to enhance the local diverse identity and protect the character of the area. New policies include improving public spaces and restoring heritage features.
This is the start of taking more control of an area. Even if they can’t control population numbers, the members of the growing community can shape their area. That will positively affect their senses and social bonding.
‘Place attachment’ is a positive emotional bond that develops between individuals or groups and their environment.
Place attachment enhances social cohesion which then positively influences the wellbeing of individuals. The senses which people perceive are very important from many aspects as described above.
Having a better understanding of which senses influence people when they get attached to places would allow planners and urban designers to create urban environments that respond positively to physical and social wellbeing.
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American Psychological Association (2005). Report of the Task Force on Urban Psychology, Toward and Urban Psychology: Research, Action and Policy. https://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/urban-taskforce.pdf
Lederbogen, F., Kirsch, P., Haddad, L., Streit, F., Tost, H., Schuch, P., Wust, S., Pruessner, J. C., Rietschel, M., Deuschle, M. and Mayer-Lindenberg, A. (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural stress processing in humans. Nature, 474, pp. 498-501. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10190#citeas
Peen, J., Schoevers, R. A., Beekman, A. T. and Dekker, J. (2010) The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta Psychiatr Scand, 121, pp. 84-93. https://www.gwern.net/docs/nature/2010-peen.pdf