Whether it's the glamour and glitz of high life, or the electric buzz of endless information and high-tech possibilities, there's much to love about living in a big city.
Large libraries, well-tended museums, art houses and discos, shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas, plazas and neon nightlife. all these things appeal to us in ways we cannot deny. The allure of "city life" is practically archetypal - stories abound of people leaving their homes in the countryside to seek their fortunes amid the masses in metropolitan areas.
But, is "urbania" really paradise? What if city living actually reduces your quality of life? Sure, no matter where you live you can find information on the latest threats to life. From war and terrorism to the bacteria lurking in your bathroom, there's always something that is exerting its harmful influence on you and your loved ones, making life less peaceful and healthful than we assume it is supposed to be. But, with the exponential growth of large cities, "urban sprawl" is at an all-time high. Increasing numbers of people are spending more of their time in urban regions, while knowing little of the hazards that are present there.
Here are some of the most common and insidious dangers of urban life:
Nowhere is there as much pressure to perform as there is in the city. Some industries, the news, entertainment etc., leading the pack, are known for their cutting-edge and cut-throat tactics employed in a daily struggle to stay on top. Other industries produce their fair share of pressure to perform, in an ever-increasing service-based world market. Even small companies have to constantly refine, update and increase their line of products and services. If you can't keep up, you're left out. In an age when more equals better, performance is everything.
While certainly a product of a culture obsessed with achievement, stress can come from many other angles in the city, as well. Bills, transportation costs, food and living expenses top the list of urban stressors, as it is notoriously more expensive to live in a city than outside of one. Also, noise, light and traffic pollution take their toll as well. And, this tells nothing of the general fast pace of city life. It's commonly said that "a city never sleeps." What's left out of the phrase is "...that's why it's so hard for you to."
While some stress can be helpful to propel us towards greatness, too much stress is directly linked to several chronic ailments, including cardiovascular disease, weakened immune system, gastro-intestinal disorders, depression, and substance abuse, just to name a few.
The urban response has been to increase production of "New-Age" shops and day spas, yoga and wellbeing centres and herbal muscle relaxants. While these may actually help to some degree, they can also add to a person's stress, becoming one more thing to buy, one more appointment to make [and, hopefully keep], and one more ritual to add to an already-crammed schedule.
The first time I visited New York City I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into my seat on the bus. Buildings towered all around me and people scurried everywhere like disturbed insects on the run. There's certainly a beauty and grandeur to the strength and modern achievement of large metropolitan areas, and I enjoyed my brief stay in NYC immensely. Still, I will never forget how small and inconsequential I felt. Is it possible to live in a city of over eight million people, and feel isolated, and alone? Absolutely! When you are only one of such a staggering number of people, it can be very easy to feel utterly insignificant.
It's ironic that in an age of unprecedented global communications and networking, people are feeling increasingly lonely. We can order groceries and other necessities from home, pay bills and send gifts with a few clicks of the mouse. We can view religious and other spiritual programmes on our computer screen or television, can download videos and games for use on our cell phones, work-out in our living rooms to the latest exercise DVDs, and can even share our deepest thoughts, fears, dreams and wishes in virtual communities in online forums... and yet not even know the names of our neighbours. This trend towards isolationism — keeping ourselves distant from people around us by choice and for convenience sake - is a peculiar cultural development.
While it's possible to feel lonely anywhere, it can feel particularly distressing to feel lonely in a city full of people. If population and proximity don't heal the problem, is it possible that some aspects of the city are actually causing it?
Is it any surprise that the most popular programmes on television are set in urban areas? After all, that's where the greatest number of viewers lives! The average city dweller watches more than four hours of television each day, with a majority of households having at least one television set and many having two or more. By the time an average viewer is 65 years old, he or she will have watched a whopping nine years of uninterrupted television.
The modern equivalent of the campfire, around which people used to sit and enjoy conversation, sing songs, or share stories, the television lulls an entire audience into near-complacency for nearly 28 hours each week. This number is rising with the younger generation, as this kind of entertainment has come to occupy an important role as surrogate mother. Sometimes, it's a question of the lesser of two evils: Have the children play outside where it may not be safe?
Or, have them inside watching TV, where they may be lifeless, but at least off the streets? The latest fad is to instal small screens in vehicles, so that children can watch movies, or other recorded programmes, while their parents drive.
Experts are slowly coming to recognise the dangers of a generation more inclined to watch television than relate to "real people." Replacing physical activity and social interaction by basking in a TV's bluish glow can lead to obesity, depression and poor school performance... all of which are rising in many metropolitan areas. Even more troubling is the tendency for children to emulate fictional characters whose behaviour translates to real-world health risks such as violence, eating disorders, sexual activity and substance abuse.
What You Can Do
Before your pack your bags and your family into the bus, train, or car, and head for the countryside, you may want to sit and think about the changes you can make. This will help protect you from some of the most ubiquitous urban health hazards:
- Set realistic goals that allow you to stretch towards excellence without becoming obsessed, and don't bring work home from office, and vice versa
- Schedule time for relaxation. This could be as simple as a walk at night, a warm bath followed by a cup of herbal tea and a good book, or a friendly visit with someone you enjoy spending time with
- If you feel lonely, try connecting with others at a local temple, church or community centre
- Take classes at a community college or volunteer somewhere you feel you can make a difference. Seek professional counselling, if you think you should, with the aim of making use of the community services that will help you meet others and make friends
- Purchase a water purifier and check your air-conditioner/filter. Buy organic foods grown as close to your home as possible, and complete a full-body detoxification programme once a year
- Limit your time and your family's time with the television. Reduce the list of programmes you follow regularly; one or two is better than three or four
- Be cautious with strangers - build relationships slowly. Inculcate the same thought in your kids
- Pick an evening to keep as a "game night" for the family to play together. Spend more time talking and interacting.
Cities are among the most polluted areas of the world. Some of the worst offenders that contribute to this environmental onslaught include: noise pollution, tobacco smoke, vehicle emissions, acid rain, industrial run-off, sewage disposal, domestic waste, herbicides and pesticides. To be frank, you simply cannot avoid it whether you live in the city or not, but levels in an urban area tend to be much higher.
There are millions of "normal" people like you and me living in cities most likely like yours and mine. The startling reality is that, if tested, we might also be found to be sharing our bodies with any number of toxic chemicals or other pollutants.
We may like to think that urban areas have the best water purification, air filtration, and food options available, but the truth is that city standards are often pitifully low where our health is concerned. Most, if not all municipal water filtration plants, for example, either allow or add various amounts of fluoride and chlorine [both of which are toxic to the body] to public water supply, and may not be able to filter out other contaminants like PCBs and heavy metals like mercury and lead.
There is also smog so bad in some cities that children are told not to play outside, for fear of sudden respiratory problems, visits to the emergency room, and even elevated mortality rates. As for food production and processing, most of the food that is bought and served in the city [in marketplaces and restaurants alike] has had to travel long distances from where it is originally grown or made. It is common knowledge that food loses its nutrients during travel, and that many food companies add chemicals to preserve and colour the foods that they hope will make it to your plate.
This is a far cry from the fresh fruits and vegetables that used to be grown at the local farm and sold at the local farmer's market.
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