Cities are often seen as places which are full of life, culture and excitement. This is entirely natural given the extent to which they have become the hub of economic activity, which has consequently given rise to an ever increasing number of people living in urban areas. Half of the global population already lives in cities, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world's people are expected to live in urban areas.
This process would seem to be an economic inevitability, but as much as cities contribute a lot of colour, culture and commerce to modern society they are also intrisically chaotic places with a lot of socio-economic problems. Our migration to cities may be increasingly driven by economic necessity or at least preference, but is it necessarily good for human health and our collective psychological well-being?
On 11th May, 1917, John B. Calhoun was born in Elkton, Tennessee. Calhoun was an ecologist and research psychologist, who studied rats throughout his educational career, and began professional studies with rodents after the Second World War.
Beginning in 1954, Calhoun conducted experiments with, and studied the effects of, population density on rats' behaviour. Calhoun created an environment in which there was a limited amount of resources, with a penned off area which was rich in resources, and then steadily introduced new rats to his 'utopia'.
Calhoun found that at a certain point, the social order began to break down. A social hierarchy was formed; one tyrannical rat and nine females claimed the two defensible pens with one ramp provided, while the other sixty rats crowded into the other two pens. Calhoun found that the rodent utopia rapidly became hellish.
Several pathologies were observed. Violence, aggression and social deviance became common, with rats in the crowded pen attacking females, juveniles and less active males; uncommon social behaviour in rat populations. There was also sexual deviance; rats became excessively sexually driven, pursuing females relentlessly. The mortality rate among females became extremely high, and a breakdown in maternal behaviour was also observed. Mothers stopped caring for their young, stopped building nests, and even began to attack them, resulting in a 96% mortality rate in the two crowded pens. Other groups of unsuccessful males sulked and skulked and engaged in occasional acts of wanton violence.
Calhoun coined the term 'behavioural sink' to describe this decay in society, and was firmly of the belief that human society could malfunction similarly if exposed to the same conditions as his 'rat utopia'. "Only violence and disruption of social organisation can follow…Individuals born under these circumstances will be so out of touch with reality as to be incapable even of alienation."
While human behaviour is somewhat more complex than and less predictable than the behaviour of rats, I'm sure anyone can recognise elements of modern existence in the description of the way that the rat society broke down. However, despite human-beings' superior intellectual capability, the concept of mass psychology is one that has been extensively researched. Is the collective psychology of cities actually healthy then?
While there has not been the same extent of breakdown of human society in urban areas as with the rats in Calhoun's experiment, there have been noticeable trends that can be extrapolated. Crime has been shown to be almost without exception higher in urban than rural areas. This has frequently been assumed to be due to economic factors, but it seems that there may be something about the psychology of high population density that contributes to it. For example, Brian Christens and Paul Speer's study for Vanderbilt University focusing on Nashville, Tennessee, found that "population density…is a significant predictor of violent crime…in the county as a whole".
When one thinks of antisocial behaviour, of violence, crime, sexual assault, essentially anything involving the breakdown of order or general dysfunction, it is intrinsically associated with urban areas, with areas of high population density. It has even been shown by the United Nations Population Fund that humans in urban areas experience considerably lower fertility rates than in rural areas throughout the world.
And this is before you factor in economic issues. If you have an incredibly commercialised, materially-driven culture, which unequestionably exists in cities, and then a vast wealth inequality then there are going to be some pretty serious consequences sooner or later. As seen in Calhoun's utopia.
According to an opinion poll by GfK NOP, levels of happiness in the UK have declined over the last fifty years, despite the general level of wealth increasing significantly. Meanwhile authoritative studies have shown that mental illness is persistently rising. Many possible views have been put forward regarding why this is occurring, but perhaps one possible explanation is that the way that a large percentage of the population is living is fundamentally unhealthy. If the trends related to urban population increase, expect this unfortunate situation to become more ingrained.
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