"The stress level of a driver in rush-hour traffic is comparable to a fighter pilot flying a mission"

The Berlin psychologist and stress researcher Mazda Adli studies the influence that large cities have on the mental state of their inhabitants. We talked about stress, city planning, and new ways of addressing mobility.

Mr. Adli, in your book, “Stress and the City,” you write that cities are loud, hectic, and even hazardous to our health. But eventually, we get bored in the countryside. So what should we do?

Moving to the country is not a solution to the problems and health risks that city life entails. What we should do instead is make our cities places worth living in. Because the future of humanity is urban. We have to set up our cities so that it’s better and healthier to live in them.


Fifty percent of all people on the planet already live in cities. In 2050, that number is expected to be seventy percent. What is so unhealthy about city life?

We know from a number of studies that urban dwellers have a heightened risk of certain psychological illnesses. Take depression, for instance. The risk in the city is around one-and-a-half times as high as it is for the rural population. With anxiety disorders, the risk is 1.2 times higher. The risk of developing schizophrenia is twice as high, and for people who have spent their entire childhood and youth in the city, it’s actually three times as high as it is for country dwellers.


Why is that?

Stress plays a big role here, especially social stress. We define that as a concurrence of crowdedness and social isolation. And when people also experience life as unpredictable and out of their control, it can add up to a toxic mixture. There are studies, for instance, that show that the stress level of a driver in rush-hour traffic is comparable to a fighter pilot flying a mission.


You also wrote about “territorial stress” in your book. What’s that?

Territorial stress is something that happens when people feel like they don’t have a place to get away from it all and have some privacy. That they’re constantly exposed to the hustle and bustle of the city — it’s impossible to get any peace and quiet.


How can we eliminate these negative effects?

City planning and urban design need to take on this responsibility and counter social stress is much as possible. For instance by minimizing social isolation and loneliness. This is one of the objectives in the German government’s latest coalition agreement, and I’m glad to see it there. For instance, we should ensure that people feel comfortable and are willing to spend time socializing outside their homes. That makes it necessary to create public spaces where people can come into contact with one another, which facilitates social cohesion.


Your book can also be read as an ode to urban living. How can we as individuals ensure that the positive aspects of living in cities outweigh the stresses?

One of the most essential big-city skills, as I like to call them, is a desire to get involved. It’s all about wanting to actively discover your city, by walking through the streets with your eyes and ears open, seeing the other people who live there, getting to know that space and your own neighborhood.


How can I give this a go?

One thing that helps tremendously is to break free of routines. Don’t take the same route to work every day. Why not choose a different street, or a different method of transportation? It’s good to be flexible when it comes to mobility. For instance by combining different means of transportation. Especially in the city, we have the advantage that we don’t all have to rely on private vehicles.


Living in a city always means sharing. That applies to everything from park benches and pedestrian walkways to bike sharing. Do people benefit from sharing, or is it just another stressor?

Of course sharing is beneficial. Sharing resources is much easier in the city than it is in the country because the distances are shorter, which reduces costs. Density in the city clearly has advantages because we are able to better support one another.


What role can technology play in creating a good life in the city?

It really helps to have a little digital aptitude. With digital services, I can get to know a city in ways that weren’t possible before. I can use different apps and cut a city up into slices, like an MRI. Depending on what I’m looking for, suddenly the same space appears as a network of supermarkets, or gas stations, or parks, or road networks. I can look at banking machine locations or opportunities to meet people or even flirt. In this way, we take the complex concept of the city and create a layered construct with multiple functionalities.


In many cities, marketplaces are disappearing while exclusive shopping centers and office buildings keep popping up. What does that do to the people who live in those cities?

It’s a trend I’m aware of, and it concerns me. Informal public spaces that people can structure themselves keep shrinking. Urban real estate keeps getting more expensive, the density gets compounded, and more of it is privately owned. That means the risk of isolation and fragmentation in society increases.


So what can we do?

We have to make sure that public spaces are not all multi-lane thoroughfares and shopping malls that only have a single purpose. We also need places that can be shaped by the people who use them. Bryant Park in New York City is a good example of how the city can give you a feeling that it welcomes you. 


What makes that little park in Manhattan special?

There are a bunch of metal chairs there, and they’re not bolted down. Anybody can move them around and place them wherever they want to. People can put them together in groups, or just take an individual chair if they want to have some peace and quiet. This space seems somehow unfinished, and that’s exactly why it is used an unbelievable amount. Due to the unfinished and flexible nature, people wind up talking to one another — that’s what makes a city like New York City, but also other cities like Berlin, so attractive for so many people from all over the world.


Where is your favorite place in Berlin?

I’d say Campus Nord, between the Charité hospital and Humboldt University. It’s this very secluded park that was formerly used as a hunting ground for Prussian nobility. Now it’s this gorgeous urban treasure. It’s home to Berlin’s oldest lecture hall, the Tieranatomische Theater — and when there’s water, the Panke creek flows through it. It’s this little oasis of calm in the middle of bustling Berlin.


Having spent time in Teheran, Bonn, Vienna, Paris, and San Francisco, Mazda Adli now lives in Berlin. He is the head physician at Berlin’s Fliednerklinik and the head of affective disorders research at the university hospital Charité in Berlin. His latest book is “Stress and the City: Why cities make us ill. And why they are still good for us,” published by C. Bertelsmann (384 pages, €20).