It doesn’t take a scholar to explain that city life is stressful – the fast-paced nature of urban environments can rile up even the most zen of city-dwellers. However, one systematic, cross-disciplinary review published in this month’s issue of Environment International suggests strong links between the urban environment and psychological distress. By looking at 304 previously published papers, the researchers behind this study were able to get a big-picture view at the association between urbanization and mental health across various time scales and geographic locations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results were not pretty: depression, anxiety and, often, a mixture of both, was reported over and over, correlating with several urban environmental features.

While many studies examining the relationship between cities and mental health were found by the team who produced ‘A systematic review of the relationship between objective measurements of the urban environment and psychological distress,’ they found that most of them used self-reported measures of psychological distress which of course is problematic and presents many variables. To try and negate this, Cardiff University’s Yi Gong et al focused on 11 papers which presented strong objective measure of what the urban environment is and means, often extracted from GIS information and/or validated and standardized instruments developed to measure the urban environment, such as the UK’s Residential Environment Assessment Tool (REAT) or the Systematic Social Observation (SSO) in the US. It is also important to note that the research looks at psychological distress in terms of depression and anxiety and not “psychiatric conditions classified as severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.”

The final selection of 11 papers studied covered Philadelphia, USA, Talbot County, Wales, King County, USA, Chicago, USA, Little East Havana, USA, Santiago, Chile, and London, UK as well as unspecified towns in Western Australia. “The overall findings suggested that some aspects of the urban environment measured objectively have significant associations with psychological distress. These include, for example, architectural features (such as housing with deck access), the quality of the neighbourhood, the amount of green space, land-use mix, industrial activity and traffic volume,” concludes the report, going on to explain that “effect of the urban environment on psychological distress can operate both through the individual level (e.g. individual’s perceptions), and through ‘neighbourhood effects’.” However, the systematic review recommends that these ‘neighbourhood effects’ be investigated further as only one of the 11 studies looked at this concept independently of individual perceptions.

It is well-known that physical environmental attributes which encourage social behaviour and relaxation are important to negate the physical stressors of everyday life, and such, the absence of physical features such as parks and housing with green space around it was found to be as influential on levels of depression and anxiety as the physical features that exist. “Physical features such as graffiti, rubbish, traffic and hazardous waste sites may act as visual cues and stressors (Weich et al., 2001 and Araya et al., 2007), physical stressors may operate through individual’s perceptions of environment (Mair et al., 2010), whereas the absence of features such as green space may limit stress recovery and reduction of adverse effects of the urban environment (Maas et al., 2009),” reads the study.