There are many advantages to living in a city. For many of us, the proximity to our place of work is the deciding factor. People move to big cities for the jobs available there. But we also enjoy the cosmopolitan environment with its wide choice of shops and leisure outlets, as well as entertainment and culture. Cities have a greater selection of restaurants, bars, museums, galleries, cinemas, music venues, bookshops, libraries and theatres than do small towns or villages. The mix of different ethnic and social groups is also invigorating and welcoming, and the faster pace of life can be exciting and stimulating.
But there are also some negative factors about living in a city that make many pine for the simpler pleasures of the countryside. City life can be expensive and sometimes overwhelming. You may find yourself in a neighbourhood that feels threatening or alien to you. Urban deprivation can mean that many of the facilities, leisure options and essential services that make city life bearable are absent. Not everyone enjoys the intensity and harsh demands of city life. Particularly as we get older, we may find the urban environment stressful and even frightening.
Most of the hazards of urban housing are related to poverty. If you are comfortable financially it’s entirely possible to live in the city in a well-appointed house free of the problems that blight cheap rented accommodation. Unfortunately, the high density of population often means that many city dwellers are forced to live in overcrowded environments that present distinct health problems.
When we are cramped and crowded we experience a loss of privacy and freedom of movement that can negatively affect our mental health. Sometimes in urban housing an entire family may have to share one room. Even those with their own room in a shared house may find it stressful to share a kitchen and a bathroom with others, particularly if they are strangers or people you don’t get on with.
Alone in a crowd
You can still suffer from overcrowding when you have your own flat or apartment. The feeling of always having other people directly above, below and either side of you can be suffocating, and noise coming through the walls can cause stress, depression and sleeplessness. If animosity develops you may feel threatened when you step outside your door.
City living can also cause problems of isolation. With so many people and so much to do, not everyone can find the time to get to know their neighbours. This can lead to a feeling of isolation in the big city, especially for the elderly. Again, this can lead to mental health problems like depression, and also the lack of a support network in case of other difficulties, for instance no-one to check in on you if you are ill or have suffered a fall.
A recent study by the University of Birmingham Housing and Communities Research Group found that 20% of UK housing stock isn’t up to “decent home standard”. Often this means damp and mould. This can cause a number of debilitating physical ailments, including cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, such as asthma. People living in damp homes are far more likely to catch colds, develop coughs and suffer from the flu. Whooping cough and even pneumonia can be the result of living in a cold, damp home.
Vermin infestation is another urban housing problem. Rats, mice and insects can infest houses and flats and are often carriers of disease or causes of a number of health problems. Thankfully, major cities have a number of pest control agencies that can carry out the necessary work to free your home of vermin.
Air pollution in cities can be a problem both inside and outside the home. On the inside this can be the result of a lack of ventilation and faulty items (ovens, boilers) in cheap rented accommodation. If you live close to a busy road you can be exposed to pollution from traffic, which again leads to a range of health problems and is estimated to be responsible for 2.1m premature deaths worldwide.
As well as causing respiratory diseases and lung cancer, air pollution is also considered a contributory factor towards autism and cognitive decline with age. It may also increase the risks of heart disease and of suffering a stroke.
High-density urban housing often comes with an associated fire risk, as recent events have tragically shown. Although all rented accommodation should meet strict fire safety standards in fact that is not always the case. Common fire safety hazards in urban housing can include exposed or faulty wiring, overloaded sockets, lack of functioning fire alarms and blocked or inadequate fire exits. Carbon monoxide poisoning can also be a risk in enclosed city flats, and it’s essential to have a functioning carbon monoxide detector to protect you from this invisible killer.
How to live better
If your home in the city doesn’t meet acceptable standards, then you may be able to get help and advice from the government or your local council. Charities like Shelter can also give advice if you are renting and suspect your property doesn’t meet the required standards. People living in cities also suffer from noticeably higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression that can be helped just by being in nature. Although it’s not a substitute for necessary medical help, spending some time in open countryside can allow you to de-stress and recharge your batteries.
Walking is great physical exercise and being amongst trees, green open spaces and sunlight can noticeably improve your sense of wellbeing. Even walking in your local park can be enough. Trees absorb pollution, even in the city, and their colour, scent, texture and sound (birdsong) can really help us feel better when in their proximity.
On the whole, cities are great places to live, and although the problems faced are very real in many cases they can be overcome. Overcrowding, stress and sub-standard housing are all issues that need to be urgently addressed so that city life can be enjoyed as it should be by everyone.