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Mental Health in Smart Cities

From periphery to the core of the future urban planning


Not so long ago, we wrote how the city’s layout influences the economic success of the city. The way the streets are arranged and connected, has a very profound effect on many aspects of human life.

Having this in mind, we must ask ourselves about the health. How does the city influence our health?


City and health

If you are concerned with the answer, well – there is certainly a reason for that.  Number of studies show the direct link between the urban planning and the poor health. From the early days of the professional urban planning, there has been a concern with the public hygiene, sometimes taking up the form of obsession and a real violence. Today, however, scientists are seeing health risks differently. A modern way of living is now the source of a problem. For example, living in certain areas of the city can increase person’s risk of obesity, due to the reduced physical activity.  The findings like this have inspired a number of contemporary redesigns and upgrades, to make the city healthier.

In fact, smart cities are all about that. Providing clean water, taking a better care of the waste, making more space for pedestrians and investing in cycling paths, fighting the air pollution… We could go on and on. Just take a look at the European Union’s list for healthier cities. Smart cities definitely promise to take care of the people.

And while this all sounds good, we cannot help to think that there is something missing.

Urban planners seem to focus too much on the physical health.


Urban life and mental disorders

Yet, it is no secret that the city life is stressful. It is fast, noisy, expensive and just demanding. People often feel the need to take a rest from this life, to escape it for a while. Any psychologist would confirm that these are common feelings. The researchers are starting to understand why. They found out that, when compared to those living in rural areas, urban dwellers are prone to psychiatric problems, ranging from mood disorders to long-lasting anxiety.

The growth of the city seems to only promote this.  The more complex a city is, the more problems it brings. Not because sensitive people are moving into the city (this thesis has been strongly dismissed a while ago), but because there is something about the urban life that puts people at a greater risk for developing mental problems. City’s fabric might be again a good clue.

The psychical characteristics of the city are feeding the problem. Things like the heat, noise, artificial light are affecting us. Constant exposure to irritation causes discomfort. In addition, the lack of natural environment seems to correlate with lower cognitive function. Constant fatigue, lack of concentration, and stress are urban phenomena. High housing density, streets and concrete sideways, glass buildings – all of that creates a particular urban environment, in which there is not a lot of space for relaxing benefits of the nature.



Urban planning recognizes the problem

Coming back to the mentioned urban layout, some neighbourhoods are poorly connected, often with limited access to food, educational institutions or work places. It is not hard to see that the physical isolation corresponds to the social one. Insecurity, felt as a result of this, is playing into increasing rates of crime, discrimination and poverty. The overall health of the individual is very much shaped by the living space.

Thus, the modern urban planning must recognize this.

The organization of the city can have far bigger and personal consequences, than people are realizing. Still, just as Jason Byrne, Associate Professor of Environmental Planning at Griffith University, writes: we cannot blame planners for causing the health issues of the population. Yet, he continues, they do have the power and skills to improve the urban living conditions. This is why the smart city initiatives are often about the health of the citizens. Some of them have recognized the importance of the mental health and are trying to tackle that specific issue.


Smart city’s promise

For many smart cities, the human health is a priority, which is starting to be seen as a holistic: it includes body and mind of a person. This reasoning can is visible behind plans for more green areas, lowering the levels of urban noise and promotion of open society. Future cities are imagined as places of wellbeing, where the quality of life is high and citizens are well connected.

The innovative technology is now directed towards dealing with mental disorders. Big data concentrating in the cities is leading the understanding of psychological needs and problems. There are some incredible initiatives informed by science and a wish to take care of wellbeing of those around us. One of such ideas is the HealthRhythm: using the smartphones and wearable devices to measure behaviour rhythms. Employing the nonintrusive ways, they offer an easy method for identifying and monitoring everyone’s psychological state. Along with other factors, initiatives as such are changing the status and a perception of mental health. Instead of being a source of stigma, mental problems are now an argument for smart solutions and assistance. Just as in the smart healthcare in general, the emphasis is on the prevention.


Efficiency vs. happiness

Does this all mean we can, eventually, prevent the health problems? Will smart cities be mental disorder – free?

Not quite so. At least, not directly.

The smart cities are about sustainability and effectiveness. We have a right to be optimistic about this, as there are real solutions that could truly make our futures easier. Cities are hubs for technology that promises a lot. However, things like connectives, efficiency, big analytics, predicting behaviour, and rational energy consumption do not guarantee a good mental state of the citizens. They do not automatically solve deep social issues or eliminate individual risks.

In other words, efficiency does not equal the happiness of the citizens.

If the focus on actual people who are using the technology is lost, cities cannot hope to secure the quality of life. There is no point in installing smart devices and investing greatly in technical development, if the solutions are made only for the citizens, and not with them.

As Avery Robinson says in his article written for  Conscious Cities:

Smarter cities must be bottom-up, everyday cities where citizens influence planning.

This is something to remember. Urban planning is a powerful tool, but it cannot achieve actual improvements, if done outside the touch with the people. That means that the urban planning can be successful only when it helps creating the city where people feel good at.


You can take a part in building such a city. Share your ideas in the comments bellow and contact us if you need any help in your projects!

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