There’s a big chance that you’re reading this from your home in a city and no, that isn’t just a conversation starter. The majority of the world’s people live in cities — even the ones in developing countries.
In the 1960s, the number of people who lived in city centers we’re just half of the number of people who lived in rural areas. By 2006, urban and rural areas had an even share of the world’s population with 3.32 billion people living in rural areas while 3.27 billion had already abandoned farmlands for apartment complexes. But the number of urbanites is starting to overtake the rural population.
As of 2020, 4.35 billion people live in urban centers while 3.40 billion have stayed in rural areas. From there, the rural population is expected to keep declining as more people move to cities for better economic opportunities.
That said, city life doesn’t quite deliver on its promises of a better life. For many people around the world, city life is an overpopulated, polluted, and dehumanizing nightmare.
An Increasingly Urbanized Hellscape
Cities are often nicknamed urban jungles. Anyone who has stepped foot inside one on a busy day, especially if you’ve come straight from a rural area with wide, open green spaces, can easily see why.
There’s something inherently claustrophobic about cityscapes. Aside from sharing a relatively small part of the world’s total surface area with millions of people, you’re trapped between towering concrete and glass buildings whose summits disappear into a smog-filled sky. Then, there’s the noise.
Measurements of street-level noise taken throughout 99 street sites in New York City found that the average New Yorker was exposed to 73.45 decibels of noise on a daily basis. The noise pollution mostly comes from road traffic and while it isn’t quite at the level that renders you deaf, traffic noise may be enough to put you at greater risk of anxiety.
A study on the association between transportation noise exposure and anxiety published in December 2020 found that there were higher odds of people presenting with severe anxiety with even just a 10 decibel increase of noise between daytime, evening, and nighttime commutes. But to say that this is anything significant would be, frankly, dishonest. The researchers themselves point out more than a few flaws in their data.
So, if noise isn’t what makes cities so unappealing to be around, could visual aesthetics be the secret behind the mentally harmful effects of cities?
There’s one community on the internet that, at the very least, thinks that cities are almost universally unpleasant to look at. It’s called r/UrbanHell. The name already gives a lot away about what the community thinks of cityscapes, but r/UrbanHell isn’t exaggerating when it promises to unveil the hellish concrete world of the city.
R/UrbanHell calls itself “a photography subreddit of all the hideous places human beings built or inhabit” and the images posted range from cold, alienating environments to the downright dystopian.
R/UrbanHell’s most hated corners of the world are cities dominated by gray concrete and glass boxes. Now, it’s hard to call New York City ugly despite it having been posted on the subreddit. Out of all the cities in North America, New York has the most publicly accessible green space, most of which is thanks to the verdant beauty of Central Park.
But r/UrbanHell’s hatred of concrete is more than an aesthetic preference. A hatred of concrete cityscapes is really just a hatred of bad urban planning that leaves no space for parks and forests. It’s a dislike rooted in human psychology because nature, the opposite of these overly paved environments, has consistently shown to improve our mental health, physical health, and overall happiness.
According to Cynthia Frantz, a professor of psychology and environmental studies in Oberlin College, Ohio, quality time with Mother Nature improves our emotional states and cognitive functioning.
The positive effects of spending time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of city life, have also been shown to increase our positive perception of our subjective well-being and give us a better sense of existential meaning.
Nature, apparently, is the opposite of bleak. So what happens when we make buildings that are bleak on purpose?
The Psychological Brutality of Cityscapes
We often say that taste is subjective and when it comes to the subjectivity of tastes in architecture, few styles are as divisive as Brutalism. Emerging in the 1950s, Brutalism was an architectural movement that favored a stiff, blocky style made entirely of concrete.
Many architects and architectural critics love brutalism while your average layperson generally hates it. Hate might seem like a strong word but when Paul Rudolph unveiled the new Yale Art and Architecture building, it later became the subject of an arson attack that some speculate was committed by a disgruntled student who hated the design.
People’s hatred of brutalism often stems from the observation that brutalist buildings have been and are continually built-in spots where traditionally “beautiful” buildings have stood. One such example is the Plan Voisin — Le Corbusier’s vision of a utopian Paris that would destroy the 3rd and 4th arrondissements and replace them with perfectly symmetric, cross-shaped buildings.
The Parisians weren’t thrilled and Le Corbusier’s plans, much to their delight, fell through.
Today, Brutalist architecture and its imposing visuals are a mainstay of horror games that rely on their atmosphere. Among those is Control, a game that combines an SCP Foundation style approach to supernatural creatures where the lead character must navigate the increasingly strange and Lovecraftian halls of a massive brutalist office space called the “Oldest House”.
