This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography.  The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.

Since 2007 more than half the world’s population lives in towns and cities. Hyper-urbanisation may only be two hundred years old, but its acceleration is staggering; by 2050 twice as many of us as today (almost 7 billion people) will be piled on top of each other in dense metropolises.

How does the urban environment affect our well-being? The answer can be considered by exploring some of the phenomena that cause these psychosocial changes: population density, overstimulation, privatisation of space, and alienation. Understanding the nature of these effects provides us with a foundation for projects that can ameliorate, or continue to improve, city life.

Cities are well known as magnets of creativity and design, the facilitators and incubators of the ideas that create our modern world, as well as being microcosms of that world. But cities are paradoxical: the wealth of opportunities, and improved access to resources that they offer compete with negative, and seemingly counterintuitive, effects. One such effect is the feeling of powerlessness in relation to how the city works. This sensation can manifest itself in numerous ways: as dissatisfaction, loneliness, frustration and aggression.

Cities alienate us from what Karl Marx called our species-essence or species-being (Gattungswesen). This estrangement is from ourselves, from our ability consciously to shape the world around us, to labour on nature to satisfy our needs, and to act in communality with others. The city however works at a supra-natural rhythm to the tune of Neo-liberalism and individual attainment. In order to be efficient this system is mechanistic and it can feel like we have become its living appendages. Being tiny cogs in huge machines is alienating because we don’t have a say in how it organises us. We conform to it, for instance, we did not choose to have the functions of living separated by such a distance from the functions of working.

But the city’s beauty is its access and concentration of practically every part of human experience. Sometimes so much so I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice now available. Jean Paul Sartre described this feeling in his work on existentialism. He proposed that modern man suffers under the weight of possibility. This is no longer the preserve of privileged city kids but a phenomenon that stretches across the entire human spectrum.  It is engendered by individualisation so epitomised by city living. We are encouraged to feel the world as ‘our oyster’ but choosing which oyster from the plethora on offer can make that decision much harder, and the responsibility we bear now that the choices we make are truly our own is greater. This adds greater intensity to feelings of anxiety should our choice be one we fail at. In the city we are confronted with and have more access to the often befuddling wonderment of options modernity serves us.

Doubtless at some point in an urbanite’s city life we are overcome with the maelstrom of stimuli. This is often the result of cognitive overload. Research undertaken by Professor Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg in Germany shows the neurological differences between city dwellers and their rural counterparts when they encounter stressful situations. Despite greater exposure to the ‘stressing conditions’ of cities, urbanites still excrete higher releases of stress-related hormones. You’d think that coping mechanisms would be more attuned but the contrary seems to be true. His results point towards an issue of over-stimulation as our mental machinery doesn’t get a chance to relax or replenish itself.

Overcrowding then can be harmful to our mental state. During the ethologist John B. Calhoun’s famous mice studies on density, which have been used as an animal model of societal collapse, he coined the term ‘behavioural sink’. Overcrowding was associated with not only increased aggression but symptoms including stress, alienation, hostility, and sexual perversion. Obviously it would be facile to suppose that this is why these exist in cities but it is interesting to note this effect at a lower level of consciousness. He also found that newer generations of the young were inhibited because space was already socially defined. As population increased each animal became less aware of others around it despite being closer together. The mice became ‘anonymised’ to each other.

The anonymity of a city is its natural by-product and also one of its charms despite how intense it can sometimes be. Rubbing shoulders (and sometimes odours) with strangers in tightly packed spaces is a detrimental experience, for most. But one of the defining elements in our experience of the city is through its public areas. In Boris Johnson’s ‘manifesto for public space’ he writes that “there is a growing trend towards the private management of publicly accessible space” and that where this ‘corporatisation’ occurs, “Londoners can feel themselves excluded from parts of their own city”. This exclusion can restrict our chances to interact; losing an important forum that allows us to build a civility between each other.

Corporatisation however, is one way of alleviating local councils of responsibility for these places. Unfortunately, there is often a loss in local character that is replaced by sterile and meaningless corporate design, the new south London ‘runway’ for light aircrafts that has been developed over Windrush square in Brixton is one example. More often than is noticed we may be enjoying what seems like a public space – there is easy access, it is open air but as we start to acclimatise we start to see security cameras and restriction signs for arbitrary actions. This brings to mind Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1787) and Foucault’s modern interpretation of it as surveillance culture in his ‘technologies of punishment’ (1977). This type of authoritarian architecture has deep psychological implications: it’s hard not to internalise the dominant power structure and modify our behaviour because someone else may be watching. If these spaces are no longer truly ‘public’, crucially, their access can be restricted. This has a serious implication as it limits the scope of citizens to be spontaneous, and, more worryingly, negates one of democracy’s fundamental principles: the freedom of assembly.

