City-Dwellers are Prone to Depression- High Rises Are To Blame

Cities Have a Measurable Effect on Our Mental Health

Prof Colin Ellard was walking past the rows of new-build towers that dominate the west of central Toronto when he had a sudden realisation. “I was struck by how dark, sombre and sad these new urban canyons made me feel,” he says.

Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada who studies the impact of places on the brain and body, wanted to know why he felt like that – and if others felt the same.

His curiosity ultimately led him to conduct a series of virtual reality experiments in which he asked people to wear specialised headsets and stroll through a variety of urban environments created to test their responses. The findings, he says, proved he was not alone. Being surrounded by tall buildings produces a “substantial” negative impact on mood.

If proven, Ellard’s theory adds weight to existing studies finding a negative effect of high-rises on the mental health of city residents. With both government policy and the potential for greater profits driving high-density construction in cities around the world, this raises an important question for the development industry.

Dwellers have a 40% increased risk of depression and double the rate of schizophrenia, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. Ellard’s idea is that the moment to moment bad feelings he observed in the virtual reality environment can affect everyday interactions in the real world and people’s experience of living in cities. “When people are in these very dense environments that produce oppressiveness and increase negative emotion, it seems logical that those things will spin off into the ways we understand other people and the way we treat them,” he says. “Those are the variables that are most likely to show relationships with [increased incidence of] psychiatric illness.”

This may seem a big leap but Ellard is the latest in a long line of researchers to see a link between high-rises and poor mental health. Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of built environment social enterprise Create Streets, analysed academic studies on high-rise living for his 2016 report on the design of cities. According to Boys Smith, the balance of evidence shows residents of high-rise blocks tend to suffer from more stress, mental health difficulties and neurosis, with child development particularly affected. “High-rise can work, but it’s much harder,” he says.

These concerns also come up against the commercial reality in high-value areas such as London, where there are more than 400 towers in the development pipeline (pdf). David Birkbeck, chief executive of housing consultant Design for Homes, says inflated land prices mean developers have little option but to go upwards to make their investment back. “Once they’ve outbid everyone for a site, height is their only way to recover the price paid,” he says.

The question is how to build densely without these negative repercussions. “The villain isn’t density itself, it’s insensitive design,” says Layla McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. “It’s about how you design in things that are protective to people’s mental health – green spaces and opportunities for social interaction.”

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