This article was published in the recent Academy of Urbanism Journal (Autumn 2015) . It was prompted by a slight concern that The Academy of Urbanism, because it believes in cities, can sometime fall into the trap of assuming that there is no problem that a good city can’t solve. This year’s Academy Congress was in Birmingham and focussed on health and wellbeing. The assumption throughout was that cities are good for us from the presentations by public health experts and urbanists to the keynote by Charles Montgomery author of Happy City.
I happen to believe that cities are good for us, but we do sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that all good things point in the same direction. I believe in promoting health and happiness, I am committed to social justice, and am concerned that we need to do more to address sustainability, while also believing in the importance of cities. I therefore assume that urbanism is good for all these things and that that the ideal sustainable city that we discussed in Bristol last year is remarkably similar to the healthy city that we discussed in Birmingham. This is lazy, complacent thinking. It was not so long ago that cities were seen as the cause of all of these problems rather than the solution.
Last year I was asked to give a presentation on the ‘Mentally Healthy City’ to a large group of council officer in Leeds, half of whom were health professionals and half from the built environment. I was at the disadvantage that most of the people in the room knew more about the subject than I did. However at URBED we had been working with igloo to incorporate health, happiness and wellbeing into their footprint policy1 and so we had been thinking about these issues and trying to disentangle some of the assumptions that lie behind the debate about mental health and urban life.
The parable of the lost mining community
I started the presentation with the story of Arkwright Town in Derbyshire that we wrote about in our book back in 1999[i]. This mining village of tightly packed terraced houses was condemned in 1988 because of methane seeping into the properties. The residents were given free reign to design their new homes on a nearby site and inevitably built a suburban housing estate. The sociologist Gerda Speller undertook a long-term study of the community[ii] and her work has been widely referenced, particularly in a recent report on social sustainability by the Young Foundation[iii].
She found that, while people loved their new homes – the space, low heating bills, and gardens, they couldn’t work out what had happened to the village’s community spirit, and why they could no longer support a local shop or a pub. Suburban homes and cul-de-sacs it would seem are not good for community wellbeing. However the real message of the parable is that there is a difference between what makes you happy in your home and what is good for your community. Ask people what would make them happy and it is not the city they want, the opposite in fact, they want open spaces and gardens, roads with no traffic, semi detached homes and neighbours who are a bit like them. Do we think that they are wrong to want these things?
The human zoo
Much of the research into the subject suggests that the city is in fact bad for our wellbeing. A colleague of mine came across Desmond Morris’s book the ‘Human Zoo’[iv] written in 1969 as a follow up to his book the ‘Naked Ape’. In this he suggested that humans spent tens of thousands of years living in small hunter-gatherer groups of around 60 people, each occupying an area of about 20 square miles. Today there are cities where the same territory houses 6 million people – something that he calls the Human zoo. He suggests that humans in cities exhibit similar behaviour traits to animals in zoos, obsessive behaviour, violence, sexual perversion etc… He does however step back from the brink by suggesting that actually humans have adapted remarkably well to cities and the levels of aberrant behaviour is far less than you might expect.
John Calhoun[v] was less positive about the effects of living in cities. He spent much of his career building a series of large cages that he called ‘heavens‘. These were supplied with plentiful water and into them he placed small colonies of mice. The early days of each colony were good, and the mice did what mice do in such circumstances so that the colony grew rapidly. However there always came a point when overcrowding caused order to break down despite food and water remaining plentiful. The mice started to exhibit all of the aberrant behavior predicted by Morris. My particular favourite group were the dissolute youth, mice who started sleeping for most of the day, causing trouble and rejecting the life of the colony etc… Eventually mice society breaks down completely causing the birth rate to crash and numbers to fall. However signiﬁcantly the colony remains dysfunctional and never recovers even when the population falls. Calhoun called this the ‘behavioural sink’, which is where we get the term ‘sink estate’. He believed that the same was true of human society and that inner city problems were the inevitable result of intense urbanisation.
Modern academic research generally doesn’t go this far. However the research community is far from united in believing that cities are good for us. Tim Townsend from Newcastle[vi] has been researching the impact of cities on the heath of children. He has shown unsurprisingly that that noise, lack of greenery and air pollution are all really bad for us as well as what he calls ‘toxic high streets’ full of betting shops, pawn brokers, tanning salons and takeaways. The issue is whether the response to this is to make a better city, free from these evils, or to escape the city altogether.
The suburban jungle
There is also a body of research about the damaging effects of suburbia on mental and physical health. This started as far back as the 1950s with the studies of Levittown[vii], one of the iconic early mass suburbs in the United States. Researchers found that the isolation and lack of community in these large early suburbs was also pretty bad for mental health – in the UK this is what became known as the New Town Blues. Researchers found that increased levels depression were linked to the loss of community and family support as people lived isolated lives in suburbs lacking community life or local facilities (or even a bus route to get to these things).
This idea was developed by Robert Putnan[viii]. In his book ‘Bowling Alone’ he describes how Americans used to belong to bowling clubs whereas now they bowl in small groups of two or three. He documents the decline in all sorts of collective activity from scout troops to political activity and sports clubs to map the atomisation of western society. In his congress presentation Charles Montgomery started to pull these strands together to suggest that living communally in diverse mixed use urban areas is better for our soul than living separately in atomised suburbs. It’s not the noise and the oppression of crowds that is bad for us, we are social creatures and crave human company over greenery and solitude. Desmond Moris thought that, like breeding colonies of sea birds, humans were intellectually stimulated by massing in large numbers.
