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Big cities mess with our mental health, and it’s been known for centuries

The city. A noisy place where people bustling around are too glued to their phones to even look up. You probably have an image of a glorious metropolis pop up in your mind. Or maybe it’s the iconic scene of Anne Hathaway side stepping the streets of a busy New York City in The Devil Wears Prada, the Friends gang cooped up in the confines of the Central Perk coffee shop or even Carrie Bradshaw stylishly clad on the city’s concrete slabs in her Manolo Blahniks and a Dior saddlebag swinging off her shoulder. For me, it’s the array of dancing images to George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ from Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Whatever comes to your mind, there’s a newly-raised problem with it. Allow me to explain.

For decades, psychologists, philosophers, and urban planners have racked their big brains as to why urban environments could be associated with poor mental health. Many viable and well-believed ideas were brought up during this time. Big Think took note of one theory in particular that caught a lot of traction, which states that city dwellers are routinely placed in emotional states that threaten their psychological wellbeing “such as stress, isolation, and uncertainty.”

How all of these things come together to give the apathetic, listless feeling that I’m sure many of you civilians of the citadel are familiar with is not so clear. Some people make the move to the burgs for opportunity, as big cities are often the hubs of job sectors and economic mobility. Others do so to escape horrid and war-torn conditions, poverty, or abuse. And yet, rather than being the cure to all of their problems, the concrete jungle might be the cancer that needs to be cut out, having the adverse effect of making a fragile or sensitive mental state even worse.

Research accumulated by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UDMH) has seemingly confirmed the age-long suspicions: people living in cities are more susceptible to mental illness than their countryside-based counterparts.

Since 2010, documented research—such as that conducted by the Research Department at the Arkin Mental Health Institute in Amsterdam—has shown that people who live in cities are far more likely to experience mental health issues compared to those that reside in more quiet, rural areas. In fact, city individuals are almost 40 per cent more likely to suffer from depression. The same study conducted by Jap Peen, a senior researcher at Arkin, showed a 21 per cent increase in anxiety disorders, along with an increased risk of developing substance abuse disorders.

Not to mention, two separate studies both conducted in 2010 (one observed the rural and urban differences and the prevalence of schizophrenia, and the other a meta-analysis of many different studies looking into the topic) found that urban inhabitants are twice as likely to develop the mental health condition. In other words, all of you countryside dwellers and tech antis may have hit the nail on the head a long time ago since it looks like it might just be countryside-1, city-0.

This is not a new concept either. Introducing Georg Simmel, a German sociologist from the 1800s who had many opinions on why the metropolis is so harmful for its citizens. For Simmel, the city is a place of overstimulation. Think about it, how much goes on during your average commute to work? The city has a unique way of rendering people indifferent to the world around them. For example, the silence and avoidance of eye contact, that all London natives are no stranger to, is habitual to any tube journey. While relationships in smaller towns are characterised by emotions, according to Simmel, the ones made in big cities are purely economic.

Urban living certainly comes with a myriad of additional problems, and I’m aware I have only scratched the surface here. Let’s have a closer look at some of the other reasons behind big city depression.

A blasé, blasé, blur

Something about cities brings out the worst in people regardless of them being native to the concrete jungle or a newcomer with predestined trauma in tow. The world of academia has of course come up with theorisations for why this is the case—because really, why are some city people so horrible? Simmel came up with the answer to that ever-so-elusive ‘why’ and it can be found in—cue drumroll—The Metropolis and Mental Life.

Like most world thinkers, Simmel’s writing comes from his experience with the inner workings of the cruel capitalist cityscape. He grew up in the burgeoning metropolis of Berlin during what is known as ‘la Belle Époque’—a period of history between 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, plagued by the uber rich’s inability to deal with the grim reality of modern life.

But Simmel did not share his contemporaries’ unwavering faith in civilisation. Though others saw society as continuously progressing and improving both scientifically and economically, the sociologist could not shake the feeling that humanity had somewhere along the road taken a wrong turn and was swerving into a messy crash.

The Metropolis and Mental Life aimed to capture the essence of Simmel’s woes—within it he compared the differences of living in a rural village to a big city and explained how different environments shape the psychology of people who live surrounded by them. His main point was simple: city dwellers, because we are overexposed to audiovisual stimuli compared to our countryside counterparts, involuntarily construct psychological walls to our surroundings, which makes life feel less worth living.

Likening the nervous system to an electrical circuit, Simmel proposed that, if overstimulated for a prolonged period, it will run dead. In the same way, the emotionally or intellectually stimulated city dwellers quickly cease to find things that excite them—everything fades into a blur. Simmel defined that feeling using the French word ‘blasé’, which can be translated to ‘jaded’ in English.

In his essay, he wrote, “The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things […] The value of the distinctions between things are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey color.” How lovely.

Money makes the world go round

Because of the muted existence we seem to be stuck in, Simmel also believed that it’s incredibly difficult for city residents to make intimate connections with the people they meet. Consequently, most interactions with others are brief and impersonal, which is completely different to what takes place in villages, where inhabitants are intimately familiar with each other.

And since the ones living in big cities are unable to establish meaningful relationships, in Simmel’s eyes their interactions with society become individualistic and economic—isolated rather than communal. Gone is togetherness.

