Impact on Wellbeing

As the connections between cities deepen through trade, internet connectivity, and aviation, so does their wealth. But despite this progress, people feel less happy than ever before. 


One reason is our increasingly fraught relationship to technology. Our concentration is collectively stolen by the very devices and technology that has led to our wealth creation. Around the world, people feel less focused, have less time, and feel more isolated. Instant gratification and the illusion of speed facilitated by the internet has left us without the ability to wander and let our minds drift. We have lost serendipity in so many aspects of our lives that people crave the ability to go ‘off the grid.’ We are starting to see the effects of excessive screen time on young peoples’ brain structure and function, which leads to moodiness, attention deficit and poor impulse control.[1]

We have mythologized the “city that never sleeps,” yet research shows that noise, lack of nature and light pollution increase stress levels, cause anxiety, fuel depression and bring on insomnia. The prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders is 38% higher among urban residents.[2]At the same time, the disappearance of public spaces[3]and the profusion of dense, vertical residential housing drive us inside and make us less likely to know our neighbours.[4]

Minority populations including the elderly and people with disabilities are particularly at risk from efficiency-driven, technocratic urbanism. Among senior citizens in Vancouver, Canada, 20% say they do not know their neighbours well enough to ask for help.[5]To combat loneliness in cities, some senior citizens are turning to a life of crime. In Japan’s female prisons, 9 in 10 senior women are serving sentences for petty shoplifting. Prison is seen as a less stressful, more social environment.[6]

Young children are also affected by our productivity-driven urban design decisions. Children are excluded from the physical space and the social networks of their neighbourhood. Public spaces for outdoor play have declined by 90% since the 1970s.[7]For many children, the only “safe place” to play is inside - often in front of a digital screen. 

Urbanists are keenly aware of the pernicious effects of technology and the built environment on individuals and society as a whole. The connection between unhappy, exhausted, and weary individuals and the urban environment is a fundamental concern of modern urban planning. The drive for more human-centric paradigms in urbanism is a response to our dire state of mind. 

In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery highlights other elements of happiness such as having a sense of belonging and comfort. He argues that visionary urban planners, mayors, and engineers can engender happiness through urbanism. It is already happening, as he notes: “There have been victories in thousands of neighbourhoods where people have challenged the written and unwritten rules of how we move, live, and share space. Whether it’s hauling furniture onto the street, staging neighbourhood car-free days, tearing down the fences between their yards, turning metered parking stalls into miniature parks, or planting guerrilla gardens under cover of night, urban activists are taking design – and their future – into their own hands.”

This assessment might be an extreme attempt at reforming the urban environment to engender happiness, but the point is that the city affords residents, authorities, and planners the canvas from which we can create a happy place. Urbanism might not be the sole contributing factor for increasing levels of anxiety, isolation, and obesity but it can certainly help fight it.

[1] Dunckley, Victoria. “Gray matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain” Psychology Today, 27/2/2014.

[2] Peen J, Schoevers RA, Beekman AT, Dekker J. “The Current Status of Urban-Rural Differences in Psychiatric Disorders”
Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 10/6/2009.

[3] Monbiot, George. “Children in our towns and cities are being robbed of safe spaces to play.” The Guardian, 6/1/2015.

[4] Baldea, Maja & Dumitrescu, Cristian. Contemporary High-Density Housing. Social and Architectural Implications. 2013

[5] Elmer, Eddy. Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Senior in Vancouver: Strategies for Reduction and Prevention. A report to the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health, May 2018, Social Isolation and Loneliness AmongSeniors in Vancouver

[6] Fukada, Shiho. “Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women” Bloomberg. 16/3/2018, 

[7] Monbiot, George. “Children in our towns and cities are being robbed of safe spaces to play.” The Guardian, 6/1/2015.