Hedonistic super monkeys
A number of commentators have developed the idea that our nature is determined by our origins as social apes. Jan Gehl[ix] suggests that humans are walking, talking monkeys, who feel nervous in large spaces because we can’t distinguish friend or foe more than 100m away. We have large active brains and get bored easily so need stimulation every 20 seconds. Given that we walk at around at 4miles an hour we require stimulation every 10m which is why we respond well to traditional urban places and hate modernist environments.
Jamie Anderson[x] who used to work for URBED, became interested in the subject of happiness, going on to do a PHD in the subject at the Martin Centre in Cambridge, however before that he did an article for our own journal Urban Scrawl[xi]. In this he points out that our origins as apes mean that we are not very good at being happy. We are programmed for pleasure seeking as part of our evolutionary nature and while this inbuilt hedonism may explain our success as super apes, it also lies behind many of our weaknesses. There are two problems that mean that we are prone to being disappointed. The first is that we are tuned to negatives. You can walk down a street for ten years and never have any problems but if you are mugged just once that negative will change forever your attitude towards that street and maybe the whole city – We take good things for granted and notice only the problems. The second problem is ‘hedonistic adaption’ which means that when something good happens it makes us happy for a short time, then we get used to it and it becomes the new normal. I noticed this a few years ago when I made the mistake of taking two teenage boys to by a television. The monster that we brought home felt like a cinema for a few weeks but in a surprisingly short period of time felt just the same as the old TV. This is why reported levels of happiness and wellbeing do not improve over time despite huge improvements in our quality of life and indeed our cities.
So what sort of city should we be building?
So many articles extol us to consider wellbeing and mental health when planning our cities. But what are we supposed to do? Despite our view that cities are good for us, it is the case that most of the research and guidance in this area is decidedly anti-urban. We are told that to improve wellbeing we should be reducing densities, noise and congestion while increasing the amount of open space generally creating far more greenery. Indeed the theory of biophillia suggests that as a species that grew up in forests we are programmed to respond positively to greenery. The problem is that these are the same issues that drove the planners of the 1960s and 70s to depopulate cities and to build suburbs and new towns. This takes us back to the parable of Arkwright – in addressing people’s immediate needs we risk undermining their quality of life in the wider community.
The New Economics Foundation’s recipe for wellbeing[xii] is based on five issues: The ability to Connect with family, friends and the wider community; opportunities to Be Active, in terms of physical exercise; the propensity to Take Notice and be curious; the desire to Keep Learning and the chance to Give, to do something nice for a friend or indeed a stranger. This ‘five a day’ recipe for wellbeing has been widely accepted by health professionals, but its impact on the way we plan cities is difficult to pin down. Sure, we can say that the ‘keep active’ heading means more parks, sports facilities as well as opportunities for walking and cycling. But what of connecting, noticing, learning and giving? Certainly Jan Gehl’s city with a stimuli every 20 seconds is going to be better than a modernist housing estate (or indeed an empty field). However it seems that the key message is that mental wellbeing depends on interaction with other people. Of course the anonymity of city crowds can be as isolating and lonely as any rural area, even in very good cities. What we need to focus on is the creation of urban neighbourhoods and communities where human interactions are fostered.
Which brings us back to The Young Foundation report on Social Sustainabiliy[xiii]. This defines social sustainability as: “A process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.” The report paints a practical picture of what such a neighbourhood might be like. This includes social infrastructure to bring the community together, both physical spaces and voluntary organisations. It relates to the community life of the neighbourhood, the extent to people have contact with others, the life of the street, communal areas etc… It includes the extent to which people have control over their lives and their community and finally in relates to the quality of the physical environment. In the case of the latter the suggestion is not that one type of environment is better than another, but that environments need to be flexible and responsive to community needs and controllable in part by local people.
So is the city good for us?
Well yes and no. We need to be careful of the easy assumptions that say cities are good for wellbeing and sustainably. For some people even very good cities are not good for their wellbeing and bad cities are certainly terrible for everyone’s health. The wellbeing agenda is not a flag that we can wave to say that cities are better than suburbs or rural areas. It is a tool that we should use to make cities better. The suggestions of the Young Foundation may apply to the village and suburb as much as they do the city, however they still provide importance guidance for those of us involved in the planning of urban areas.
[i] Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood: Building the 21st Century Home – David Rudlin and Nicholas Falk, Routledge 2009
[ii] A Community in Transition: The Relationship Between Spatial Change and Identity – Gerda M Speller and Evanthia Lyons, SPERI, Department of Psychology, University of Surrey
[iii] – Design for Social Sustainability: A Framework for creating thriving new communities – Young Foundation, 2012
[iv] The Human Zoo – Desmond Morris, The Literary Guild (1969)
[v] Population density and social pathology – Calhoun JB, Scientific American 206: 139-48, Feb 1962
[vi] Exploring the relationship between prevalence of overweight and obesity in 10-11 year olds and the outdoor physical environment, North East England –Tim Townshend, Director of Planning and Urban Design, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University
[vii] Community in History: Levittown and the Decline of a Postwar American Dream: A sociological perspective on the 50-year-old faded American “suburban legend” – Chad M. Kimmel, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
[viii] Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community – Robert D. Putnam, Simon & Schuster, 2000
[ix] Cities for People, Jan Gehl, Island Press 2010
[xiii] See iii