Urban Sanity: Understanding Urban Mental Health Impacts and How to Create Saner, Happier Cities

Urban Sanity: Understanding Urban Mental Health Impacts and How to Create Saner, Happier Cities

This report examines how urban living affects residents’ mental health and happiness, and ways to use this information to create saner and happier cities. Some often-cited studies suggest that urban living increases mental illness and unhappiness, but a critical review indicates that much of this research is incomplete and biased, and the issues are complex, often involving trade-offs between risk factors. City living may increase some forms of psychosis and mood disorders, drug addiction, and some people’s unhappiness, but tends reduce dementia, alcohol abuse and suicide rates, and many people are happier in cities than they would be in smaller communities. This report examines specific mechanisms by which urban living can affect mental health and happiness, and identities practical strategies that communities and individuals can use to increase urban mental health and happiness. This analysis suggests that it is possible to create sane and happy cities.

Key findings

Urban households tend to be smaller and more mobile than in rural areas, which can increase isolation and depression, but urban residents also tend to have larger social networks than in smaller communities, reflecting cities’ greater social opportunities. Urban conditions tend to increase some mental illness risk factors including noise, toxic pollution, crime and social overstimulation, but these impacts are declining or can be reduced with appropriate planning.

The following planning and design strategies can help create saner and happier cities:

  • Targeted social service: Recognize that cities tend to attract people with elevated mental illness risks, and provide appropriate mental health, housing and substance abuse treatment services.
  • Affordability: Improve affordable urban housing and transportation options (walking, cycling, public transit, taxi, etc.) to reduce residents’ financial stress.
  • Independent mobility: Provide independent mobility options for diverse community members, including those who are poor, have disabilities or impairments, adolescents or seniors.
  • Pro-social places: Create public spaces that promote community and encourage positive interactions among residents. Involve residents in creating public places and activities that meet their needs.
  • Community safety: Create communities that minimize dangers including traffic, crime and harassment, and pollution exposure with traffic safety and community security programs, including crime prevention through environmental design.
  • Design for physical activity: Integrate physical activity by providing good walking and cycling conditions, high quality public transit, compact and mixed neighborhoods, local parks and recreational facilities, plus appropriate community sports and recreation programs.
  • Pollution reductions: Implement noise, air, light and toxic pollution reduction programs.
  • Greenspace: Design cities with appropriate greenspaces, including local and regional parks, green infrastructure, and out-of-city wilderness access programs.

The following strategies are particularly important in suburban and rural areas:

  • Rising suburban and rural poverty and substance abuse rates increase the need for appropriate social services, affordable housing and transport options.
  • Because residents are isolated, residents are vulnerable to loneliness and depression, and so require suitable places to socialize, and options for accessing those places.
  • Because some smaller communities can be exclusive and oppressive, they may require targeted programs to include minorities and non-conformists.
  • Because transport systems more automobile-dependent, it is particularly important to improve walking and cycling conditions.
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