Is a Smart City a Healthy City?

In Brainwaves by Avery Robinson1 Comment

Living in a city can be very expensive. At the forefront of this cost is rent (or homeownership).  According to a 2013-2014 English Housing Survey, London tenants paid almost 50% of their net income just for rent. This staggeringly high number is not unique to London. Furthermore, this figure fails to take into account other basic needs—utilities, food, and transportation—which can take another significant piece away from that net income before. This is of course before one can even consider paying off debt, contributing to savings, personal expenses, raising a family, and even buying a home. Simply thinking about this accounting is stressful.

According to recent research (e.g. 2010 meta-analysis by Peen, Schoevers, Beekman, and Dekker; 2011 Lederbogen et al.), there is a strong correlation between urban life and poorer mental health. A 2011 study by Lederbogen et al in Nature looked at the amygdala’s response while completing a task under stress. Comparing their data across residential areas, they concluded urban dwellers are less capable of regulating fear and stress than their peri-urban and rural counterparts. This isn’t to say (or only to say) that traffic jams stress out urbanites more than country folk. Rather, it indicates a lesser ability of city residents to cope with these stressors, thus becoming more agitated with traffic or public transit delays. Furthermore, this study showed a much weaker ability of city dwellers who grew up in cities to cope with negative emotions than those who grew up in more rural areas.

We know nature reduces stress and can make us more effective at certain tasks, yet we are driven to live in cities; more than half of the world’s population is considered urban. And according to researchers, more than two-thirds of people will be in cities by 2050. Meyers-Lindenberg, the director of the Central Institute for Mental Health and author of the Lederbogen et al. study, is interested in understanding why cities “make the brain more susceptible to mental-health conditions,” notably depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. If city life has doubled cases of schizophrenia and other psychoses, as reported in J. Boydell et al. (2003), then what are the factors at play within the design of our urban surroundings? Furthermore, in understanding what is most stressful about cities, researchers hope to (re-)design cities as wellsprings of mental health. Rather than have humanity flea to the countryside en masse (think Beijing “airpocalypse”), cities need to be healthier, safer, and more attuned to the needs of people.

In one promising experiment by Meyers-Lendenberg, smart city technology will be implemented to ask subjects how they feel in specific urban spaces at various times, helping his team better recognize mental health refuges and pitfalls. The smart city, which is receiving criticism for being an outsourcing of responsibility to tech companies, over empathetic, elected individuals, has yet to be fully engaged to help designers make better cities.

Conscious cities argues that smart cities must not be a solution in and of itself. Rem Koolhaas, one of the most significant urbanists and architectural theorists of the last century, is skeptical of the effectiveness of outsourcing city planning to IT companies. He warns, “this transfer of authority has been achieved in a clever way by calling their city smart – and by calling it smart, our city is condemned to being stupid.” Koolhaas, like many architects and urban planners, are concerned that smart cities will deny human actors their agency at the expense of efficiency and marketability.

At their most realised, smart cities are efficient cities: they are better at moving resources and minimising waste. But does this make us happier? Los Angeles, one of the most beleaguered cities for traffic congestion, has recently partnered with Waze, the Google navigation app. With over 1.3 million Waze users, the partnership has allowed drivers to navigate around planned street closures, film shoots, and construction while also encouraging citizen reporting. This is good data; people are sitting in traffic less and are able to share issues (e.g. broken traffic light, graffiti, hit-and-runs, and potholes) with a more reactive municipality. Though the data has not been formally analyzed, friends have shared that this has made their life noticeably less stressful—a win for smart cities? What we need now is proof of where efficiency does have a direct and positive effect wellbeing. If people are getting faster to work and spending more time in their office chairs, who gains – the individual or business?

The Waze solution works in LA because it requires human actors, ensuring that data is constantly updated, challenged, and supported by real people. But this effectiveness should not imply that big data-driven smart cities are the panacea to urban problems, especially mental health issues. Josh Artus, a strategist at The Centric Lab cautions that cities must remain “human-centric,” otherwise we risk living in a machine system lacking empathy, creativity, or responsibility. A city plan that views people as data denies us our humanity. It is also fails to see the value of effective cities, trading in bearable efficiencies for unique urbanity and nuance.

Efficiency at the expense of serendipity tears at the fabric of what draws us to cities. If this becomes the accepted norm, how will we discover novelty? What will draw us to wander the streets or take adventurous detours? Smarter cities must be bottom-up, everyday cities where citizens influence planning. If people are neglected, cities may become as faceless as the data they are redesigned with.  One of the most famous examples of the failure to design for people were the numerous housing projects, notably Pruitt Igoe, designed with (segregated) housing in mind.  These buildings were about efficiency—concentrating housing for many, to clear up slums—and discarded what humans need in order to thrive. Pruitt Igoe failed, in large part, because people did not love it. It was large, faceless, and easily neglected, a clear tragedy of the commons. Residents felt isolated, alienated, and neglected.

We could begin to channel technology to augment where cities are getting it right. In a Berlin TedX Talk, psychiatrist and neuro-urbanist researcher Mazda Adli, noted that cities are not only places of stress. They have notable “urban advantages,” referring to the concentration of services (healthcare, education, transportation), resources (food, utilities), and community. These are not inherently more important than mental health, but for many their value outweighs the mental and financial costs of city living. This is where tech might play an important role – if these affordances become more accessible, lets say through less traffic, efficiency has played a positive role. Smart cities aren’t the solution to our city’s ills – but their strength might be effectively diverted as part of a new set of priorities, one that puts people at the centre of design. That’s where conscious cities comes in.


Image: Matthew Henry