Are our increasingly dense cities driving us mad?

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I’ve just returned from a quick trip to China. The Great Wall was impressive, the overall friendliness of locals surprising and the cheap price of beer welcome, but the most remarkable thing was the pace of development.

As myself and 43 other tourists were shuffled between Beijing and Shanghai over the course of eight days, most of us were overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds of cranes dotting the skyline of each city we visited.

I’m not exaggerating. There are countless residential skyscrapers under construction, even in what the Chinese refer to as “small cities”. Their idea of small is a population of four million or less, by the way.

I snapped the picture (above) from the window of the train, en route to Wuxi. You can see dozens of new buildings rising from the soil, which our guide told us were likely already completely sold out. This particular scene was less frenzied than in nearby Suzhou and Hangzhou.

Despite flatter economic growth and jitters about the short to medium-term prospects for the world’s second biggest economy, new home prices in China increased in most cities last month. A recent Bloomberg article says sales by 11 major developers in October totaled more than $9 billion (US dollars), up 41 per cent on this time last year. The government has committed to building six million units of social housing next year, and built seven million this year. Cities are growing at an exponential rate, some doubling in size in the space of a decade.

In Australia, our cities too are expanding – albeit at a much less rapid pace. Nonetheless, urban densification and the growing percentage of Australians who choose to live in or near the city raise questions about sustainability, service delivery and the ability of infrastructure to cope.

But then there’s the issue of health. A feature in last month’s Nature magazine explored the link between cities, stress and mental health. Authorities in the 1960s in the bustling London enclave of Camberwell began recording the diagnosis of psychiatric conditions. It turned out local instances of schizophrenia doubled in 12 years, whereas there was no such rise in the general population.

Some academics are using this data as inspiration for wider research into the impact of urban settings on stress levels. Stress can trigger mental illness, so if cities are found to be stressful by design and circumstance, there’s a strong case for the theory that our urban centres are in part driving some of us mad.

Over the years, greenery has been a causality of urban development – green spaces are largely on the decline. No big deal, right? Wrong. Dr Jason Byrne is a senior lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Urban and Environmental Planning and says the benefits of greenery are wide-reaching. In fact, studies show access to and a view of green spaces can improve mental health, relieve stress and even reduce instances of “household instability”, he says.

These spaces are also good for the environment, improving air quality and even reducing the risk of flash flooding. Sadly, they’re disappearing in some cities.

“We might see some Australian cities start to become more like Los Angeles, where the ratio of people to green space is tiny – on average there’s one green space the size of a suburban backyard for every 1m000 people,” Byrne warns.

Some world cities are taking note of the trend of disappearing greenery and investing significantly in reversing the trend. In China, a national “tree day” results in millions of new trees being planted every year. Korea is transforming old industrial sites into new parks and artificial streams.

As well as health, environmental and aesthetic benefits, there’s also evidence that green spaces boost property prices. The Global Garden Report 2012 found buyers will pay more for a dwelling located near green space and consider this a more important factor than proximity to trendy cafés or shopping strips.

Byrne says even a small pocket park can raise the surrounding area’s prices almost immediately. In short, everyone will win when green becomes the new black.

Shannon Molloy is the deputy editor of Australian Property Investor magazine