Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rapid Urbanization and Mental Health

China's urbanization is fast and agressive. Too fast?
The city is eating hungrily into the hillsides, swallowing up maize fields and rice terraces in loops of tarmac and towers of concrete and glass. But the pace of change is so rapid, the transition so sharp, that its citizens are increasingly bewildered by their surroundings. Some, like the migrant workers building the roads, are new to city life. Others no longer recognise their hometown as it sprawls across the land.

This is the year China finally became an urban nation. In April the census revealed that 49.7% of its 1.34bn population was living in cities, compared with around a fifth as economic reforms got off the ground in 1982. By now, China's urbanites outnumber their country cousins. "The process they have been going through over three decades took four or five decades in Japan and [South] Korea and 100 years in the west," says Edward Leman, whose Chreod consultancy has advised numerous Chinese cities on development.

By 2025, one study suggests, 350 million more people will have moved to cities; more than the population of the US. Five years later the urban population will top 1 billion. There will be 221 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants; Europe currently has 35. The number of new skyscrapers could equate to 10 New York cities. The impact will be felt worldwide: in prices for commodities such as steel and copper, and in greenhouse gas emissions.
China becomes an urban nation at breakneck speed (Guardian)

Fascinating throughout. And then there's this:
"Of course urbanisation is good for China – but not this kind of urbanisation," warns Prof Tao Ran, a land issues expert at Renmin University.

Tao is also sceptical about the government's promotion of distributed urbanisation, with smaller cities spread throughout the country, arguing that in reality migrants will continue to be attracted to megacities.

Many others support Beijing's strategy, but question its implementation.

"Some of the plans look good on paper, but in reality the rush to build is creating cities that will have to be completely rethought in 20 years' time as expectations, aspirations and sustainability imperatives change," warns James of the Global Cities Institute. China risks wiping out older cultures and building dreary cities, he says; it is covering landscapes in one generation, but with consequences for the foreseeable future. Others worry about the safety standards of so much rushed construction.
But we must ask ourselves, what is the toll on our mental and physical health:
City living has many virtues that have been extolled on this website, including some health benefits. Yet researchers say living in a city increases the risk of developing a mental disorder, including depression and schizophrenia. Recent research by McGill University scientists maps out regions of the brain where urban dwelling study participants showed signs of increased stress, stimulated by city living. The scientists' findings, published in Nature, may lead to discussions and strategies on how to improve both the mental health and quality of life of city dwellers.

Previous studies have shown that risk for anxiety disorders is 21% higher for people from the city, who also have a 39% increase for mood disorders. Experts also say the incidence of schizophrenia among those who are born and raised in cities is double that of people born and raised in non-urban areas. These numbers are a cause for concern.

Director of McGill University's Centre for Studies in Aging in Montreal, Jens Pruessner, co-author of the Nature study, said the study is the first to show that two distinct brain regions that regulate emotion and stress are affected by city living. Research showed that urban upbringing and city living have impacts on stress processing in humans and that these impacts could continue long after one has left the city.
Is Living In A City Making You Crazy? (Treehugger)

This would certainly explain exploding rates of metal illness and other physical ailments arund the world (due to increased sedentism, pollution and poor sanitation). I'm not a detractor of cities by a long shot, but I think there is a difference between urban areas of the type I live in, and the metatasized concrete jungles of anonymous filing cabinets for citizens surrounded by filthy shantytowns for the poor of the type we're seeing around the world. A city with a reasonable density, walakable amenities, green space, good architecture, public transportation, modern utilites and sanitation, cultural venues, artwork, social gathering places and business hubs can be a wonderful place, but it needs careful, thoughtful planning and design. Christopher Alexander, as always, has a lot of intelligent things to say about this.

In my mind, I fantasize about a country that would intentionally develop itself along the principles he laid out, and what that could be like. I also wonder what would happen if instead of throwing up tower blocks, China decided to grow and expand at the local, neighborhood level, in keeping with the bottom-up socialist ideals they have since buried in shallow grave and replaced with technocratic management designed to enrich the elites. I also daydream about what would happen if China built solar oriented cities along the lines of the work of Ralph Knowles, as descibed so well in this article by Low Tech Magazine, rather than just turning over planning to Western firms to toss up towering glass shards surrounded by greenery to make portfolio pieces. Oh well, fantasy, I guess.

Related: China's 4 Most Wasteful Infrastructure Projects of 2012 and Beijing's Olympic Ruins (The Atlantic Cities)


  1. "A city with a reasonable density, walakable amenities, green space, good architecture, public transportation, modern utilites and sanitation, cultural venues, artwork, social gathering places and business hubs can be a wonderful place, but it needs careful, thoughtful planning and design."

    Hm. And how will you accomplish that without plundering the hinterlands?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.