It’s Not the City — It’s the Cars

A world built for automobiles is stressful

Antonia Malchik

--

Crowded pedestrian crossing, people walking toward and away from the viewer. Backdrop of shop corner and wide city sidewalk. Looks cold and a bit windy — people are wearing hats and scarves.
Photo: Vlad Hilitanu / Unsplash

There’s an intersection in my small Montana town that is an absolute nightmare. It’s where a busy highway crawls into downtown and makes a hard 90-degree bend. All four incoming roads coming into the intersection have a left- and/or right-turn lane. Trying to cross this intersection as a pedestrian or cyclist from any direction feels — and is — risky, every single time. And not only is it in the middle of a compact, walkable tourist town with a lot of pedestrian traffic during the summer, this particular intersection is directly in front of the middle school. It’s the main route home, to the playground, and to after-school activities for many kids.

It feels so dangerous — and is so dangerous — that many kids, including my own, simply refuse to use it, taking a longer route with less traffic and a crossing guard farther up the road.

When I came across a Psychology Today article declaring that urban settings aren’t necessarily more exhausting than natural ones, I thought instantly of this intersection. Not to be too damning either of the article (which came with a lot of caveats) or the study it was based on, but the whole premise is absurd. In order to gauge stress levels, the researchers had participants come to a controlled environment and walk toward pictures of cities. The lack of stress reaction led them to conclude that cities aren’t inherently more stressful than nature:

“A recent study by Daria Burtan and colleagues at the University of Bristol challenges the notion that urban environments are inherently more draining than natural ones. According to Burtan’s findings, how taxed we are by our surroundings has less to do with whether they’re man-made and more with how much we like where we are or what we’re looking at.”

Ample research has shown increased frustration, attention drain, and stress with walking in cities versus walking in nature. Studies have found that visiting green spaces improves mental health outcomes, and that living near green spaces decreases aggressive behavior among teens.

But more than that, this study neglects one of the most significant factors contributing to the stress of walking in cities, which is the sheer number, size, and danger of…

--

--

Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; walking, tech, community, and embodiment.