Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Empty the Cities

In many recent discussion I have stated, half jokingly and half seriously that we should all collectively declare urbanism a failed experiment, and move back to the country to reform our farming based communities of ages past. Cities, which form the incubation hot-bed of new ideas and culture, are also farms of consumption, waste, and destruction of ecology, life, and spirit. Of course this is a gross over-simplification of a vast problem that does not lie just within the limits of our "great" cities, but as a boiled down synthesis, it will have to do.

Just today I saw an article that further fuels the fire of fleeing urbanism. This article in the Boston Globe, How the city hurts your brain, is a commentated collection of psychological and behavioral studies done on individuals after being exposed to nature of urban environments.

Because the article is long, and many of us live in urban environments and therefore have limited attention spans, I shall pull out some of the more pertinent points of the article.

"Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control."

Limited memory abilities and limited self-control? Sounds just about right from my experience here in Chicago and previous experiences living in other major metropolis centers like Mexico City.

"In a study published last month, Berman outfitted undergraduates at the University of Michigan with GPS receivers. Some of the students took a stroll in an arboretum, while others walked around the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor.

The subjects were then run through a battery of psychological tests. People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory, which involved repeating a series of numbers backwards. In fact, just glancing at a photograph of urban scenes led to measurable impairments, at least when compared with pictures of nature."

And for the ADHD child thriving in your skin...

"This also helps explain why, according to several studies, children with attention-deficit disorder have fewer symptoms in natural settings. When surrounded by trees and animals, they are less likely to have behavioral problems and are better able to focus on a particular task."

For my college age friends still all-nighting their way through papers and test preparation...

"When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the brain within minutes. As the Berman study demonstrates, just looking at a natural scene can lead to higher scores on tests of attention and memory. While people have searched high and low for ways to improve cognitive performance, from doping themselves with Red Bull to redesigning the layout of offices, it appears that few of these treatments are as effective as simply taking a walk in a natural place."

Jess and I both know how much nature impacts us for the better, but I think I always thought that the negative side of the city was just because it lacked nature, not because the very essence of the city was damaging to the psyche.



cory said...

you're so right! i was just listening to a story on NPR a couple weeks ago about those who live in small cities with access to green spaces are vastly more healthy than those in large cities. but suburbanites and rural folks were less healthy than big-city dwellers.

get on the bus kids, we're driving to Schenectady and Utica!

Rachel said...

I'm in, although I will make a strong case for the tropical rural areas. Or just warm areas in general.

Indian Lake Papa said...

The solution is very simple - do what papa did in 2007 - I bought a horse - Amos. From April through November I ride! Yeah, it is the best - and I am good at it as well !! HEH HEH!!

jmcdonald said...

things that make you go "hmmmm." i've been thinking a little bit about how the feminization of nature has contributed to both positive and negative responses towards women. so then what do i do with the fact that the urban scene (with its masculine overtones) effects memory function and self-control?