All The Ways The Design of Cities Are Psychologically Damaging

Living in the city may present a litany of problems for people who are unprepared for urban life. Living in a metropolitan area comes with a myriad of external problems unique to city landscapes including dense populations, expensive living costs, and hostile architecture, as well as health risks including an increased chance of depression and anxiety. 

This doesn't mean that living in the country is the answer to your problems. The realities of rural America comes with its own issues, and when choosing where you want to spend your days, you should think about what’s best for you. If, however, you’re aware of the problems that can occur within a city, you can be more prepared to combat them. 


  • City Streets Are Designed For Cars Rather Than Pedestrians

    City Streets Are Designed For Cars Rather Than Pedestrians
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    According to a survey by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in the UK, 85% of respondents say the design of a street can change an individual's mood. If the design of a street is more inviting and friendlier towards the needs of pedestrians, it makes residents feel much better about living in an urban setting.

    However, many cities are not designed to serve the area's livability. Modern cities are designed for cars, not pedestrians. From the city center to the surrounding suburbs, streets are explicitly designed to create systems of transportation and mobility for individual-use cars. Highways and surface streets make it easy for vehicles to travel long distances; however, urban design sometimes hinders the distance residents can travel on foot. 

  • Cities Alter The Body's Ability To Produce And Process Dopamine

    Cities Alter The Body's Ability To Produce And Process Dopamine
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    Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in the brain's reward system. When dopamine is released, it passes signals between the brain's synapses and through the limbic system. According to researchers at Hammersmith Hospital in London, living in a city diminishes dopamine levels in the body, and changes the way that people interact with their surroundings.

    The repeated stress of living in a high-density area combined with social isolation can alter the dopamine system in an unhealthy way, either by producing more than the body needs or far less.

  • Poor Sidewalk Design And Maintenance Discourages Physical Activity

    Poor Sidewalk Design And Maintenance Discourages Physical Activity
    Photo: Dan Logan / Shutterstock.com

    Researchers have found that people who live in more walkable areas exercise more frequently. More notably, a good sidewalk may encourage more people to utilize it more often. People who live near obstructed or uneven paths reportedly engage in less physical activity than those who live near large and well-kept sidewalks. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Public Health shows an association between the conditions of a sidewalk and the neighborhood's poverty level: impoverished neighborhoods often have poorly maintained paths.

    Through this lack of maintenance, cities inadvertently encourage lower rates of physical activity and exercise, primarily in lower income areas. 

  • Certain Architecture Keeps People Away From Public Areas

    Certain Architecture Keeps People Away From Public Areas
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    Hostile architecture is characterized by designs that are impractical or uncomfortable. Among other things, the purpose of such architecture is to prevent loitering and restrict social interaction. It also minimizes interaction with localized wildlife. For example, in some suburban neighborhoods, large spikes are installed on tree branches to prevent birds from perching. Some complaints about the unappealing appearance of these spikes focus on how children may be prevented from climbing those trees as a result.

    Architect James Furzer questioned this style of design in an interview with CNN, saying it discourages socialization in public places:

    Is it really a bad thing that you're encouraging people to hang around those spaces? Is that not what architecture and design are about? If we designed a building where people didn't want to stay for too long, because it's... uncomfortable, have we succeeded in our jobs as architects? I don't think so.

  • Living In A City Causes People To Perceive More External Stimuli As Perilous

    Living In A City Causes People To Perceive More External Stimuli As Perilous
    Photo: Alexander Image / Shutterstock.com

    People deal with stress differently depending on where they live. According to a study by Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and his team at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, the amygdala, the part of the brain that assesses warnings and fear, works overtime for people living in the city. In other words, those who grew up in urban areas develop overactive amygdalas that suggest more stimuli in the brain is perceived as a potentially harmful matter. 

    Furthermore, Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg and his team found the brain scans of people who live in the country show far less activity in their amygdalas. Though this does not definitively prove cities are bad for mental health, it does suggest those who live in urban areas are generally more stressed.

  • High-Rise Environments Have A Negative Impact On A Person's Mental Health 

    High-Rise Environments Have A Negative Impact On A Person's Mental Health 
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    Studies have shown people living at the top of large apartment buildings experience higher levels of stress than those who live outside of high-rise environments. According to Layla McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, the design of the buildings and living space are to blame for the negative impact on mental health, not just the high density, because the design inhibits social interaction and does not provide green spaces for residents.