Does Hyperdensity Pose a Risk to Mental Health?

Words by Joey Gardiner

Colin Ellard, director of the Urban Realities Laboratory at Waterloo University in Ontario, uses virtual reality environments to test the negative impact of dense environments on mood. His tests have revealed that one key to triggering negative feelings is the amount of visible open sky, and that people also react against environments they can’t easily navigate.

Ellard thinks physical density may prompt more negative interactions with other people — a key risk factor in psychological illness. This has implications for the greater incidence of mental health problems in cities, which cannot be explained away by  demographic and social factors. “Even when you take all of those other factors into account,” he says, “there still seems to be a suggestion that there’s something else that’s happening to people in cities. When people are in these very dense environments that increase negative emotion … it can also impact upon how we get along with each other.”

As well as the impact of streetscapes, Ellard also cites research showing that people tend to be more emotionally negative if they live on higher floors, because of the relative lack of encounters they have with their neighbours. He does not claim to have found a maximum urban density or building height, but says that there is enough evidence to urge caution around high-rise. “If there’s another way to build it, we’d probably be wise to consider it. What are we getting from high-rise that we couldn’t get from mid-rise?”

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