Big Think writer Tim Brinkhof summarised that “the attempt to remain independent is, of course, a double-edged sword.” The cost of freedom for city dwellers is mental health and wellbeing. Dodging the psychological potholes in the city is just as difficult as avoiding the physical holes in the road.

One wrong step, and you could trip and fall into a ditch of loneliness, purposelessness, or the most troubling of all, apathy. But it’s not all that bad, right? At least we have the night tube… Oh wait, we don’t.

Opinion

Eradicating urban loneliness and isolation, one city at a time

By Yair Oded

We’ve all been there. Coming home after a gruelling workday to an empty apartment. Some of us might be greeted by a roommate we may or may not tolerate, although that does not guarantee we’ll be spared the horror of dozing off to Netflix alone in our room with our tummies full to the brim and a stubborn thirst for human interaction.

Cities now house over 4 billion people across the world, and their density is only expected to increase in the coming decades. Yet while cities offer an ever-expanding range of business, networking, and creative opportunities, they also spawn unmatched feelings of loneliness among its residents. Global co-living developer and operator The Collective offers a tangible solution to urban isolation in a growing number of cities around the world—currently running one successful communal living site in London, with a second due to open in Canary Wharf in September, and one in New York City. The 300-strong team is headquartered across New York, London and Berlin, and has raised more than $850 million to fund its growth across the U.S., U.K and continental Europe.

Founded in 2010 by Reza Merchant, The Collective seeks to create a new landscape of urban living—one that is affordable, sustainable, safe, and integrated. One of The Collective’s primary goals is tackling the isolation prevalent in cities and utilising their facilities and resources in order to foster a growing community of people from diverse backgrounds who interact with one another in various spheres and are engaged with their surroundings.

The urban loneliness pandemic becomes a mental health hazard in a growing number of cities. A report compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that two in ten adults in the U.S. reported loneliness or isolation, with 50 percent of those claiming they had either one close friend or none whatsoever. A different survey by the insurance company Cigna reported that young adults between the ages of 18 to 22 are in fact the loneliest generation, while in London 52 percent of residents feel lonely, according to a 2013 survey by ComRes.

This widespread loneliness results from a confluence of factors. In part, this is a side-effect of our culture and lifestyle, namely our device addiction and workaholism. To a great extent, however, such loneliness is caused by urban planning traditions that perpetuate segregation and thwart social interaction, through the elimination of communal spaces like parks, gardens, and city squares. The Collective strives to eradicate this phenomenon through its unique design, programmes, and events.

Jacob-Schlather

The Collective buildings combine private units and communal spaces, thus encouraging social interaction while maintaining the members’ sense of privacy. Among these are co-working spaces to which members have access 24/7, and where they can merge their career development with networking and socialising opportunities.

“We’ve welcomed members from all walks of life, with each getting much more than just a roof over their head,” Reza Merchant, The Collective’s founder and CEO, told Screen Shot, adding that, “Their shared experiences enrich each other’s lives, whether that be collaborating on work, forming new friendships, falling in love, or just simply hearing different stories over dinner”.

In addition, The Collective hosts various events and workshops at its facilities—from music gigs to coding bootcamp—to which residents can join, often free of charge.

The Collective’s agenda of tackling urban loneliness doesn’t end within the confines of its buildings, however. Through The Collective Foundation, their non-profit arm, the organisation operates and funds outreach and social empowerment missions in urban communities around the world, promoting social equality and engagement, as well as economic opportunities, health, well-being, and sustainability.

“One of our key themes is Social Integration,” The Foundation’s director Andre Damian told Screen Shot, adding that, “The Foundation supports initiatives that create opportunities for people from different backgrounds to meet each other, and that help to break down the barriers that exclude people from participating fully in society”.

Referring to the The Foundation’s effort to uplift The Collective’s surrounding communities and integrate them with the initiative’s residents, Damian stated that, “At our first co-living scheme in Old Oak, West London, we stitched the development into the existing fabric of the neighbourhood and created shared amenities that both our members and local people could enjoy, such as a canalside bar and restaurant and a range of spaces which can be hired out for free. Currently, those spaces are used for a variety of activities for local people, including yoga classes and community meetings”.

Damian adds that, “In the near future, we hope to support initiatives in every city and neighbourhood that The Collective has, or will have a presence in. We will launch volunteering and giving programmes that will allow members to have an opportunity to give back to their community and feel a stronger sense of belonging to it”.

In both the U.K. and the U.S., those most affected by loneliness in cities are low income and marginalised communities, with municipalities repeatedly discriminating against them in resource allocation and funding of communal spaces projects. The Collective has set a mission to tackle this problem by empowering communities that are susceptible to isolation and neglect. “In London we are currently supporting InCommon,” says Damian, “a social enterprise that bridges generational divides and tackles loneliness amongst older people by taking groups of primary school children into retirement homes to learn from their elders. Globally, we’ve supported a Brazilian non-profit that promotes LGBT+ inclusion and a platform in South Africa that brought new mothers together”.

Eradicating urban loneliness and isolation will take drastic shifts in attitude by the residents of communities, the authorities in charge of urban planning and resource allocation, as well as corporations, entrepreneurs, and developers who, through their investment, have enormous power to craft both the physical and social landscape of cities. It is initiatives such as The Collective, however, that do not only raise these issues to the surface, but also provide practical and holistic solutions—showing us that tight-knit urban communities can, and should, become a reality.

This is the third article of a three-part series looking at co-living and what the future of this new trend will hold.