Last month we took a day trip to Boston to see the Hermione, a breathtaking replica of the frigate that carried General Lafayette to our shores in 1780. Having previously lived in both Boston and New York, I was relatively unphased by the jarring sounds of the subway and the onslaught of sights and smells. But our kids clung to us, and my spouse–her own eyes made wider by each jostle of the train–remarked that we looked like “hayseeds in the big city”. My son said to me later, “I don’t think I ever want to go on a subway again.”
In 2011, the world population became majority city-dwellers, and by 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. There are certainly many benefits to living in town. We are able to do all our errands on foot. And when I had newborns, I could strap the screaming little bundle to me and head into town for company and good coffee. Even before my first child was born, I sensed how it important it would be for me to avoid being housebound.
Although solidly in Generation X, my decision to live right in town is in line with the decisions that Millennials tend to make in regard to settlement patterns and transportation. They appear to be shunning cars and embracing other means of transportation at higher rates than their parents or grandparents. Emily Badger, writing for The Washington Post, reports that even if we account for the depressed economy, household income, and student loan debt, Millennials still drive less. They are more likely to use mass transit, to walk, or ride a bicycle to work. This could potentially have a huge impact on how we rethink transportation systems in the future, as well as our complicated love affair with the automobile.
It’s wonderful that living right in a town–or in a city–can greatly reduce our carbon footprint. And there are ancillary benefits related to learning how to coexist peacefully in close proximity to others. But there is also a serious potential downside to urban living. Studies show that city dwelling can have a devastating impact on mental health. City dwellers have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders than those who live outside of urban areas. Yet, there may be a fairly simple antidote that could help relieve the stress of living in compact, bustling centers. New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds recently reported that a pair of new studies indicate that walking in nature has marked, positive effects on the brain.
Gregory Bratman, a graduate researcher at Stanford, had previously shown through his research that participants who walked for 50 minutes in a quiet, natural setting were more attentive and happier afterwards than those who’d walked near traffic. Bratman’s latest study focused specifically on the act of brooding–negative ruminations or “broken record fretting”–that city dwellers are more prone to than non-urban residents. Bratman discovered that a 90-minute walk in nature led to a significant decrease in brooding behavior and a decrease in blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex–that portion of the brain associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety. In essence, a walk in nature changed people’s minds.
As we continue to push for smarter, more compact settlement patterns, it will be imperative that we continue to preserve green space to alleviate the unintended stress of these decisions. We also must insure that residents of more densely populated areas have easy access to places in which we can collect our thoughts and nurture positive feelings about ourselves–and our neighbors.