High Anxiety: Can Living in a Tall Building Cause Depression?

Are tall residential buildings such as Chicago's iconic Marina Tower complex filled to the brim with moody, depressed and anxious residents? . (Photo: Jeff Wilcox/flickr)

For those who live in population centers where the built environment can best be described as squat, pancake-like or uniformly horizontal, a trip to a skyscraper-laden city can be an incredibly exhilarating change of scenery.

Take for example, Burlington, a bustling college town of over 42,000 residents that serves as Vermont’s largest city and also has the unique distinction of being the least populous city in the U.S. to be the most populous city within in a state. Considering that Burlington is also home to the 11-floor Decker Tower apartment complex (aka the shortest building to be considering any state’s tallest building), a first-time visit by a lifelong Burlington resident to larger urban areas like Houston, Chicago, Atlanta or Seattle where structures regularly soar above 50 stories must do quite the number on the neck muscles with all that wide-eyed peering up.

However, as new research suggests, that skyscraper-peeping Vermonter shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the change of scenery for too long as being surrounded by impossibly tall buildings for an extended amount of time can negatively impact one’s mental health.

The latest findings from Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist and urban design consultant at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, further support a slew of previous studies that link high-rise dominated landscapes with depression, anxiety and overall sour moods.

Ellard himself felt a bit off after spending time in Toronto, North America's perpetually under-construction "high-rise boomtown" where high-rise living has jumped 13 percent according to a recent Toronto Star article discussing cardiac arrest mortality and tall buildings. (Long story short: the further up you are, the less likely you are to survive due to "vertical delays" or the time it takes emergency responders to ascend 10-plus floors.)

“I was struck by how dark, sombre and sad these new urban canyons made me feel,” Ellard tells the Guardian.

And so, Ellard set out to find out if others felt similarly blue when exposed to an aggressively vertical urban environment. As Joey Gardiner writes for the Guardian, Ellard outfitted study participants with virtual reality headsets at the University of Waterloo's Urban Realities Laboratory and asked the subjects to “stroll through a variety of urban environments created to test their responses.” At the conclusion of the VR experiment, Ellard discovered that he wasn’t alone — participants felt “substantial” negative emotions when enveloped by tall buildings.

"There are all kinds of ways in which the geometry, the appearance of the surfaces of our surroundings, influence how we feel and how we act, how we decide about things, how we think, how we pay attention," Ellard told the CBC this past September. "You can draw a fairly direct set of lines between urban design and the state of our health. If municipalities want to hear the argument in dollars and cents, we're getting close to that."

Apartments in Toronto
In 2014, Toronto was named North America's 'high-rise boomtown' by Emporis. (Photo: Loozrboy/flickr)

Don't fault density

As the Guardian explains, the findings of Ellard and others studying the correlation between urban design and and mental wellbeing present a formidable quandary to developers and city planners alike: how does one go about promoting and fostering density (very much a good thing) when high anxiety and that staple of urban living known as the high-rise would appear to be intrinsically linked?

And it’s not just fleeting foul moods that often inflict city-dwellers. According to the Centre of Urban Design and Mental Health, dense urban environments are associated with serious psychiatric disorders including high rates of schizophrenia and a 40 percent increased risk of depression. Previous studies have found that despite being afforded with sweeping views, those living in high-rise housing developments are typically more stressed and neurotic than those living in low-rise housing. Living in or being surrounded by high-rise development can also have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of developing children according to studies.

Experts in the realm are quick to point out that density isn’t necessarily the culprit as being surrounded by people — the more the merrier — in lieu of being isolated promotes social interaction and connectivity, which, of course, can lead to an all-around better moods.

“The villain isn’t density itself, it’s insensitive design,” Layla McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, explains to the Guardian. “It’s about how you design in things that are protective to people’s mental health — green spaces and opportunities for social interaction.”

Apartments in Manhattan
Building up but feeling down in Midtown Manhattan. (Photo: Tony Hisgett/flickr)

Settling down in that 'sweet spot'

So, if it’s not necessarily density that leads to depression, is there a certain height that residential high-rises should be? How tall is too tall?

Some urban design experts have identified a so-called density “sweet spot” that, in the words of Gardiner, “gives the benefits of sustainable living without the mental health costs.” That sweet spot can be found in mid-rise housing, typically no taller than eight stories high and sitting atop or surrounded by a range of retail and commercial spaces to liven things up. Go figure that European cities (the Guardian names Barcelona and Vienna as being just two) come equipped with considerable swaths of mood-boosting, mid-rise mixed-used development.

In the opinion of some, even eight stories is far too high and the optimum living environment for mental wellbeing should ideally rise no more than a single floor.

“Living at one storey is probably the most healthy thing for the human animal. But it is so much worse for the environment as a whole. That’s why we talk about the sweet spot,” says Jason McLennan, a sustainable architect and president of the International Living Future Institute. Based out of Seattle’s ultra-efficient Bullitt Center, the International Living Future Institute is the nonprofit parent organization behind the Living Building Challenge, a tougher-than-tough holistic green building certification that’s been featured numerous times here on MNN.

As for me, I live and work on the top floor of a four-story walk-up in a dense and diverse "resi-dustrial" neighborhood in New York City where most buildings are no taller than my own. I enjoy ample natural light and a rigorous mini-workout each time I climb the stairs to my apartment. Sure, there’s room for my overall mood to improve, but my personal four-story sweet spot has really done wonders for my quads and calves.