I’ve read all sorts of reports and articles about the relationship between mental health and neighborhood design. Most of them focus on the idea that living in a sprawling, low-density area—the sort of place where you can’t walk anywhere, and you only see your neighbors as they drive into their garage—can be isolating, anonymous and…well…depressing.
But for the most part, I’ve thought of this research more as suggestive than conclusive. Mostly, researchers find links between some feature of neighborhood design and an indirect correlate of mental health—say, the likelihood of having a confidante in your neighborhood (see here), or whether people in a ‘hood have a “sense of community” (see here). But when you look at actual mental health (as here) the relationship with neighborhood design is harder to detect.
Which makes sense. Sure, I found that growing up in a low-density neighborhood—a place where I saw most of my neighbors only a few times a year, while they were mowing their lawns—was pretty isolating. But you can hear similar critques about the anonymity and stress of the big city, or the isolation of life on the farm, or the oppressive conformity of the small town. To some extent, all of these critiques ring true; but it can’t be true that every kind of neighborhood is particularly bad for your psyche. So before I single out “sprawl” as being uniquely hazardous to mental health, I’m going to want a lot more evidence than a handful of anecdotes.
Well, some evidence just landed in my inbox:
Living in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood may help shield older men from depression, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that among 740 older adults living in the Seattle area, men who lived in more walkable neighborhoods tended to show fewer depression symptoms than men from less walker-friendly areas.
The gist: older men who live in a walkable neighborhood get more exercise, which helps protect against depression. But increased walking, by itself, didn’t explain all of the mental health benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood. After controlling for the amount of walking, residents of walkable neighborhoods still had an edge in warding off the blues. To the researchers, this suggested that a neighborhood that allows for safe and convenient walking—and offers nearby destinations that are worth walking to—fosters a sense of community, which in turn prevents isolation and depression.
I still don’t think the results here are conclusive, and I’m sure there will be followup studies from other parts of the country. But it’s interesting to think that a good neighborhood can be like a good friend: it can keep you from feeling lonely.