The Stress Of City Life

The pull of the cities now has much of the world’s population living in close proximity to their neighbors. The exodus by the jaundiced few barely makes a dent in the drift. The advantages of urban life are many and obvious, but the planners and architects often overlook the disadvantages.

Schnell et al decided to take another look at the current “comfort level” in urban living (1). The attached micro-sensors and questionnaires to 36 young, healthy university students and set them loose in Tel Aviv for a year.

 Tel Aviv can be hot and humid, but cold in the winter. The students took this in their stride. The city noise level was a bigger stressor but not one that gave them a lot of trouble. The air pollution, carbon monoxide was measured  and was at a level that they didn’t notice, so for example when they went from a busy street into a building or into a park, they weren’t aware of a comfort level change.

The big stressor was “social load” which means crowding with people with loud voices. I can get behind that. If you’ve been stuck in close proximity with a several people using their cell phones you will certainly have felt the high social load as they all raise their voices to talk into the phones as the microphones are nowhere near their mouths and everyone else turns up their volume to make themselves heard.

At a party, after half an hour of drinking, it’s usual for the volume to have shifted up by 20 decibels or so, but in a pedestrian area it’s not good. Even the ubiquitous earbuds with the iPods don’t shut it out unless the volume is turned up to damaging levels. Quiet cities would be wonderful; electric cars and polite people is clearly the way forward.

This study is interesting, but didn’t have a big enough Awe-factor for some. The Guardian’s Improbable column (2) drew my attention to the News Alert quoting the research (3). The alert stresses that the carbon monoxide pollution was having a narcotic effect on the students and mitigating the affects of noise and social load, so was a good thing with no long term harmful effects.

I have read the original paper several times now and there is no mention of that. I wonder what sort of polluted air the News Alert author has been breathing? Too much CO, perhaps?

  1.  Schnell et al, J. Env. Monitoring & assessment, doi:10.1007/s10661-011-2286-1

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