The Pressures of City Living


The Pressures of City Living

After-dinner speech to the Fenner Conference

Old Parliament House, 25th May 2006

Clive Hamilton1

Tonight I would like to talk about some of the psychological costs of urban living. For it seems to me that the epidemic of mental disorders and widespread anomie that characterise modern affluent societies can be attributed in part to the stresses of city living.

Let me start with a parable written by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It was written in the 1850s, probably when he was living in Frankfurt.2

“One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effects of their quills on each other, which made them again move apart.”

They repeated this process until they settled on an equilibrium distance. Wrote Schopenhauer:

“Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart.”

Living together in cities, humans find their optimal distance and maintain the equilibrium through politeness and consideration for others. “[T]he need for mutual warmth”, noted the philosopher, “will only be imperfectly satisfied, but, on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt”.

But Schopenhauer, who was notoriously prickly himself, recognised that some people could get by with less human company.

“Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble and annoyance.”

I think that modern city living makes it increasingly difficult to sustain the warmth that society gives us while avoiding the prick of the quills, and that our growing sensitivity to the quills is at the source of much modern distress.

In societies in which the bonds of community have weakened we feel we must build defences around ourselves to protect us from the stresses and torments of everyday life.

A 42-year-old Sydney woman suffering from chronic depression described her condition this way:

My depression is like not having a skin. Anything and everything feels like an assault; loud noise, loud voices, too many people, everything just seems incredibly intense and overwhelming. You want everything to go away.3

This woman knew what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said “Hell is other people”.

Another woman, also in her forties, had for years been plagued by obesity. She described how she worked hard at returning herself to a healthy weight. She succeeded but now she feels much more vulnerable, as if the layers of fat were a suit of armour worn to protect her from the intrusions of the outside world. For her it was a double blow, for previously, she could overeat in response to her distress; now she has lost both her protection along with her means of dealing with anxieties that get through her weakened defences.

These stories illustrate how much we feel out of control and overwhelmed by the world. In such a world the home becomes ever more important as a sanctuary, an escape from the pressures. The expectations we have of the home make it all the more irritating, indeed distressing, when this sacred place is subject to invasions by neighbourhood noise or other offences.

The epidemic of neighbourhood disputes, which often escalate into open feuds over relatively trivial matters that could easily be resolved, reflects both the importance we attach to our private space and the breakdown in community cohesion. In an earlier era, perpetrators were more likely to pick up early signals about unacceptable behaviour. The Blair Government’s ASBOs − Anti-social Behaviour Orders − are a sign of the fracturing of community as well as a response to it.

Of course, these sorts of difficulties have always accompanied urban living. It’s just that we have become much less able to tolerate them.

In the 1850s, Schopenhauer, then living I think in Berlin, wrote a wonderful short essay titled “On Din and Noise”. As someone who finds noise pollution in all its forms irksome in the extreme, it’s an argument that resonates very strongly with me. Schopenhauer begins by confessing that ‘knocking, hammering, and banging has been through my life a daily torment to me’. Yet some seem impervious to the effects of noise.

…..they are the very people who are also not sensitive to arguments, ideas, poetry,and works of art, in short, to mental impressions of every kind; for this is due to the toughness and solid texture of their brain substance. … a great mind is no more capable than an ordinary one, the moment it is interrupted, disturbed, distracted , and diverted. For its superiority is conditioned by its concentrating all its powers … This is why eminent minds have always thoroughly disliked every kind of disturbance, interruption, and diversion, but above all the violent disturbance caused by din and noise. ….

A fellow who rides through the narrow streets of a populous town with free post-horses or on a free cart-horse, or even accompanies animals on foot, and keeps on cracking with all his might a whip several yards long, deserves to be taken down at once and given five really good cuts with a stick. … If I had to give an order, there would soon be established in the heads of carmen an indelible nexus idearum between cracking a whip and getting a whipping.

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments. If I had to give an order, I would decree that anyone using a mobile phone in a public space be sent a severe electric shock, and that every neighbour with a barking dog should be given a month in solitary confinement to reflect on the mutuality of social existence and the obligations that accompany it.

But because we cannot enforce the level of peace and quiet that eminent minds require we must undertake endeavours to fortify our lives against these intrusions, noise being but one of them.

For many ordinary folk, the home has been transformed into a type of fortification against the turmoil of the world. The McMansion can be understood this way, although it comes at considerable cost. The expansion of house sizes has been occurring at a time when the average number of people in each household is shrinking. In 1970 an average new house had 40 square metres of floor space for each occupant, whereas today each occupant has 85 square metres. This has resource implications, for redundant rooms must be filled with furnishings, appliances, carpets and curtains. They must be heated, cooled and cleaned.

Bigger homes on smaller blocks leave no space for large trees to grow. So instead of playing cricket on the lawn the kids play video games in the lounge. In Affluenza we suggested that the trend towards larger houses on smaller blocks of land means that lounge-rooms expand while backyards shrink and we can expect to see the ride-on lawnmower replaced by the ride-on vacuum cleaner.

