Even a simple affair such as finding a parking spot turns into a violent argument

An internationally-reputed science journal, Nature, recently carried an article titled ‘Stress and city – urban decay’. Quoting mental health scientists across the world and relying on two key studies done in Germany and the Netherlands, the article reported that urban life is stressful and can potentially affect mental health.

The studies pointed out that city life is challenging and it never lets one switch off the stress response. This leads to “over-responsiveness” and makes city-dwellers “more prone to psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia”. Those “people who are already at risk” are particularly vulnerable, it concluded.

Many in Chennai may agree that life is stressful in the city. Even a simple affair such as finding a parking spot turns into a violent argument. Everyday negotiation of traffic becomes torturous, economic disparities intimidate, pollution levels impact health-related anxiety and, an alienating environment produced by cardboard architecture isolates some further. Our crowded, hermetically-sealed apartments are not soothing either.

Many would offer more anecdotes to confirm the link between urban living and mental health, and narrate incidents from every day urban life that either depress or raise blood pressure. Sceptics though would want to dismiss such studies as another anti-urban rhetoric.

In the 19th century, neurologists animatedly talked about neurasthenia — a nervous exhaustion caused by urban conditions and the mental excitation it caused. The cure, they promised was in creating beautiful places with “angels at home” and art work. In retrospect, these diagnoses appear a bit over the top and entangled in gendered notions about society. We have gone past the early urbanisation phase.

However, sceptics would be wrong to say that all is well with Chennai, and urban and rural lives are the same when it comes to engaging with their respective built environments. It would be unwise to think cities must be abandoned for a return to pastoral life. The answer is neither in resigning to the fact that urbanisation is inevitable or in enduring the agony.

The step forward is to see how to improve the city qualitatively and quantitatively. Part of the answer is in what mental health specialists are exploring next. Their focus now is on identifying parts of the city environment that are stressful and parts that are rewarding. Through a range of technological and communication devices, experts are interacting with citizens in real time and otherwise to find out how they live, react and respond to open spaces, overcrowded areas, and clogged traffic junctions. Cities are concerned about the wellness of their citizens.

How does Chennai figure? Low planning standards, poor implementation of norms, unwillingness to address problems and a lackadaisical approach are what characterise the present state of affairs. Poor planning is the main flaw. Assets in this city are either gifts of nature or products of history; hardly anything has been created through design. Institutions in the city have low capacities and are far from any kind of serious research or review. Most citizen complaints are hardly followed through. Good life is available only to those who can afford it. Markets insulate the rich through gated communities and produce an oasis of good living, forgetting that getting to the islands of peace could be unnerving.

Even without empirical evidence, it should dawn upon developers and city managers that good city planning and governance has a direct bearing on the quality of life. The bottom line is to build, care and interact with city communities. No one would want to lose out on the advantages of this special city, which is compact, manageable and has true potential.

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