City vs. Suburbs: Surprising Research Settles Mental Health Debate


| LAST UPDATE 06/01/2023

By Stanley Wickens
city suburb mental health
Karl Hendon via Getty Images

The debate over which is the better option for mental health, city or suburbs, has been ongoing for years. A new study may have finally provided an answer.

Researchers from Sweden, Denmark, and the US used machine learning tools to examine satellite images of buildings in Denmark over 30 years and combined them with individual residential addresses, health, and socio-economic registers. The results showed that people in the suburbs are more likely to be depressed than those living in city centers. The highest risk was found in low-rise and single-family housing suburbs, which may be partly due to long car commutes, less public open space, and not enough resident density to enable many local commercial places where people can gather together. The study's findings suggest that investing in high-rise housing and thoughtful spatial design to increase access to open spaces could be a better option than continuing the expansion of car-dependent, suburban single-family housing areas. The importance of social interaction and a certain level of density to create lively communities that can support shops, businesses, and public transport while also allowing restoration with the benefit of open space were highlighted.

NYC city social life
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The researchers hope that their study will be used as a basis for urban planning. They suggest that planners should avoid the continued expansion of car-dependent, suburban single-family housing areas if they want to mitigate mental health issues and climate change. A better option could be to invest in high-rise housing where lifestyles are not dependent on private car ownership, combined with thoughtful spatial design to increase access to shorelines, canals, lakes, or urban parks. Improving existing suburbs' accessibility to both urban services and public open spaces, and creating more walkable neighborhoods in these car-centered areas, could also help.

The study's findings may not be directly applicable to all other countries, but the framework developed provides a foundation for further research in different parts of the world. While there are potential benefits to living in the suburbs, such as privacy and silence, this study suggests that the relative higher risks of depression found in sprawling, low-rise suburbs may be partly due to a lack of social interaction and entertainment options. Urban planning that prioritizes accessibility, social interaction, and thoughtful spatial design could help reduce depression risks and improve the quality of life for all.

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