Is living in the city bad for our state of mind?

app picture mechelliMental health problems are more common amongst city dwellers – but why? Is it the stress? The noise? The lack of green spaces? A study involving scientists from King’s College London, architects from J & L Gibbons, artists from Nomad Projects and design experts from the Van Alen Institute, is trying to find out how the urban landscape affects how we feel.

To take part, download their free app, called Urban Mind, which will prompt you at random, seven times a day for seven days, to answer questions about how you feel and where you are. The app gathers geotagging data, and if you choose to you can also upload images and sound files, to give a full sensory picture of your location.

The geotagging – which says where you are – can then be used to compare with existing mapping data to see whether you are in a deprived or affluent area, whether there are many trees or rivers nearby, and even what levels of pollution there are.

Dr Andrea Mechelli, Reader in Early Intervention at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and lead investigator on the project, hopes the app will enable a rich dataset to be collected.

“This has been developed to look at how the built urban evironment affects our mental wellbeing, Dr Mechelli said. “It’s important because within the area of urban planning and design a lot of decisions are made without much scientific evidence. The longterm aim of the study is to design some policy guidelines in this area.”

Dr Mechelli’s usual area of research is psychosis, and he sees the Urban Mind project as highly relevant to mental illness as well as mental wellbeing. Whilst some people may be genetically more vulnerable to developing certain mental illnesses, environmental stress can be a major trigger to make this more likely.

“Although we’re not looking at mental illness directly we’re looking at something that’s related,” said Dr Mechelli. “We’re all on a continuum, some of us tend to be more anxious, some less so… some may have slight psychotic symptoms that are much more common than we tend to think…. By understanding how the general population responds to the environment we’ll also understand how the environment becomes a risk factor. Longer term the study might reveal how the environment may contribute to the development of mental illness.”

Dr Mechelli, who grew up in a small village but now lives in London, thinks living in the city has many effects, socially, physically and culturally. “There are certainly aspects of urban living that are not very healthy but there are also aspects that can be very positive,” he said. “For example social networks, less risk of social isolation.”

Previous studies have shown downsides to urban life, Mechelli explained: “some aspects of city living are not good for us, for example increased sensitivity to stress and increased vulnerability to many mental disorders.”

Whether we find the city exciting or stressful might depend a lot on our individual characteristics, so Urban Mind asks some initial questions about what we are like and where we grew up to try to understand how this interacts with environmental factors.

Mechelli is excited about the project which he described as a “true cross-sector collaboration” between science, architecture and art. Anyone can download Urban Mind and participate, and Mechelli thinks using the app might make us appreciate the effects of our environment more.

To download the app check out the Urban Mind website. Images from the pilot data are available from the project-related Instagram and will be on exhibition at This Public Life – Festival of Landscape Architecture to be held in Melbourne, Australia, 15-18 October 2015.

For more on how where we are affects how we feel try these pieces on whether green spaces make us more creativehow natural light can make us feel more awake and how hospital architecture can make us feel better or worse.

This piece is cross-posted on Huffington Post UK

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