Urban migration is unstoppable

Urban migration has spiked in recent years. By 2050, two-thirds of our population would be in cities, says UN DESA. 

Urban areas provide opportunities and improved infrastructure like better education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. Through the interconnected roads and skyline piercing the sky, the city lifestyle differs from the rural counterpart in many ways.  

Air, Air, everywhere, not good to breathe

Any living organism has to breathe. Urban dwellers intake the air hovering the region. The Air Quality Index in urban areas is worse than in rural counterparts. 21 of the 30 worst cities in AQI are in India. It fills the lungs with harmful PM2.5 (PM-Particulate Matter) and PM10 particles. The heart and brain work properly in idle conditions contaminated by pollutants that reduce our cognitive ability, says European Respiratory Journal. Additionally, it also increases oxidative stress in the body, making aging faster. 

People adjacent to busy roads in lower floors suffer more risk, by an aptly named term, TRAP- Traffic-Related Air Pollution. PM 2.5, a particle large enough to be visible with the naked eye, can settle on pillows and beds, causing sleep disturbances and insomnia when inhaled. While the effect of air pollution is evident, researchers are skeptical about the extent of the damage.

Some researchers quote other reasons like the economic status of the neighborhoods for the increased chance of traumatic experience and other factors. Though their study measures only the age of the subject and the living area, it doesn’t calculate the amount of polluted air exposed to any other criteria like ethnicity, hereditary mental illnesses, and so on, forcing the researchers to conclude on the ground of insufficient data.

The psychology between cities and mental health - Sheet1
A3894- The psychology between cities and mental health

A window to the world

According to an Indian census, square footages of houses in urban areas are larger than the rural ones. Patients in hospitals with a view of greenery recover faster than those without. A rural house would open to farmlands and trees. Cities don’t, calling psychologists and planners for urban green areas. Progress is present but negligible. In unplanned developments especially in suburbs, green spaces are regarded as useless. People cut down trees to add a room or increase the square footage of rooms, I have seen it happen.  

Lack of greenery has made us prone to ADHD. Urban dwellers are more anxious, 39 percent against 21 percent in rural areas. A study conducted in England involving 2232 twins was separated and put in cities and rural areas at the age of 5-12, finding that the urban twin was less helpful and unsociable to his neighbors. 

High rises conquered the cities. A study in Leeds observed elders, concluding that the subjects living in apartments are more isolated and anxious. In the 1960s, Singaporean housing boom, high-rise buildings rose from 9 to 51 percent. Suicides quadrupled. Again, lower-income and other factors could be in play, but a majority of resources link to high rise structures guilty of providing a door to the sky. 

The psychology between cities and mental health - Sheet2
A3894- The psychology between cities and mental health

Rural areas are doing better, citing social inclusion and providing a sense of belonging (which surprisingly matters a lot, be it a sports team one supports or a city that one resides in). Villages are simple, everyone knows each other well, causing them to act as a modern tribe. Even village road networks are simple and understandable to a layman.

Every road is interconnected

But for an urban human, commuting through the complex road networks is a daily routine for an average American who commutes 27 minutes a day or nine years of his life inside a vehicle. As suburban sprawl expands, commute times widen. Increased commute times lead to more absenteeism at work, higher risk of divorce, obesity, and stress observed in urban commuters. Fathers especially suffer from social and emotional problems, finding it difficult to gel with their families. 

People commuting alone in cars are more prone to loneliness linked conditions than those in public transport, which explains the enraged men honking at the red signal. Carpooling is recommended- good for your brain, helps the environment, creates a bond between the employees while taking cars off the road, and reducing traffic. 

The psychology between cities and mental health - Sheet3
A3894- The psychology between cities and mental health

A.R.T, Attention Retention Theory states that humans naturally recover attention slowly depending on his/her environment. For example, a man in forests could hear an animal approaching and gradually obtain visual and sensory data and respond preparedly. There is a slow but steady sensory immersion. 

Whereas in an urban environment, a speeding car doesn’t give them time to respond. That pedestrian would’ve been trampled by a car by the time you read this sentence. This inability to provide bottom-up sense to attention spans explains road accidents and poor concentration in urban dwellers. Pedestrians opt for noise-canceling headphones to escape the hustle-bustle of the city and reduce their sensory abilities. 

Noise levels in urban areas are bad thanks to the vehicles, industries, and economic activities. Studies done in Kolhapur and Dhaka show a noise level of 50-83 dB. Though it slips under the WHO guidelines of maximum noise exposure of 140dB, constant exposure to noise levels above 50 dB increases stress, induces aggressive behavior (please don’t sound horn), and reduces helping tendencies. Workers exposed to these noise levels for 5-30 years have increased hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. Airplane noises decrease the cognitive capabilities of children.

Inclusivity is important

Life in villages is good due to a sense of belonging, a better socially inclusive environment, lesser pollution, lesser noise, and peaceful lives. Rather than chasing money, villagers are happier, pointing to a lower living cost and lack of peer pressure. 

Small neighborhoods thrive as a community, like the moai in Okinawa prefecture in Japan. They work in their farms, fish in the sea, eat together, and have record-breaking life expectancies, or in that matter, quality of life. The human Dunbar number, people that one can keep constant contact with, is 150, which coincides with the largest jungle tribes, say, researchers.  

The solution to these problems could be through communities working to improve the urban landscape, calling out the government where people vote for the needed infrastructure over a top-down approach. Byelaws should protect the existing natural reserves, making way for future ones. 

While we cannot change the existing built environment, governments could alter the urban infrastructure and transportation. Developed nations are already tackling these issues by reducing traffic, stringent laws forcing automakers to switch to electric, or at the minimum reducing pollution and noise of the vehicle. 

The psychology between cities and mental health - Sheet4
A3894- The psychology between cities and mental health

Hopefully, when we reach 2050, our cities are calm, noiseless, and a natural haven, indifferent from a jungle.



Vignesh Esakkinathan is a final year architecture student from chennai. He blogs about climate change and productivity with the hopes to become an architectural journalist. When he's not playing cricket, you can see him philosophising life at his rooftop.