Prof Colin Ellard was walking past the rows of new-build towers that dominate the west of central Toronto when he had a sudden realisation. “I was struck by how dark, sombre and sad these new urban canyons made me feel,” he says.
Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada who studies the impact of places on the brain and body, wanted to know why he felt like that – and if others felt the same.
His curiosity ultimately led him to conduct a series of virtual reality experiments in which he asked people to wear specialised headsets and stroll through a variety of urban environments created to test their responses. The findings, he says, proved he was not alone. Being surrounded by tall buildings produces a “substantial” negative impact on mood.
If proven, Ellard’s theory adds weight to existing studies finding a negative effect of high-rises on the mental health of city residents. With both government policy and the potential for greater profits driving high-density construction in cities around the world, this raises an important question for the development industry.
City dwellers have a 40% increased risk of depression and double the rate of schizophrenia, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. Ellard’s idea is that the moment to moment bad feelings he observed in the virtual reality environment can affect everyday interactions in the real world and people’s experience of living in cities. …
This all appears to cut against the urban planning orthodoxy that a certain level of density – around 30-50 homes per hectare – is necessary to make lively communities that are able to support shops, businesses and public transport. This idea is the reason the government endorsed higher density development close to transport links in February’s housing white paper. …
The question is how to build densely without these negative repercussions. “The villain isn’t density itself, it’s insensitive design,” says Layla McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. “It’s about how you design in things that are protective to people’s mental health – green spaces and opportunities for social interaction.”
Some have concluded there is a density “sweet spot” (pdf) that gives the benefits of sustainable city living without the mental health costs. Proponents of mid-rise development such as that found in European cities like Vienna and Barcelona, for example, argue for buildings constructed to heights of up to eight storeys within mixed use neighbourhoods where residential buildings sit alongside shops, offices and other work spaces.