So what are the mitigating features that are being developed to override such psychological effects? Apart from more participatory forms of public control over aspects such as urban planning and an increased awareness of the emotional effects unsympathetic architecture has on our psyche, one as yet not fully realised answer is sustainability. A sustainable future is not just about becoming environmentally sound but also about being a more efficient and cohesive race. It’s important to see ourselves as part of the entire biosphere, not as differentiated, abstracted beings carving their own piece out.

Identity must be extended past tribal, religious and national ties to enliven empathy around the globe. To essentially re-humanise, after losing touch within the machine, and re-affirm basic values that at the moment are at odds with the modern ones of wealth and overwork. We are starting to appreciate the near-sightedness of Capitalism’s thirst for resources to fuel exponential growth and the produce-and-consume culture. We are starting to change the dominant channel of human progress from competition towards cooperation. This is encapsulated by localising and downscaling. This doesn’t mean moving out of the cities to reclaim the fields (just yet!) but working with our neighbours, and cultivating local areas ourselves so they can sustain us. This can reverse the ‘artificialisng’ nature of cities as we return to the earth and physically working together. That’s not to say that currently we populate the city as atomised bubbles obscured from everyone, but that in order to cultivate sustainability it’s a good idea to start with the people with which we live in proximity.

Ecologically friendly cities are paramount. According to the United States department, buildings currently consume 40% of the world’s energy and produce 40% of Co2 emissions (U.S Energy Information administration). To change this, an array of individuals, from architects to social entrepreneurs, have been working to come up with ideas and strategies. There are moves towards eco districts employing multi-use and infill development, green infrastructure, soil and carbon sequestration and pollinator pathways – these many people see this as the answer to better city living. But how will it have an effect on our mental state?

Increasing the responsibility people feel for the parts of the city they interact with, such as their local areas and places of work, can counter the feeling of powerlessness as we start to shape the world around us. Experience of frustration and alienation can lessen as we begin to see in the material world, the product of our labour. This counteracts the sometimes anomalous feeling of ‘what’s it all for’ when our efforts in the office are a small part of larger, unseen processes.

‘Transition culture’ is a community ethos about dealing with the end of our dependence on cheap oil. They started as a grassroots organisation whose ideas have spread globally. Based on the techniques of permaculture it seeks to teach communities how to transform their public spaces into food beds. One of the strengths of this movement is encouraging the re-establishment of strong local networks. It’s not about feeling safe that you have a social group you can have a drink with, but feeling safe that should our lengthy food supply chains break we have cultivated a resilience to survive. So far local groups have developed edible landscapes such as tow paths full of veg and transformed dreary roundabouts, which the community manages without assistance from central government.

Even though this movement started in small, relatively rural towns it has spread to mega  cities such as London and Chicago as small communities within these seek not only a sustainable future but also to invigorate and sense of civic duty and communality with each other outside of their established and geographically scattered social circles. As a result there has been a large rise in community gardens popping up in disused areas of the city as my experience in Berlin showed. I came across a place called Prinzessinnengärten. Their brand of ‘agricultura urbana’ is unique because the group did not know how long they would be able to occupy their piece of land. Coupled with the health risks of growing directly in the soil from the high levels of lead left over from the war they developed a transportable organic vegetable plot. This way they could use soil that was safe and be able to move it all in a few van loads. The ‘nomadic’ nature of this innovation has meant they can set up a vegetable plot practically anywhere and they have started rolling out office schemes to those who have access to roof space. This way office workers can tend to their own small plot and have a fresh supply of food at close proximity. This has positive effects on stress levels because it is not only a physical counterpart to an otherwise sedentary day but the experience of ‘growing your own’ is deeply gratifying in a primal way.

Cities are essentially giant networks; they are the sum of our interactions, we are responsible for the shape these networks take. Currently the conditions we agree to live by in cities can cause unpleasant psychological effects. But humanity and urbanity is experiencing an age of transition. Issues such as global warming and rising prices for resources, especially oil and our dependence on petroleum-based products have meant we have to rethink the current human narrative. Being the conscious arbiters of reality each in our own small way we can determine whether cities are part of the problem or part of the solution. Our relationship to each other and the city writ large creates our shared social reality and defines our communality by our use of public space. Making these places meaningful can alleviate the sometimes detrimental psychosocial effects of hyper-urbanisation.

Illustration by John Mcloughlin

The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine. A further article from the magazine on the topic of urban living and the free choice that we have in its environment can be found here