Climate Health

Study finds link between urban design and depression risk

A new study has found that people seeking quite secluded semi-urban dwellings away from the hurly-burly of urban life can find such settings stressful.  It says people living in sprawling residential suburbs are more likely to be depressed than their downtown counterparts.

The researchers say the reason behind the risks of depression found in sprawling, low-rise suburbs “may be partly down to long car commutes, less public open space and not high enough resident density to enable many local commercial places where people can gather together, such as shops, cafes and restaurants”.

“A better option could be to invest in high-rise housing where lifestyles are not dependent on private car ownership, combined with thoughtful spatial design to increase access to shorelines, canals, lakes or urban parks”, the researchers add.


The team, including researchers from Yale University in the US, Stockholm and Gävle Universities in Sweden, and Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, examined satellite images of all buildings in Denmark over 30 years (1987-2017) and classified them into different categories depending on height and density.

The team then combined the results with health and socio-economic registers in Denmark. This allowed them to consider known factors that increase the risk of depression. The results showed no clear correlation that dense inner city areas impact on depression. This may be because dense city centres can provide relatively more opportunities of social networking and interaction – which can benefit mental health.

Earlier studies have shown that people living in dense urban areas with tall buildings, and less sunlight are more susceptible to depression. Statistics across nine European countries and the United States show that depressive disorders are 39% more prevalent in urban than in rural areas. Compared to people born in rural areas, those born in urban areas have a 27% higher risk of developing depressive disorders

There are studies that cover the other spectrum of this argument. It was found in some US cities that denser urban centres revealed lower rates of depression, explained by denser socioeconomic networks in such cities. Other studies of the populations in Nordic countries, however, uncovered higher rates of depression-related hospitalization in densely populated neighbourhoods.

Mental health and city centres

“Higher buildings or denser urban form may benefit mental health through an increased population and opportunities for social interaction”, explains the study.

“Social interactions create a sense of community, reciprocity, and trustworthiness, which are factors positively related to mental well-being and protective against depression.”

This said, city centres often feature dense neighbourhoods with high-rise buildings that “reduce sun exposure and increase local temperature, which are environmental pathways for increased risks of depressive symptoms.”

The researchers say that varying combinations of building heights and the fraction of built-up area compared to open space exist in different arrangements that can lead to the same population density but contribute differently to mental health risks.

All round, “multistory buildings with open space in the vicinity” seem to be the best option in urban areas, according to the study. “The lowest risk [of depression] was among those in rural areas and inner-city areas facing open space.”

Access to open green space and interaction seems to be the two keys to preventing depression and serious mental illness.

“We speculate that the relatively low risk observed in high-rise and low-density areas might be because they create indoor sun exposure and are often situated at the border between areas providing dynamic socio-economic interaction and green space and water bodies enabling psychological restoration”, explains the report.

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