Coping With Urban Stress: Watch Where You Step

You can learn to be aware of the effects of city stresses on your body.

Posted Aug 19, 2013

Over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of working with the BMW-Guggenheim Laboratory, a travelling think-tank that offered lectures, workshops and a variety of participatory programs aimed at making cities work better.

My role in the workings of the lab was to design an experiment that could measure how where we are in a city influences how we feel.  I did this by designing experimental walks during which I used a variety of tools to measure participants’ own assessments of their levels of happiness and excitement, and I was even able to use some specialized hardware to measure their physiological reactions to place in order to compare what their bodies were saying about their feelings as opposed to how they thought they felt. We conducted trials in three cities:  New York, Berlin and Mumbai and, as you can well imagine, the variety of sites and sounds and their accompanying emotional states varied enormously depending on both the kinds of sites that we studied and the local culture, history and politics.  The video below gives a good taste of what we were up to.

The full report on our findings in this experiment has been released recently, and I have to say that I am overwhelmed with the riches contained in our dataset.  But as so many recent discussions in the media and in academia related to city-building have focused on transportation—walking, biking, driving, and public transportation—and how to manage the movement of people from place to place with both efficiency and comfort, I thought I’d focus on just one interesting finding in this post.

 When I arrived in Mumbai, as a complete novice, I was overwhelmed by the chaos of movement patterns unfamiliar to the Western eye.  Mumbai has a fantastic (but at times dangerously crowded) public transportation system, but it also has lots of roads filled with honking cars, trucks, scooters, pedestrians, cattle, and even the occasional elephant.  The video below shows a typical traffic situation--these images taken from the Kala Nagar Junction, one of the more problematic spots in the city both for traffic jams and for safe pedestrian crossings.  If you look carefully, you can see pedestrians scurrying clear of oncoming vehicles--a ubiquitous occurrence on the streets of Mumbai.


For my first day in the city, I cowered in my hotel room wondering how I would ever manage to negotiate this chaos in order to make the one-mile commute to the lab (a short walk which I eventually came to love but which took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour depending on the time of day).  So in setting up my walks in Mumbai, one of the first and most obvious questions that I wanted to ask was how pedestrians felt about crossing roads where traffic never stopped (except during rush-hour gridlock) and where the rule of law seemed to be largely honored in the breach.  To me, it seemed as though what was required to get across a road was a razor-sharp perceptual system that could accurately calculate time-to-collision, a physical aptitude for what I came to think of as something between parkour and experimental dance, and nerves of steel.

 When I did some preliminary digging, I was surprised to hear from many local people that they thought that the traffic was “no big deal” and that you simply “got used to it.”  I wondered if this was actually true.  To test the reactions of local residents to traffic bedlam, I designed a walk so that it led participants directly into the middle of a monstrously complicated 5-way intersection underneath a traffic flyover.  While they stood among the whizzing cars and screaming horns, I gave them smart phones that allowed them to report on their feelings and I also measured a physiological value called ‘skin conductance’ which provides a small window into the operation of the sympathetic nervous system—the part of our extended brain that orchestrates some of the reactions that are important for the ‘fight or flight’ response.

The findings were surprising.  Just as they had told me in their informal statements prior to the walk, participants reported feeling roughly neutral on a happiness scale and somewhat under-aroused.  In contrast, the readings on our skin conductance devices were almost off the charts.  What this interesting dissociation between self-report and physiology suggests to me is that, as the pedestrians of Mumbai struck out across the busy streets, their bodies were mounting impressive fight-or-flight responses, but that they were more or less unaware at a conscious level of what was happening to their bodies.  Mumbai pedestrians may not think that running in front of oncoming trucks is anything of note—in fact it’s what many have to do every day in order to get from home to work and back again—but their nervous systems are probably pumping out stress-related signals—neurotransmitters and hormones—at an impressive rate.

 If this is true in a massively crowded city like Mumbai, where people have every opportunity to adapt to circumstances, then it’s probably true in other places as well.  For all kinds of reasons, cities generate personal stresses, so it’s more than a little alarming to learn that, unless we really stop and listen closely to our bodies (and perhaps even then), we can be oblivious to the churning state of our nervous systems.

So what can we do about this?  How can we become more in tune with the level of arousal that we carry around with us during an average day in a busy city?  It’s possible that, to some extent, by tuning into the signals, becoming aware of the signs of acute stress—the thumping heartbeat, sweaty palms and heavy breathing—we can become more mindful of the influence of place on the state of our minds and bodies.  Assuming that this can be done effectively—and there’s every reason to think that anyone could train themselves to be more in tune with the body’s signals—then it might be possible for us to think more carefully about how and where we go during an ordinary day.  Of course we still have to cross streets, but perhaps we can learn to keep some kind of a longer term tally of our stressful experiences during a day and try to balance them with quieter and more restorative experiences—a shortcut through a small city park and a five minute time-out on a park bench might help, for instance.

For those not inclined to try to practice fuller mindfulness while rushing from an office meeting to a lunch date or from a long afternoon of deadline-chasing to a pick-up deadline at the daycare center, though, technological help is on the way.  There are increasing numbers of apps and gadgets that can be used to monitor long-term heart rate, heart rate variability, movement and activity.  A great deal of this gear is marketed to fitness buffs, but some of it could easily be adapted to daily use by non-athletes who simply want to gain some understanding of how their bodies react to a typical day of life. I could even imagine a clever designer who could come up with something like the “film badges” that are used by workers in places with radioactivity risks.  When our stress levels reach critical thresholds, we could receive warnings reminding us to seek restoration. 

Stress-related illnesses exact a tremendous cost in urban society, both personal and economic.  Understanding how your own body is affected by a day of city life, and knowing how to regulate your own stress, is an important ingredient for a happy, healthy, and comfortable life in a busy and crowded environment.

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About the Author

Colin Ellard, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the author of You Are Here.

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