By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. The biggest cities—known as megacities—are almost hard to comprehend: Tokyo is the biggest at 37 million people, followed by Dehli at 29 million and Shanghai at 26 million. It’s enough to make the United States’ largest city, New York City at 8.3 million, look quaint.
But with massive growth comes massive problems, and urban planning is becoming an increasingly important field as builders are putting up more and more roads, parks, stadiums, plazas, and—always—skyscrapers. We have to find a way to fit so many people into such a small space while not choking them out, and there is scientific data to show that current urban planning isn’t really cutting it.
The detrimental effects of urban living have long been known, including higher rates of cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease. More recent studies, however, have shown the effect that city life has on mental health.
The risk of developing depression is 20% more likely in urban areas than rural, and the risks of psychosis—the extreme disorders characterized by hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and disorganized thought—is 77% higher. Generalized anxiety disorder comes in at 21% higher.
Epidemiological studies have found that there are a number of factors that lead to all of these medical conditions, all related to urban planning. Chiefly among them is the access to green space, which is increasingly rare in the concrete jungle. High levels of noise and air pollution also play a role in these disorders. And then there are the psychological factors, such as loneliness, fear of crime (whether perceived or real) and social inequality.
But the good news is that good urban planning can mitigate these factors. “The incidence of depression in urban areas is lower when people have access to high quality housing and green spaces,” according to a Fast Company article.
Second, we know that all health, and mental health in particular, is a product of both nature and nurture. Emerging evidence from epigenetics, a field of science that examines how our environment affects our genes, suggests that the impact of urban living depends a great deal on our preexisting genetic makeup.
Third, urban living can have its positives, too. Urban living can bring great benefits to mental health through increased opportunities to healthcare, employment, socialization, and access to specialized care. Moving to the city can be the step that leads to someone fulfilling their dreams, which is great for body and mind.
Either way, modern urban planning courses and continuing education are taking all of these factors into their tool chest. While they can create obstacles, they can also create opportunity.