by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition, and Honorary Chair, Quiet American Skies
As an environmental psychologist for many years, I was not surprised to read a recent article in Popular Science that said urban living impacts on our mental health. In the book “An Introduction to Environmental Psychology” (1974), the authors Ittelson, Proshansky, et al. write about “The Pathological City.” In that chapter, the authors cite a 1969 U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare report that notes while only 2% of the country’s population suffers from mental illness, “estimates for concentrated urban populations run as high as 10 percent.” Air and noise pollution were cited as urban stressors.
The years that followed have only strengthened the link between the stressors in the urban environment and the adverse effects they have on the mental and physical health of the city’s residents. Thus, it was good to read Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg’s quote in the article, saying that “a key part of improving our collective mental health will be making our cities more livable.”
In reviewing the literature, Meyer-Lindenberg and his associate Matilda van den Bosch found that “heavy metals like lead, pesticides, common chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), and noise pollution may contribute to depression.” They also report that poor air quality has been associated with depression, anxiety, and psychotic experiences as well. While they go on to say thar the Clean Air Act in the United States may have resulted in reducing many common pollutants, they believe the levels achieved are not yet “safe.” Furthermore, individuals living in poor communities are even more vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of environmental pollutants. By contrast, those communities that expose dwellers to natural sounds and green surroundings are providing them with “nourishment” for better mental health.’
While research on the adverse effects of noise pollution and other environmental hazards can be traced back to the 1960s, one should point out, as the article does, that more recent research has attempted to identify the parts of the brain that are affected by environmental stressors. The article argues for more research in this direction, but also suggests that noise should be “muffled” now, and that we should “inject greenery into our cities.” I say “Amen” to that.