Without even counting the horrors that lay within or the true nature of the Oldest House, the intimidating building seems to swallow everything in it. From its bare walls that appear purposely built to dwarf any person that stands before them to the suspiciously open spaces, everything about the Oldest House screams alienation.
Proponents of brutalist design say that it’s a truthful architectural style that does away with unnecessary facades and lets the raw material itself take the spotlight. It’s efficient, they say, and cheap. Its cheapness and imposing appearance have made it a popular style for many government and institutional buildings.
Human beings are unfortunately not robots. We don’t quite operate on efficiency alone and our minds aren’t fans of being made to feel afraid, alone, and distanced from others.
Despite the logistic efficiency of cities, peppered with sky-swallowing buildings of every “efficient” design style in existence, their cold, alienating environments are associated with increased rates of depression and psychosis.
A study entitled “Urbanisation and incidence of psychosis and depression” followed up on an earlier study on urbanization’s effects on mental health by checking in on adults between the ages of 25 and 64 in Sweden. The researchers accounted for each person’s age, marital status, level of education, and immigrant status to make sure that it wasn’t some other factor associated with bad mental health impacting their results.
What they found was surprising — participants who lived in densely populated areas were at higher risk of becoming depressed or developing psychotic symptoms and the closer they lived to densely populated areas, the higher that rate got. People living in and around city centers were 68-77% times more likely to develop psychosis compared to participants who lived in less dense and less urbanized areas
Before you call B.S. on the statistics because hey, samples aren’t always completely representative of a population, that isn’t the case for this study. It’s a bit harder to doubt results when your sample size is the entire adult population of Sweden and if you’ve seen places like Hong Kong, Manila, and Rio de Janeiro, you know Sweden doesn’t take the cake for being an r/UrbanHell worthy country.
Another study, this time using medical records of (almost) the entire population of Denmark, found similar increased incidences of schizophrenia among city dwellers. What these studies don’t tell us is why this phenomenon keeps happening.
So, Why Are Cities Making Us Mentally Ill?
Natalie Ricci from Claremont McKenna College has an answer to that. Her study, “The Psychological Impact of Architectural Design“, suggests that our increased risk for mental illness in urban environments stems from the way our brains have evolved.
Inasmuch as we shape our environment, our environment shapes us and one of the key ways it has done this for thousands of years is through the evolutionary process. Most people are at least familiar with the evolutionary maxim of “survival of the fittest” and while we’ve come to understand that survival now means office jobs and looking left and right before crossing a busy intersection, our monkey brains haven’t quite caught up.
Our reward systems still make us feel pleasure associated with the objects and conditions that have ensured our basic survival for millennia. For example, we love shiny things like gold, Tiffany rings, and brand-new phones because of a primitive association between glimmer and water.
Cities don’t quite remind us of the lush food-rich environments of our ancestors and they come with all sorts of new stressors — loud noises, overly bright fluorescent lights, and windowless office buildings.
When the mind and body are under the influence of stress, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and slows down everything our bodies do that aren’t immediately beneficial to our survival. Extended periods of this emergency functioning mode can then lead to permanent negative effects on our physical and mental health.
On the other side of that coin, scenic environments make us happier and more relaxed with the side-effect being that we start to feel more healthy. What exactly counts as a scenic environment, you ask?
Data gathered by Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe on what parts of Great Britain most Brits found “scenic” revealed that the most scenic images were photos of natural bodies of water and woodland areas.
Though human architecture couldn’t quite compete with Mother Nature, the urban areas found to be most scenic had a significant amount of plant life and, notably, featured buildings in older architectural styles such as neoclassical.
Ricci suggests that this is due to the Nine Square pattern, a pattern of nine squares in a T-formation that lines up with the features of the human face. The Nine Square pattern is featured in buildings like the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.
As you can guess, few to none found brutalist architecture to be scenic.
Beautiful things and beautiful surroundings seem to be vital components of mental and physical health.
Achieving beauty isn’t always easy, though. Efficient designs have become prevalent because they’re convenient and that convenience has made them more present in clinical hospital design. But to expand our understanding of health and well-being, it may be worth it for us to expand our perspective of providing mental health care to humane designs that give people a better sense of belonging in the communities they live in.
To be fair to Le Corbusier, the man did believe he was designing cities of the future that would support an egalitarian society. Though the motive’s behind former President Donald Trump’s desire for a return to classical architecture may be politically charged, we may stand to benefit from making space for beauty in our cityscapes.