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Commentary: We Are Where We Live

By Christopher Hume
Network, Summer 2008

Wandering around the communities we have built for ourselves, one could easily conclude they were designed for everything but the people who inhabit them.

Whether we’re talking about the alienating spaces of suburbia or the noisy density of a downtown core, it seems the man-made environment of today is bad for our health. Given that for the first time in the history of humankind, the majority of us now live in cites, this isn’t good news for the species or the planet.

Although many studies have been undertaken in recent years to determine the connection between physical health and the places we live, less work has gone into unraveling the relationship between mental health and living conditions. Yet instinctively we understand that the two are inseparable. This may not be easy for scientists to measure, but who amongst us is unaware of the brutalizing and dehumanizing effects of post–World War II planning, not to mention modernist architecture?

“You are where you live,” says a report prepared last year by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute titled “Healthy Communities: Sustainable Communities.” The document discusses the connection between obesity and suburban sprawl, a much-discussed topic in recent years. Though the authors make it clear that the connection is “not necessarily a direct, causal one,” they argue that in general terms we now live in a world where even that most basic and simple of human activities, walking, has become all but obsolete for growing numbers of North Americans. For example, we are told that until 40 years ago half of kids walked to school. Now that number has dropped to less than 15 percent.

Although many studies have been undertaken in recent years to determine the connection between physical health and the places we live, less work has gone into unraveling the relationship between mental health and living conditions. Yet instinctively we understand that the two are inseparable.”

“Healthy Communities” examines how sprawl — that is, low-density car-based suburbs — also compromises air quality, decreases access to “fresh, healthy and local food,” and encourages vehicular dependency.

Given this, it hardly seems a stretch that living in such conditions could also have adverse psychological effects. Indeed, according to an information series prepared by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, “Sprawl impacts negatively on well-being by eroding social capital, robbing people of all ages of the opportunity to have a balanced, healthy lifestyle, degrading the natural environment, and increasing the stress of commuting, which not only impacts on mental health but also physical health.”

The report also states that, “One particularly harmful impact of urban sprawl is its negative effect on social integrity and mental health.”

Put simply, the physicians argue that sprawl leads to feelings of dislocation, disconnection and isolation. This shouldn’t be surprising given that the basis of suburban planning has always been separation of uses. In other words, one area is designated for residential development, others for commercial, retail, industrial and institutional purposes. This flies in the face of several millennia of city-planning in which diversity, variety, compactness and coherence were valued. Of course, in the pre-automobile world, being able to get where one needed by walking was a considerable advantage. Those who couldn’t were in trouble. All this changed with the advent of the internal combustion engine, though as it turns out, not for the better.

Underlining the irony of sprawl is the fact that for many, especially those with families, it represents an escape from the city, which in the mythologies of both Canada and the U.S., is seen as dirty, diseased, dissolute and dangerous. According to this point-of-view, the suburbs bring us closer to nature, which is uplifting, ennobling and eternal.

The only problem with this is that it isn’t true; since the end of World War II, the growth of suburbia has necessitated the destruction of countless millions of hectares of nature, or at least farmers’ fields.

In tandem with this, commuting has become the shrill subtext of suburban life, one that grows louder and angrier every year.

“Commuting,” the physicians declare, “is associated with more back pain, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, asthma, headaches and self-reported stress. Research also shows that high impedance commuting [when some unpredictable external factor increases travel time] has adverse effects on blood pressure, mood, frustration, tolerance, illness occasions, work absences and overall life satisfaction.”

Cities have their drawbacks, too. A survey of existing scientific literature by Gary Evans of Cornell University says unequivocally that “[t]he built environment has direct and indirect effects on mental health.” Evans focuses on the impact of high-rise residential buildings and substandard housing, both of which, he writes, increase psychological distress.

“Low-income housing areas in London with less access to private gardens have a higher prevalence of depression,” he asserts, “and public housing residents living adjacent to natural outdoor areas report better adjustment to their living environment, feel safer, and have more positive affect than others from the same housing development living near outdoor spaces devoid of nature.”

More than half a century after the advent of modern planning, we are starting to question its influence on mental health. Though enormous damage has been wrought, changes are being made. One of the biggest tasks ahead will be to remake suburbia in the image of a healthy community.”

Perhaps that’s why the idea, if not the reality, of a house in the country, a cottage, villa or get-away has been a fixture of urban life since ancient Rome, if not before.

In the modern city, however, fed by mass media, fear of crime has reached epidemic proportions. Although crime rates in Canada are in decline, urban dwellers are more sensitive to the presence of danger than ever. On the other hand, some would agree with the late Jane Jacobs that we feel safer in the city because of the “eyes upon the street.” As she argues in her seminal volume, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, these eyes belong to the residents, shop-owners, customers and various regulars who frequent neighbourhoods in successful cities. Of course, bad things happen in good cities, but perception is as important a factor as reality in determining attitudes.

On the other hand, for people who live in small towns, the big city is scary and anonymous. Accustomed to an environment where pretty well everyone knows everyone, the prospect of being nameless and faceless seems threatening. At the same time, however, to the cosmopolite, anonymity’s just another word for freedom, one of the most cherished qualities of urban existence.

For these reasons and others, more than half a century after the advent of modern planning, we are starting to question its influence on mental health. Though enormous damage has been wrought, changes are being made. One of the biggest tasks ahead will be to remake suburbia in the image of a healthy community. This process has already started; Mississauga, Ontario, for example, long known as Sprawl City, has drawn up a ground-breaking planning regime that will bring new layers of density to that city, the sixth-largest in Canada. Further east, Markham is reinventing itself as a series of downtown hubs connected by public transit.

The benefits of creating healthy communities seem obvious. Yet as we all know, common sense is anything but common.

“Beyond the more obvious adverse direct effects of poor quality housing and noise on mental health,” says Michelle Gold, CMHA Ontario’s senior director of policy and programs, “research is also investigating the indirect links. As a neighbourhood’s physical environment declines due to dilapidated housing, vandalism and litter, anti-social behaviour often increases in a community, heightening residents’ fear of crime. People are likely to report poor mental health.

“Vulnerability, due to a compromised sense of safety within one’s own neighbourhood, in turn lessens the likelihood that residents will go outside and use public spaces, thereby limiting their physical activity,” states Gold. “Is it any wonder that some people are caught in a web of deteriorating neighbourhoods, poor mental health and increasing chronic conditions? This is both an urban planning issue and an urgent public health matter.”

“We shape our buildings,” said Winston Churchill, “thereafter, they shape us.” The same could be said of our cities and communities. But unlike a building, cities can’t be simply torn down and rebuilt. The damage they do lives on long after the buildings they include have gone.

Christopher Hume is Urban Issues Columnist for the Toronto Star.


What is the “Built Environment”?

The built environment refers to all buildings, spaces and products that have been made or modified by people, and can be contrasted with the natural environment. It also incorporates how activities are arranged and how land is used within communities, and how these things are all physically connected.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the built environment includes:

Community Design: the design of communities and their physical elements (such as streets, parks, or sidewalks), including both their arrangement and appearance.

Land Use: the distribution of activities across space, including the location and density of housing, workplaces, schools, green space, commercial and industrial uses.

Transportation System: the physical infrastructure for roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike paths, railroad tracks and public transportation (buses, subways, light rail).

Human Activity Patterns: physical activity like walking or biking within the physical environment or use of cars, trucks and public transportation.

(Source: Position Statement on the Built Environment, Physical Activity, Heart Disease and Stroke, 2007, www.heartandstroke.ca)


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