Combating stress in the city

Study finds city inhabitants experience more stress than people from rural settings

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Campus architecture can impact the student state of mind, says a Queen’s professor.

“There are buildings on campus that have positive effects on people’s mental health,” Patricia Collins, professor in the Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning said, citing the Tea Room as an example. “[It] was a rejuvenating space to be in.”

Features like natural light, indoor trees and benches make buildings positive spaces for students, Collins said.

“Larger foyer areas that invite students to interact as opposed to ones that just have them filter through,” she said.

However, some buildings have the opposite effect on students’ psyches.

Mac-Corry for example is notorious for having a confusing layout.

“Certainly if people have difficulty finding their way around that’s stressful,” Collins said.

“Locating exits is stressful, and people feel a loss of control in those kinds of moments.”

In addition, campus residences don’t feature the most appealing design — it’s a problem that urban planners face when accommodating large numbers of people.

“It’s inevitable in residence … it costs money to make renovations to restore these buildings and bring it up to a modern standard.”

Queen’s students also face unique urban stressors, she said.

“Certainly roads in the Queen’s Ghetto are not as well maintained as in other places in the city,” she said. “One of the things that urban planners might need to consider is issue of equity and who is exposed to different kinds of stressors by virtue of where they live.

“Certain neighbourhoods … because of where they’re located, have a higher concentration of busy roads and dangerous intersections and lack of safe cycling routes.” Collins said noise, traffic congestion, poor air quality and general density are other common stress factors. Despite being a small city, Kingston residents aren’t immune to these factors.

“Any city will present potential exposures to stress to people living in certain areas,” she said.

For Vicki Cove, Kingston is a highly urban setting compared to her hometown.

Cove, ArtSci ’14, is from Amherst, N.S., which has a population of less than 10,000.

Compared to her small hometown, Cove found Kingston’s urban landscape disorienting, she said.

“Some people were talking about how they used to carry maps around … I never did that, but I always wrote down directions so I wouldn’t get lost,” she said.

In addition, Cove said navigating Kingston’s public transportation system proved to be a challenge.

“The biggest difference for me from Amherst was taking public transit, I didn’t know what to do for the buses,” she said. “I’m used to being in a town where I can walk anywhere I want to within half an hour.”

Cove chose to come to Queen’s largely due to its prestige, not urban environment, she said. But, after she came to Queen’s, Cove said she understands urban sentiments of anonymity.

“The hardest part was not knowing anyone,” she said. “I can relate to feeling anonymous. All my classes are pretty big, and it’s hard to get to know a lot of people.”

Recent research suggests a link between urban settings and inhabitants’ stress levels.

An international study published in the journal Nature found that people who live, or have lived, in cities experience higher stress levels than those from non-urban settings.

Jens C. Pruessner is the director of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging and an associate professor in psychology, psychiatry, neurology and neurosurgery. He co-wrote the study, which was conducted with researchers from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

“The overall finding was that subjects react strongly to a standardized stress test if they grew up in a city or live in a city,” he said.

The study defined non-urban settings as areas with less than 10,000 inhabitants.

In the study, participants in Germany wrote a standardized test that required them to perform mental tasks while receiving social feedback.

During the test, Pruessner said participants between 18 and 55 years old did mental arithmetic under time constraints and were told they were performing poorly compared to others.

Using MRI imaging, researchers found those who lived in an urban setting for the first 15 years of life.

“The critical development period is the first 15 years of your life. How much big city life you endured is related systematically to your stress level. If after the critical period in a city you moved to the country … there would still be that effect.

“Typically a big city lies with a more anonymous lifestyle, where you don’t interact with each of the people intimately,” Pruessner said. “If you grew up in a village, obviously the social net is different.”

While some might consider Queen’s to be a small, close-knit environment, Queen’s has over 20,000 undergraduate students, with more than 100,000 people in Kingston as a whole.

Pruessner said the size of a university could impact a student’s stress level.

“You can feel more anonymous and lost in the system, or like you’re just a number and its an assembly line of students,” he said. “You don’t feel like you have the same amount of care … compared to a smaller college with a friendlier atmosphere.”

The aesthetics of Kingston

Kingston’s Williamsville revitalization aims to introduce aesthetic improvements into the area.

Williamsville includes the 1.7-km stretch of Princess Street between Division Street and Bath Road.

The Williamsville Main Street Study aims to gather public input on what residents wish to see in Kingston.

In October, the Whig Standard reported the study contains draft guidelines for Williamsville’s revitalization.

The study seeks to expand sidewalks, vary building heights and create more parks and open spaces.

“People have been looking for better street treatment,” said Sue Bazely, co-chair of the Williamsville Community Association.

The Williamsville Community Association is looking to implement commercial space without compromising the city’s aesthetic value.

“We’d hope there’s some good development for offices, but we want the street space to be treated nicely with trees and benches,” Bazely said.

Bazely said the Memorial Centre already has seen improvements, with a new swimming pool and gardens.

However, the outside of the Memorial Centre wasn’t always an appealing environment for Kingston residents, Bazely said.

“For years the city used to dump their snow there,” she said. “It would be filled with garbage and was treated badly.”

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