The city or the suburbs: ScienceAlert

The rapid growth of cities comes with many challenges. How to build greener? And how can we support the health and well-being of people living in urban areas?

This seems to involve a compromise. Many studies show that denser neighborhoods are relatively better for the planet, but have higher risks for depression.

It may not come as a surprise that depression is less common in the countryside. Stress, noise, air pollution, loneliness and lack of sunlight on the ground floor of a high-rise building are just a few examples of the challenges faced by city dwellers.

These factors may actually be behind the 39% increased risk of depression in urban areas of Western European countries and the United States.

But it turns out that some urban areas are better than others. My colleagues and I have produced a new study, published in Science Advances, which shows that suburban dwellers are more likely to be depressed than those in inner cities.

Important factors

We wanted to find out which built environment factors matter most for psychological well-being so that cities can be better designed to be both sustainable and mentally health-friendly.

One hectare of land can house the same population with low dense buildings or sparse buildings. High-rise buildings can be located either in dense and busy business districts or in less dense urban areas with luxurious apartments facing a large green space.

Suburbs, however, tend to have a medium density of low-rise buildings. What approach should we take?

Our team, including researchers from Yale University in the United States, the universities of Stockholm and Gävle in Sweden, and the University of Aarhus and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, examined a very large amount of source material for our study.

Using machine learning tools, we looked at satellite images of all buildings in Denmark over 30 years (1987-2017). We then classified them into different categories according to their height and density.

We combined the resulting map with individual residential addresses and health and socio-economic records in Denmark. This allowed us to take into account factors known to increase the risk of depression, such as socioeconomic status or parents with a diagnosis of mental illness.

The results show no clear correlation between the impact of dense urban areas on depression. This may be because dense city centers may offer relatively more opportunities for social networking and interaction, which may benefit mental health.

Rural areas also do not seem to increase the risk of mental health problems. Instead, after controlling for socioeconomic factors, the highest risk was found in low-rise and single-family housing suburbs.

Ultimately, multi-story buildings in central locations or in close suburbs with easy access to open spaces – such as green parks or shorelines – had surprisingly low risks.

This means that the type of area at high risk for mental health issues typically includes medium-density, low-rise developments, such as suburban single-family residential areas.

Implications for planning

We believe that the relatively higher risks of depression found in sprawling, low-rise suburbs may be partly due to long car journeys, fewer open public spaces, and a density of residents not high enough to allow many local commercial places where people can congregate, such as shops, cafes and restaurants.

But of course there can also be many other factors.

That’s not to say there aren’t potential benefits to living in the suburbs. Some people may indeed prefer privacy, silence and having their own garden.

A suburban community in Glendale, Arizona. (Avi Waxman/Unsplash)

We hope that this study can serve as a basis for urban planning. The study does not support continued expansion of car-dependent suburban single-family residential areas if planners are to alleviate mental health issues and climate change.

A better option might be to invest in high-rise buildings where lifestyles are not dependent on owning a private car, combined with thoughtful spatial design to increase access to shorelines, canals, lakes or urban parks.

We could also improve the accessibility of existing suburbs to city services and public open spaces, and ensure that there are more walkable neighborhoods in these car-centric areas.

Research shows how social human beings are. A certain level of density is, after all, necessary to create vibrant communities that can accommodate retail, business and public transport while allowing restoration to benefit the open space.

In Copenhagen, people grab a beer or a pastry and hang out with friends along the canal. These areas are on the edge of shopping and nature, which makes for social spaces. City centers also have less of a negative impact on climate change than sprawling, car-centric suburbs.

A bustling riverbank in Copenhagen. (Alessandro Bellone/Unsplash)

Although the study takes into account income and unemployment, it is essential to recognize that housing choices are influenced by socio-economic factors. Waterfront or green properties in city centers are significantly more expensive than houses on the outskirts.

It is therefore essential to take measures to address the inequalities this can cause, such as the creation of mixed housing projects, to ensure that attempts to use urban planning to improve people’s well-being are inclusive and do not contribute to gentrification or the displacement of low-income communities.

We recognize that the conclusions of the study in Denmark may not be directly applicable to all other countries. The socio-environmental factors of mental well-being depend on cultural and geographical contexts. However, the framework developed in this study provides a basis for further research in different parts of the world.

Karen Chen, Donnelley Postdoctoral Fellow in Geography, Yale University and Stephan Barthel, Senior Researcher in Urban Sustainability, Stockholm University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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