The purchase of large 4WD vehicles and the spread of private security can also be understood in these terms. And many try to avoid situations where others might intrude, so they buy home theatres so they can avoid public cinemas.

We buttress ourselves psychologically as well as physically. Some eat their way to security while others turn to drugs to numb themselves. I think affluenza can be understood, at least in part, as a method of dealing with modern insecurity and everyday anxiety; certainly, that’s how the marketers see us. After all, the relentless pursuit of higher incomes among those already wealthy must have a powerful driving force. More money has mundane benefits, buying protection through a nicer house in a quieter suburb. We believe it will give more control, and allow us to have more influence over our environment. To a degree it does, although it is all the more maddening when our defences are nevertheless penetrated.

The desire for solitude

While some people crave company and cannot be alone without bringing a din into the room by way of a radio, others need to find some solitude to keep them sane in the city. Thirty five per cent of visitors to city parks go there to be alone. Parks serve as oases in a sea of noise and bustle, places where city-dwellers go to think and to contemplate. They are the places we go to calm our nerves and to resolve our difficulties.

The psychological benefits of gardens and parks are now well-established. Researchers such as Roger Ulrich have established that exposure to gardens has unexpected health benefits. Patients recover from surgery more quickly if they have views of landscapes from their hospital windows, and blood pressure and heart rate fall when people look upon a natural vista. Other institutionalised persons, such as prisoners and nursing homes, can also benefit. This has given rise to a new profession, horticulture therapists.

There is something harmonising and calming when we come into contact with natural landscapes, which suggests that urban streetscapes, for all of their possible excitements, are naturally stressful and therefore harmful, certainly if experienced in excess. It does not take too much introspection to appreciate E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis, “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”.

“We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms….they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth….”

I have read that after the September 11 attacks Americans flocked to parks and natural areas in order to seek solace for the psychological pain that befell them. Perhaps displaying just how out of touch he is, President George W. Bush urged Americans to demonstrate that they would not be cowed by terrorism by going out to shop.

Perhaps it is for this reason that I become distressed at the litter I see in parks, the visual pollution that is the counter-part of Schopenhauer’s whip-cracking. Despite my best efforts I find it impossible not to focus on the one Coca-Cola can or McDonald’s wrapper that blights a natural landscape. It is quite clear to me that those who frequent McDonald’s restaurants fall into that class of humanity who are marked by the
“toughness and solid texture of their brain substance”. Indeed, I wonder whether the contents of the McDonald’s wrappers actually contribute to the toughness and solid texture of the brain substance of those who consume it. them

But the visual pollution represent by a McDonald’s wrapper is nothing compared to the ocular offence of a McDonald’s billboard or the garish design of the restaurants themselves. It is not just the trans-fats in a McDonald’s burger that damages our health. Merely looking at the golden arches can make you sick.

So it seems to me that the great challenge for urban planners in the future is to bring as much of the natural world into the cities as they possibly can. This is not just to make them pleasant but to counter the alarming decline in our psychological state. It is the saviour for many thousands of people. Parks are no substitute for the tonic of wild places, but they can serve as an analgesic.

If we accept the biophilia hypothesis then the existence in us of an emotional affiliation to other living things has an evolutionary value, an adaptive significance. After all, in evolutionary terms the modern city is very recent, no more than 300 years old. Most of us could trace back and name the ancestor who moved from the country to the city. The last 300 years is a mere blip in evolutionary terms and we will take millennia to adjust to living in cities. In the meantime, the grief and distress caused by the transition is met with engineering solutions, or even medical ones.

Our task must surely be to transform cities so that they are fit for human habitation. That includes bringing wildlife back into urban environments. This is now an area of policy concern. In a NSW survey, when asked to nominate various elements that define a “nice place to live”, people are most likely to nominate a leafy place with lots of trees and birdsong and least likely to nominate being close to cafes, bars and restaurants.4 While traditional gardens are described as fashionable, adding value and neat and tidy, native gardens are described as ‘right for Australia’, natural and relaxing.

Waterfront land sells at a premium because of the psychological benefits of natural vistas. No-one pays a premium to look out over a Woollies car-park. The investment in a house with a view is repaid each time we gaze out of the window. To see a sea gull land on pier and dive for a fish is not just pleasant; it’s good for you.

But we have quite a bit of re-learning to do, including shifting attitudes to wildlife. While the populace of London is thrilled that foxes have returned to the city, some Australian city-dwellers resist the return of native wildlife and need to learn to live in proximity to them.

A friend of mine who works at NPWS received a call from a woman in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She was complaining about a frog croaking outside the bedroom window which was keeping her boyfriend awake at night. She wanted to know if the frog was endangered because, if it wasn’t, her boyfriend was going to concrete over the pond. My friend suggested that a better solution would be to change her boyfriend.


1 Chair, Climate Institute (Australia) and Executive Director of The Australia Institute, Innovations Building, ANU, ACT 0200. Email: Web:

2 Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. II (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1974), pp. 651-2

3 Sydney Morning Herald, Health & Science, February 23 2006, p. 8



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