We Need to Design Less Stressful Cities

This is why so many people like me are leaving New York City.

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Dec 4 2017, 4:00pm

This is not fun. Image: Glugalug/Wikimedia

On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.


New Yorkers have expressed a love/hate relationship with their city countless times over the centuries, but one of my favorite examples is the 30 Rock episode "Cleveland." As Tina Fey's Liz Lemon deliberates on whether to abandon NYC and move to Ohio with her boyfriend, she extols New York's cultural virtues, calling it the "capital of the world." Then, a random guy spits directly into her mouth and changes everything. "Let's go to Cleveland," she chokes out.

It's relatable, because major urban centers like NYC hock figurative loogies into the mouths of their residents all the time. Cities are awash in human anxiety: Rent is high, streets are crowded, job competition is intense, and silence is a rare commodity. The flipside, of course, is that dense population hubs buzz with creativity, opportunity, cosmopolitanism, and convenience. Plus inner cities are more environmentally sustainable than suburbs.

Given the recent flood of essays from writers announcing their exodus from NYC, which have been compiled into anthologies and satirized on McSweeney's, it's clear the stress is getting the best of many New Yorkers. More people are currently leaving the NYC metropolitan area than any other urban center in the United States, according to the New York Post.

I'm one of them, and you're trapped in my "goodbye NYC" essay now.

After 11 years in the city, my husband and I decided to move upstate to Ithaca, New York—in part because we were worried about compromising our mental health. I took this "stress screener", hosted by the nonprofit Mental Health America in March, when I still resided in Queens, and felt like my environment was vampirically sucking the life out of me. Not surprisingly, the screener, which asked about my eating, sleeping, exercise, and work habits, informed me that I "could be doing better."

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In September, after a few months in Ithaca, I retook the test to see if my stress levels had changed in my new, wilderness-adjacent habitat. Lo and behold, I ascended to the hallowed status of being in "good shape."

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Of course, this isn't the most scientific exercise, as self-diagnosing is not that reliable. But it's no secret that city life has negative implications for mental health, like the burnout I experienced in my final year in NYC. "Our brains are not well designed for living in the dense and overcrowded metropolises of our world," said Mazda Adli, author of Stress and the City, during a TEDxBerlin Talk about urban mental health.

"It's been known for a while in medicine that some of the major psychiatric diseases are more frequent in cities," Adli continued. "That does not mean that city living drives us mad or causes mental problems. It means that city living interacts with our brains and possibly interacts with psychological, genetic, or social risk factors."

This is increasingly important: City dwellers are estimated to jump from 54 to 66 percent of the global population by 2050, so it is an opportune moment to figure out how to keep this growing urbanite demographic sane.

Scientists have been aware of the correlation between urban habitats and increased mental health risks since at least the 1960s, an era in which about one-third of the world population lived in cities (this ratio will reverse in the coming decades). Compared to their countryside counterparts, city dwellers are 21 percent more likely to develop anxiety-related conditions, 39 percent more likely to develop mood disorders, and twice as likely to suffer from schizophrenia, according to a 2011 study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the University of Heidelberg's Central Institute of Mental Health.

By scanning the brains of 55 healthy volunteers while giving them negative verbal feedback, Meyer-Lindenberg and his colleagues showed that city residents responded to social stress with greater activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that generates emotions like fear, relative to subjects who lived in rural regions.

The amygdala. Image: Ann L. Myers/Wikimedia

This suggests that urban brains are primed to be more sensitive to stress compared with country brains, which could help explain the higher incidence of certain mental health conditions in metropolitan areas. (I reached out to Meyer-Lindenberg, but he declined to comment on this article citing a busy schedule).

As stress scientists often note, there are upsides to city life that can mitigate urban psychological risks, such as better access to education, employment, and health resources. And stress is, in itself, not always a bad thing. One reason that I originally moved from Vancouver, BC, to Brooklyn in 2006 is because I craved more stress in my life. I wanted to live in a place that would kick my ass a bit more, somewhere that would push me to meet new people and school me as a writer.

But despite the city's many gifts, it eventually began to bring me down. By the end of my time in NYC, I almost exclusively blamed the city for my emotional exhaustion. It's a valid charge in some ways, because it is objectively more difficult for New Yorkers to prosper these days. More NYC residents are becoming homeless. Rents are rising twice as rapidly as wages. The subway system is in a state of disarray. Large swaths of the metro region may be literally underwater within the century.

And this year NYC felt, to me, like a potent bellwether of America's ugly identity crisis over its values and obligations, a characterization that was only heightened by two iconic New Yorkers dominating the 2016 presidential election. I felt like the city was collapsing under its own weight, like a dying star, and that it would take us all down with it.

With 23 years in NYC between us, my husband and I left this summer. The decision didn't feel like a conscious move to Ithaca, so much as it was an escape from New York. We settled on the town because it is so rich in natural beauty—or "gorges" in local pun parlance—and it has a thriving arts and science scene. Renting is cheaper and less competitive than NYC, so it didn't take long to make back the moving costs. It also felt reassuringly Homeric to be seeking solace in a place named after the final destination of The Odyssey.

I felt like the city was collapsing under its own weight, like a dying star

After years of peering out at busy streets from apartment windows, I have a balcony that overlooks a lake flanked by waterfalls and forests. I'm getting pretty good at reading the body language of deer. And on clear nights, the stars shine bright thanks to the mercifully low light pollution from the town.

A month ago, I happened upon Porchfest, an annual celebration that got started in Ithaca, in which dozens of bands play hourlong sets on their front yards and porches. Of course, NYC has an amazing music scene, but there was a comforting casualness here that feels unique to towns like Ithaca.

If the city was a much-needed kick to my ass, escaping it is a much-needed balm for my brain. But I often think about the people who want to leave cities, but don't have the opportunity—either because of job opportunities, family, or the infrastructure the city provides. Which leaves us with the trillion-dollar question for the future: Can our cities be reimagined as less of a stressfest for their residents?

Many scientists have suggested isolated fixes, such as increasing access to parks, or reducing the social isolation of underserved groups. But this intersection of neuroscience and urban planning, or "neuro-urbanism" as Adli calls it, is an extremely young discipline, and it will take much more scientific research and political will to refine it into a field that can deliver substantive results for city folk.

The author. Image: Becky Ferreira

Until then, the options for urbanites are more or less the same as they've always been—grin and bear it, or GTFO. But ultimately, we Earthlings, urban and rural alike, must appreciate the role of our habitats in our psychological well-being, and work toward exorcising public stress risks from our communities for social, economic, and moral reasons.

The pressures of city life are embedded in millennia-old tales, like Aesop's classic fable of the town and country mouse, and these ancient themes are all the more relevant in our rapidly urbanizing world.

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