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What NeuroUrbanism Teaches us About our Cities

By Andréa de Paiva

How stressed have you felt lately? How many times, when walking on a busy road, have you felt lonely? Or how many times has your heart beaten faster after you get scared by a horn or the siren of an ambulance? Psychologists and neuroscientists have joined forces to understand how great cities can impact the mental health of those who inhabit them. In today's article we will discuss what NeuroUrbanism can teach us about our cities.

Seoul, 2019 (source:
Seoul, 2019 (source:

Several recent studies have proven that the levels of stress are higher in cities than in villages or rural areas. On the other hand, forecasts point that the number of people living in large urban centers will grow at least until 2050, when, according to the UN, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas [1]. This means that in the future there will be more people living in cities, boosting their growth even more. As a consequence, there should be more people suffering with elevated levels of stress. In this case, knowing that life in the city is more stressful is not enough to avoid it. It is necessary to have further understanding about how the body and brain react to the stimuli that our cities provide.

First of all, do you know what stress actually is? Is it always a villain? The answer is: no. Stress is important to the survival of our species. It helped our ancestors to run away from predators or to fight to defend their families from enemy attacks. Stress gives us strengths to fight or flee when facing danger. This kind os stress is known as acute. This means that it happens in a very prompt and intense way, as a response to a threat [2].

Nowadays, our life style generates another kind of stress, the chronic stress. The threat of a tyrant boss, the fear of being robbed on the streets, running against the clock since there is always so much to do, those are factors that help to generate chronic stress. Different from the acute one, that arises promptly and intensely, the chronic one happens in smaller doses and continuously. After all, it is not always easy and fast to free yourself from a tyrant... or to walk fearless on the streets of a violent city.... or to have less appointments during your day.

A hormone that is released in larger amount in the blood flow when we get stressed is cortisol. It has an important role to help us on the fight-or-flight state of acute stress. Among other things, it improves the imune system acting like a natural anti-inflammatory, it helps to control metabolism, memory and the sensation of energy. However, in chronic stress when cortisol is released in higher doses continuously, its effects change. It starts to suppress immune system and memory and to promote the metabolical syndrome and the bones mineral loss [3]. Our body and brain have not been hardwired to live under continuous stress. That is why increased levels of chronic stress are negative to our health.

Yet, we must keep in mind that individuals have different vulnerability levels. This means that the same stress levels will not necessarily affect everyone similarly. Therefore, it is not correct to say that life in big cities can cause sickness. The city interacts with our bodies and brains and can enhance the risks of developing some health problems, such as mental disorders (panic disorder, anxiety, depression) [4]. It is worth mentioning that this is a complex equation and that the environment (physical and social) is only one of the variables that can influence its result. Genetic factors, individual experiences, memories and lifestyle can also alter how a city impacts its citizens.

But, after all, what spatial features of the city can raise stress levels? Architecture was once developed in direct relation to our body, as if it was an extension, similarly to the way birds build their nests considering their body scale. But as time passed by and the new constructions techniques and new aesthetics preferences arose, this important feature got lost. Our buildings nowadays follow the metric scale, with proportions that were designed to save resources and to otimize the space functionality.

The same happened with urban architecture. Huge skyscrapers create enormous shadows and hinder the view of the horizon; the streets' and avenues' width prioritise cars instead of pedestrians; long distances make walking nonviable; the excessive density in the central areas result in overcrowded public spaces and mobility issues; the green of the plants loses its place to the gray of the concrete and asphalt; the large extension added to similar and standardised buildings makes regions lose their identities to the point that we become unable to recognise and orientate ourselves in parts of our own cities. We may need the help of an external device such a GPS to navigate. The city is an extension of a body that we no longer recognise as ours. From the moment that the city stops belonging to us, it starts to be an unknown territory in a certain way. In nature, territoriality is very present among several animals. A familiar territory, usually marked, is a place where the animal can relax because the potential for threats is low. Unknown territories, however, can be a predator's territory. Therefore, the body and the brain prepare to activate the fight-or-flight state in case anything suspicious happens. This means that the levels of stress raise to keep the animal alert enough to notice any important signals. In the case of cities, we live that everyday. Even when circulating around familiar areas, we must always be aware of threats coming from vehicles that run in high speeds through the streets as well as from strangers that are around us.

Thus, to be in the city ceases to be a pleasant experience. Consequently, over time less people occupy public areas. The city is no longer a conviviality space, it has become just a transition space that connects places. You leave your home to go to work and, in order to do that, you transit through the city. You arrange with your friends to have dinner and, once more, to get to the restaurant, the city is used to circulate. What is one of the first images that comes to your mind when you think of a big city? It is usually a street or an avenue, or a mesh of them. The streets and avenues are transition spaces. Their physical disposition indicates that. Generally, they are occupied by cars, leaving only the narrow sidewalks for pedestrians. And these, in turn, even when they have benches, still represent spaces of transit more than of contemplation or socialisation.

Crowded zebra cross

Such transition spaces, on their turn, contribute to a lack of connection. People occupy city spaces only when passing by, without time to stop, to contemplate, to connect with one another. This is why so often people complain about feeling lonely even when surrounded by so many individuals that live in the same crowded city. People barely see each other on the streets since those are only transition spaces and everybody is always in a hurry to get somewhere.

Another issue that adds to this situation is the great concentration of individuals in urbanised areas. Overpopulation can help to raise stress levels. In the 60s there was a study made with rodents that compared their behaviour when they lived in overcrowded cages. The first signs noted were the increase of stress and aggression. Ecologist John B. Calhoun noted that in the overpopulated cages the fight-or-flight options for the animals were reduced to only fight since there was no place to flee to avoid contact with he other animals [5].

But, after all, how can we bypass the actual reality of most of our large cities and make them more humanised spaces? The first step is to understand which are the physical and social features that can impact stress levels. The second step is to inform and communicate. In cigarette packs there is always information about the problems that smoking can cause. People who live in very urbanised areas should be informed similarly about the risks which they are exposed to [4]. The third step is to rethink urban spaces. This one needs more time to happen. Most of the times, urban transformation is not simple: it involves a lot of planning, investments and a change of habits of the population. This is why it is not viable to reconstruct the entire city. Small spaces located in strategic spots should be selected and, in the beginning, only these places should be redesigned and transformed into more humanised ones. They could work as decompression spaces for the population. The selection of such areas should be well distributed over the city's territory, facilitating the access of individuals from any point in the city and offering enough places so that the number of citizens in each area is balanced, avoiding overcrowding. Starting from such spaces, the city can reconnect with its inhabitants, changing from being a transition space to a place with its own identity.

The insights of NeuroUrbanism are many and this article is just the beginning of it. That is why we will soon discuss other issues regarding the subject in other articles so that we can help architects and urban planners to face this challenge.

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