According to a new study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature, the brain structures of urbanites respond differently to stressful conditions than those from rural or suburban areas. The study, conducted by a team from the University of Heidelberg, was undertaken to help explain the greater incidence of schizophrenia in urban dwellers. (The bigger the city, the greater the incidence.) Subjects were given a math test, and as they tried to complete it, were told that they were falling behind and fairing poorly. In subjects who were born and raised in urban areas, this activated areas of the brain, the cingulate cortex and the amygdala, that process emotion, in particular stress. This was not the case for those raised in the country.
So, yes, we urbanites are prone to stress. What the study doesn't explain is why. Is it the physical plant of the city? Do the towers and crammed-in buildings give us anxiety? Is it a lack of "nature"? Is it crappy public transportation systems and traffic jams, trash piled on corners, and too small apartments that cost too much? Or are we allergic to ourselves? Is it not the physical city but all those other people, too close and competing for the same prizes, that drive us all a little insane. Probably all of it.
What, if anything, can architecture and design do to mitigate our stressful lives? Our buildings and cities are becoming more and more sustainable, with more parkland and open space. That's a start. But I suspect that, as much as we can and should do, it will never be enough. Stress is just something we must accept in exchange for the benefits of the city.
What that study doesn't tell us is what parts of the brain are fulfilled by urban living. Also, what parts of the stomach. It's nice to live in a place where you can get a decent chinese meal at two a.m. Anyway, misery loves company.
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