What Makes A City Stressful?

Michael Lewyn's picture

Forbes just came up with another of its "Most X City" surveys. This week, it listed the most stressful cities (http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/20/stress-unemployment-homes-lifestyle-rea... ). Nearly all of Forbes' criteria, however, are silly in one respect or another.

For example, Forbes considers population density an indication of high stress. But since low-density cities are more automobile-dependent, low density can create stress: constant long-distance driving is (at least to me) a source of stress, while being able to walk and use public transit might reduce stress for some people.

To Forbes, sunny days equal low stress. But while living in Florida, I was often in pain from the mild sunburns that occurred when I went out for a few minutes without sunscreen. Even after I started reducing this problem through sunscreen, I came to realize that having to constantly worry about skin cancer and whether I have slathered on enough sunscreen is highly stressful. Thus, the Florida sun is a stress inducer (at least for me) and not a stress reducer.

Forbes also lists unemployment and declining home prices as indicia of stress. To be sure, these things are problems if you are affected by them. But if you are employed, why would you be more stressed if unemployment is 9 percent than if it is 7 percent? To be sure, in extreme cases (i.e. where the economy is so bad that most employed people are worried about losing your job) high unemployment may stress out the employed. But otherwise, the pain of others will not affect your own well-being in this regard.

Finally, Forbes lists low air quality as stressful. But since most people have no idea how their city's air quality compares to other cities or to their ideal, they cannot possibly suffer stress from bad air.

So how could stress be measured? One stress generator is physical illness- and some of the factors cited by Forbes are surrogates for physical illness. For example, it suggests that air quality and low sunshine correlate with colds and minor respiratory ailments. But if it was possible to measure the frequency of such low-level illness, surely that would be a better way to measure stress.

Also, perceptions affect subjective well-being. So if survey evidence existed as to people's perceptions of air quality, such evidence would show whether some cities were more stressful than others. For example, if a survey asked "Are you concerned with air pollution in your city?" and Pittsburgh residents were more concerned than Austin residents, surely Pittsburgh would be more stressful than Austin in this regard- even if objectively, there was no evidence of a difference between the two city.

Similarly, perceptions of crime affect subjective well-being. For example, imagine a multi-city survey asking: "How safe do you feel walking near your residence at night?" Surely, a place where people felt unsafe is more stressful than one where people feel safe- regardless of the objective differences (or lack thereof) between the two cities. (Incidentally, the Forbes study omitted crime- perhaps because Forbes' other data consistently favor newer Sun Belt cities, and a focus on crime might dilute that story).

Of course, I suspect little public data exists as to these issues- which is why there is no easy way to decide whether Jacksonville is more stressful than Des Moines.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



missing a point

agreed that perceptions can cause stress, but there are also physical stressors on the body one need not be aware of for them to still be a cause--such as pollution. Clean air is indeed less stress on the body than polluted air so this is actually one of the least subjective measures in this article.

Josh Stephens's picture

Selection Bias

I agree! Forbes' "rankings" are hopelessly lame, but at least they can provoke discussion.

Also, many cities attract certain types of people, and, as Richard Florida points out, some cities are even known for attracting "neurotic" people (with neuroses defined very loosely, though I imagine that he has someone like Woody Allen in mind). I'm not sure how scientific his assessments are, though it's certainly plausible that places like NYC or LA attract type-A people who are likely to be more stressed and therefore create a stressful environment regardless of the structural factors present in a given city.

Forbes' rankings reasonable

I think that Forbes' rankings are quite reasonable and that density can be a cause of stress. If you don't think so then you are either someone who has never been to New York City or an urban planner who is in a state of denial as most urban planners simplistically believe that density is the answer to everything.

Todd Litman's picture

Density versus Crowding

Thanks Michael for an excellent post.

Forbes is confusing density (people per acre) and crowding (people per room). For example, expensive high-rise condominiums have density but not crowding, while homes in impoverished rural communities often have crowding but not density. Poverty and social problems are associated with crowding, since crowing is associated with proverty, but not with density.

For more information see:

"Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth" (www.vtpi.org/sgcritics.pdf )

"Danger in Exurbia: Outer Suburbs More Dangerous Than Cities," (www.virginia.edu/topnews/releases2002/lucy-april-30-2002.html )

“The Debate Over Density: Do Four-Plexes Cause Cannibalism” Landmark" (www.onethousandfriendsoforegon.org/issues/density.html )

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Michael Lewyn's picture

density, stress and NYC

I actually do agree that NYC is stressful- but I don't think density is the main culprit. NYC is stressful because its big and expensive. Although my post focused on what I think are relatively objective measures of stress, I do think that subjectively (for me) size has its own stresses. The more there is to do that looks interesting, the more I feel the need to rush around doing it all.

Density And Stress In NYC

I agree with Michael on this. The NY metropolitan area would be more stressful if those 16 million people lived in low density sprawl and you had to fight traffic on the freeways (or expressways, as they call them there) every time you left home.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

Maybe you are both right

It seems to me that a place as big as NYC will be stressful whether density is high or low- high density crowds the sidewalks, while low density crowds the freeways.

High And Low Stress In NY

I found it very low-stress when I lived on the upper west side and went to Columbia. The neighborhood is made up of 15-story buildings on the major streets and 6-story buildings on the cross streets, which is quite high-density for a residential area, but the sidewalks do not feel crowded, and Riverside park is always relaxing and uncrowded. In good weather, there were always lots of people lying on the main lawn of Columbia, but the crowd certainly did not look stressed.

My life on the upper west side was much less stressful than living in the suburbs of Staten Island or Long Island and having to fight traffic every time you go to the store or to work. I think both these places would be lower stress if they had been built as walkable, transit-oriented suburbs, rather than as postwar freeway-oriented suburbs (which means: lower stress if they had been built as more compact, higher density suburbs).

Of course, my commute on the upper west side was an easy walk, and I didn't have to drive or take the subway regularly, which both involve crowding and stress.

However, it seems theoretically possible to put together a low-stress transportation system within New York city. It would involve high-cost congestion pricing for cars and taxis to reduce the stress of driving, with the revenue used for greatly improved transit service, to reduce the crowding and stress on the subways.

I don't think it would be theoretically possible to put together a low-stress transportation for a city as large as New York but so low-density that people have to drive as their main form of transportation.

Charles Siegel

New York City and density

I lived on Staten Island for three years and Long Island for 18. New York City is stressful because of crowding on sidewalks and traffic congestion on the streets, both of which are a function of density. When I was being jostled about by others on the sidewalks of Manhattan, I was thinking of the number of people who live there and not how expensive the place was.

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