Big, Grey America

UNO's liberal arts building is a good example of boxy, brutalist architecture. Photo courtesy of

UNO's liberal arts building is a good example of boxy, brutalist architecture. Photo courtesy of

Investigating whether a weakened sense of community or poor urban development came first is yet another case of “the chicken or the egg.” But as urban development plows forward exponentially, it is unquestionable that poor planning and the grey, boxy appearance of unbridled urban sprawl which results from it take a toll on the individual’s psyche.

Twitter user @WrathofGnon describes this phenomenon as “modern dis-urbanism,” which he states “means massive buildings, long block: takes minutes to walk past with nothing to distract or relieve the tedium.”

Consequently, the community as a whole suffers from dullness and disjointedness, lacking common areas such as town squares to gather or meet new people in public settings. Today, the town square has been inadvertently replaced by long stretches of strip malls and vast parking lots. Meanwhile, these poor replacements for community centers offer walkability that spans only the distance from the air-conditioned entrance to the car. The net effect: a grey, paved city that is entirely unwalkable and only suitable for motor-vehicle transportation.

As a matter of fact, a study on almost 430,000 subjects by Chinmoy Sarkar and others in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that hypertension and city walkability are inversely correlated: that is, blood pressure issues decrease as buildings and streets become more pedestrian-friendly. College campuses are similarly pedestrian-friendly, hubs for free social interaction.

One might consider historical districts, sections of cities that are always walkable and buildings that are each unique in kind.” @WrathofGnon calls this city structure an example of “traditional urbanism,” which he says “is a boon for [the] local economy, instantly recognizable and a magnet for tourists.”

This distinction between modern dis-urbanism and traditional urbanism may help explain the effects of the modern brutalist architecture on the human psyche. Said Jonah Lehrer in his Wired article “The Psychology of Nature,” “We’re only beginning to understand how living in dense agglomerations of perfect strangers, surrounded by skyscrapers and concrete, actually affects the brain.”

In general, people in cities have a 21% greater risk of developing anxiety and a whopping 39% greater chance of developing a mood disorder, according to a psychology study published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica by Jaap Peen and others. But this doesn’t mean that suburban societies are off the hook, either: an Newsweek article from 1995 titled “Bye-Bye, Suburban Dream” declared that “Americans mostly live in banal places with the souls of shopping malls, affording nowhere to mingle except traffic jams, nowhere to walk except in the health club.” Of course, this formula also certainly encourages consumerism and increased abuse of the term “retail therapy.”

That is, if cities are grey, busy and stress-inducing; suburbs are simply grey, and where this stress subsides, it leaves a depression. Research done by Lei Wang et al. in an article titled “How are mortality rates affected by population density?” has shown that suicide risk amongst teenagers increases as population density decreases, implying that the decreased social interaction in suburban isolation can also be detrimental. Again, this is isolation forced by lack of community-focused urban planning.

Architect and philosopher Travis Price compares the proliferation of grey, uniform suburban architecture to “a slow-moving [Mt. Vesuvius] blanketing us with the pursuit of loneliness and homogeneity.”

Neighbors are total strangers. The manicured lawns of the labyrinth-like, seemingly endless swathes of suburban subdivisions are somehow devoid of childish play and neighborly chatter.

The Metairie “Artscape” project funded by the Friends of Jefferson the Beautiful organization has attempted to break the suburban monotony by placing vivid metal sculptures along the median on Veterans Blvd. Unfortunately, what wants to be a solution only serves as a brightly colored reminder of this growing problem: urban design, intended to serve the public as a way to organize dwelling, economic and leisure space, has severely fallen out of touch with community needs.

The project, now totaling more than $165,000 in expenses for the Veterans installations alone, has garnered a mixed response from the public. Said commenter Jason Straight,  “…it is sort of an art band-aid on an otherwise nondescript big-box mart, stuck in traffic all day, suburban hell.”

“More trees and landscaping would’ve been a MUCH better use of funds,” commented anonymous user “ourtime.”

Given existing psychological analysis, there is no doubt that increased contact with natural environments reduces stress levels, clears the mind, and improves focus. Indeed, apart from redesigning and rezoning entire city blocks, the public can seek healthy solutions in the forms of nature therapy and increased community involvement.

A plethora of supporting psychiatric studies aside, even the long-lived natural remedies of the East attest to the effectiveness of nature. Shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere,” is a practice developed in Japan in the 1980s to help patients soothe their mind in order to treat other maladies.

According to Price, suburban architecture must regain a stronger connection to nature and to the local culture in order to engage us more vitally. Until then, we will all just have to take more forays out into local parks and countryside.