We need to prepare future city dwellers to be healthy in their environments.
Living in an urban setting can have serious effects on mental health, such as:
- a 38 percent higher chance of having “any disorder”
- a 39 percent higher chance of having a mood disorder, and
- a 21 percent higher chance of having an anxiety disorder when compared to living in a rural area.
And as Dr. Robert Zarr, a Washington D.C.-based pediatrician and one of the panelists at an event July 7 to launch the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, noted, “Seventy percent of the world’s population will be living in an urban area in 15 years.”
Just as they do for physical health, aspects of urban life such as density and architecture act as social determinants for mental health. And the transportation sector is no different. In fact, it is one of the most important aspects of all.
According to Chris Hamilton, former chief of Arlington County Commuter Services and another launch event speaker, “Streets and sidewalks take up 25 to 50 percent of a typical U.S. city’s land,” with quite a few notable cities such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and Portland reaching the mid-to-high forties.
So what are the effects of the all too common car-centered cityscape?
Commuting times in the U.S. have been steadily increasing and, between 1980 and 2011, congestion has doubled to an average of 38 hours of delay a year. In urban areas, this increases to 52 hours of delay per year.
Commutes, especially long ones, have a lot of negatives. They increase stress and anxiety levels and decrease happiness. One study found that with every successive minute added to a commute, all measured indicators of personal well-being worsened. Another found that having a commute longer than 45 minutes increased chances of divorce by 40 percent. Commuters dealing with traffic congestion experience more stress than fighter pilots and riot police facing a mob. Isolation, lower sleep quality, and decreased sense of purpose have all been linked to commute times as well.
So what can be done? One important solution is the promotion of “active commuting.” Active commuting or active transportation is any form of travel that is self-propelled such as walking or biking. Even public transport can count due to the walking or cycling usually involved before or after.
As Hamilton stated in his presentation, this requires prioritizing people who walk, bike, use transit, shop, eat, sit, and interact instead of prioritizing cars. This means designing cities with skinny two-way streets, midblock crosswalks, places to rest, protected bikeways and networks, bikeshares, bus-only routes, and pedestrian plazas. This encourages active commuting and increases opportunities for social interaction.
A 2014 study found that active commuting improved multiple aspects of mental well-being, including happiness, feelings of self-worth, stress levels, and ability to concentrate. The study also indicated a “switching effect,” in which these indicators increased after changing from car travel to a form of active transport. Unlike car travel, the benefits actually increased with longer active commute times.
Proper city planning does not only serve to mitigate pathology, it can actually improve the mental well-being of the population. But it will take a very diverse set of skills and expertise to get the job done. That is why we launched the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health as a start-up think tank that seeks to bring together experts who can help determine how we can design better mental health into our cities.
Photo by Chris Ford