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May 7, 2014 / Leo Hollis

The Mental Life of Cities:

In 1903  the German sociologist, Georg Simmel, wrote his groundbreaking work ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ that mourned how modern life destroyed the individual spirit. 

He was certainly not the first to assume that city life was dangerous, but he also spoke of how the city overstimulated the intellect and create a coldness, what he calls a ‘blasé outlook’ as a coping mechanism against the continual overexposure to everyday life that one finds in the city.


We have pathologised that ‘blasé outlook’ and today scientists remap the urban landscape according to chemical imbalances. Neuroscientists and epidemiologists chart how the city produces surges of hormones that alter the patterns of the brain in response to stress and pleasure. However, the doctors always comes back the same diagnosis: cities can make you mad.

A gathering mass of evidence shows how cities can impact on levels of stress that lead to mental illness. All these studies take the city to be one thing, and all cities to be the same; as a result a city dweller has a 20% higher chance of developing an anxiety disorder, and a 40% higher chance to develop a mood disorder; the chances of developing schizophrenia doubles for people who grow up inside the metropolis; no matter where they might be.

The irony is that what makes us most stressed is also what makes the city so attractive. For while many types of stress have been recorded in the city such as noise pollution and environmental design, the thing that makes so many of us anxious is being close to each other. And yet this is why we come to cities in the first place.

It is a seeming paradox that just as some neuroscientists are telling us that being together makes us ill, others are proving that we are hard wired to be together. In ‘Social’  Matthew Lieberman uses the same MRI imaging techniques to show how our brains react to social interactions as acutely as physical pleasure and pain. Being together makes a difference and has a huge influence on how we feel, and behave.  In another study neuroscientist John T Cacioppo shows that ‘chronic loneliness’ is an evolutionary impulse that encourages us to come together, a warning that we need to connect to survive.

But what does this say about the city? It proves that the metropolis is an on-going experiment – now over seven thousand years old – at getting us all together. And yet, there is something more; while being together offers this paradoxical stressful allure, being together also brings out the best in us. Cities, despite the press, can be good for us.

We often assume that we lose something by being part of a crowd but in a study published by Hatfield University last year, taking two events – a FatBoy Slim Concert in 2002 and a Unite Union march in 2007 [1] the opposite was discovered. There was a positive emotional benefit by being part of the mass; in fact, where you were on the march – either in the middle or at the front – had a hugely advantageous effect on one’s sense of social identification. Being part of something can make you happy.

Living in cities can, as Plato suggest in the Republic, even make us happy. However, one needs to take with a pinch of salt the advise from journalist Charles Montgomery’s fascinating book ‘Happy City’: ‘the firing synapses of our brains, the chemistry of our blood and the statistical heft of our collected choices and opinions offers a map that approximates to the wisdom of philosophers’. We cannot, and should not, map our cities according to levels of oxytocin; nor should we assume that design alone could response and transform supposed universal rules of human behaviour.

I would identify three key areas to help us think about what a healthy city might look like: access to green spaces, defining the relationship between privacy and public space, and finally, and most importantly, the question of inequality. Daily contact with nature is essential for a healthy city. A child that does not have a regular encounter with green spaces can develop stress disorders.  In addition, the less green an environment the higher the rate of violence and assault. Therefore the preservation of parks, avenues and the effects of communal garden gardening projects show that a real relationship with green spaces even in the heart of the city has a powerful impact on mental health.

We can already see the influence of these idea on urban planning with development of pocket parks, and projects such as walkable neighbourhoods. Creating places that you might want to to walk through rather than sit in a traffic jam on the school run has an powerful cluster of results. A child that bikes or walks to school has improved concentration levels all the way to lunch. Leaving the car at homes means that there is improved air quality, less congestion on the road has a social impact on the street and in a famous study by Donald Appleyard, Liveable Streets, one’s social contacts will grow with neighbours. A walkable neighbourhood encourages fitness and better health, (it also can raise house prices).

The question of privacy has a huge influence on the way our cities are being built. However, our ideas and priorities are changing – at home we now interface with at least two screens every evening; at the same time our public spaces are being privatised, reducing the possibilities of vibrant civic life. Nevertheless, a healthy city attempts to mark the boundaries between the two spheres. Numerous psychological studies show the need for a place to retreat away from the noise, to close the front door on the bustle of urban life.

The design of communal corridors in apartment blocks and student housing tell us a lot about how we muddle along together, and what works. The streets in the sky of Brutalist schemes such as Park Hill, Sheffield, were bold attempts to recreate the traditional row in modernist form. Where once this concept was derided as the worse excesses of council housing, now that they have been Grade II listed and turned into luxury flats. We need to design open spaces that allow us to engage with each other without threat but also do not put ourselves on top of one another: often this is the definition of a good city street where everyone gets along but is not in each others’ pocket. This is at the heart of the vision of Hudson Street as written by the American Urbanist Jane Jacobs in ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’.

Inequality is perhaps the most pressing issue facing those who are thinking about the mental life of cities. many of the neurological studies note social stress as the most damaging measure. In his important study, Unequal Health, geographer Danny Dorling shows how inequality impacts on all aspect of health from life expectancy to mental anxiety. While cities show the highest life expectancy levels in the world, they also include the lowest. This is also true for child mortality rates, so, for example, Nairobi, Kenya, has the best survival rates for up to five years old, but those who live in the city slums, such as Kabira, have the lowest rates. This is also true of non-communicable diseases such as stroke, cancer and diabetes. In the UK, rates of obesity and mental health disorders within the city are far higher amongst the poorer neighbourhoods.

Despite the fact that Boris Johnson said that cities need a bit of inequality to work, that envy was a good thing, there is nothing in the nature of cities that dictates that there has to be this geography of difference. Inequality impacts on all parts of the urban landscape and it is the have nots who do not have access to parks and green spaces, nor have the luxury of privacy and adequate housing. To plan the healthy city we do not only need to think about the designs that will deliver better places for people but we also have to consider the process: we need to plan from the bottom up, putting the concerns of the most in need first.


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