Are cities bad for your health?

VR can show how humans are adjusting to life in our concrete jungles

an upsidedown skylineOn a crowded urban street corner, a crush of people waits for a pedestrian crossing signal. Above them 20, 30, 60-story concrete and glass skyscrapers block out the sun. Cars made of steel, powered by gasoline, hurtle past. It’s enough to make anyone feel a little uneasy.

As a mental health occupational therapist, Waterloo PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience Robin Mazumder saw first-hand how some of his clients seemed happier in certain built environments — and stressed out in others.

“We need to really understand what city design does to our psychological state,” says Mazumder, who is one of several Waterloo researchers, including supervisor Colin Ellard, in the Urban Realities Lab in the Faculty of Arts.

Mazumder’s research addresses a major gap in the field: empirical evidence about how being surrounded by skyscrapers affects people’s health and anxiety levels.

In the lab, Mazumder immerses study participants in virtual reality cities and 360-degree videos of real urban spaces. He takes to the streets with participants to gauge their response in different environments. Technology allows him to go beyond subjective questionnaires that ask about mood. Wearable devices capture people’s physiological responses to their surroundings — their heart rate, blood pressure and sweat — reactions they might not even be aware of.

Skyscrapers may not pose an immediate threat, but chronic exposure could have long-term effects on our mental, physical and social well-being, says Mazumder. Urban environments of this scope and scale are brand new relative to human history.

“If you’re living 24/7 without seeing the sky, that’s going to have an impact down the road. This research may be able to forecast what affect it will have, and maybe planners can use that to inform what cities will look like in the future,” he says.

Of course, municipalities are not going to stop building skyscrapers anytime soon. But Mazumder believes we may see a resurgence of open public spaces to compensate.

Robin Smiling

“It’s where people connect, it’s where people protest, and it’s where people enjoy recreational activities. Good urban design encourages social connection,” he says. Even small, affordable measures such as shrubs and paint can impact how people feel in an urban space.

Embracing smart city technology helps city designers measure the impact of their design choices and make decisions based on objective evidence. Technology can also engage citizens, gathering input from the diverse voices that make up a community — such as women, people of colour and people with disabilities.

Re-thinking our reliance on automobiles is also crucial. Reducing the number of cars on our streets not only reduces emissions, it frees up parking lots for much-needed housing or open space.

“There are places in China and the Middle East where cities are being built from scratch, and they’re being built without the car in mind,” says Mazumder, an avid cyclist and advocate for better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. “To me, that’s the city of the future.”