Plan to avoid stressful cities

CITIES are perceived as human settlements that should be sustainable and conducive for bringing up families and having a healthy, happy life. Being centres of trade and commerce, cities are also seen as symbols of a country's economic success and its citizens' prosperity.

Tough conditions in rural areas are push factors for urban migrants pursuing dreams of a better life. Migration and natural population growth have caused a cumulative increase in urban population numbers in the last few decades.

According to the United Nations, more than half the world's population now lives in cities. The forecast is that two-thirds of the world's population will be in urban areas by 2050.

This rapid increase in the urban population poses great challenges to the people as well as the local authorities. There are insufficient employment opportunities and housing facilities to absorb the huge influx of people moving into the cities. Other problems include high cost of living, public transport and traffic congestion, pollution, improper garbage disposal, crime, urban poverty and rising juvenile violence.

For some rural-to-urban migrants, life becomes better and living conditions improve. Unfortunately, there are a number who do not find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and end up in poverty.

As a result of all these problems, urban dwellers are beginning to feel more stressed living in the cities. A little stress helps to boost energy levels but prolonged and excessive stress can lead to mental problems like anxiety and depression, and physical illness like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.

It is therefore interesting to come across a study on stressful cities done by Zipjet, a company that uses the internet and mobile apps to make laundry and dry cleaning easier. The company promises to "develop technology which aims to reduce stress in people's lives".

According to the Zipjet study, the least stressful cities in the world include, in order, Stuttgart, Germany; Luxembourg City, Luxembourg; Hanover, Germany; Bern, Switzerland; Munich, Germany; Bordeaux, France; Edinburgh, United Kingdom; Sydney, Australia; Graz, Austria; and Hamburg, Germany.

On the other hand, the most stressful cities in the world are Baghdad, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan; Lagos, Nigeria; Dakar, Senegal; Cairo, Egypt; Tehran, Iran; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Karachi, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; and Manila in the Philippines.

Note that, among the least stressful cities, four of the top 10 are German cities, and almost all of them are in Western Europe.

The key factors used in the Zipjet study are density, green spaces, public transport, traffic, perception of security, sunshine hours, air, noise and light pollution, unemployment, debt per capita, social security, family purchasing power, mental and physical health, gender and race equality.

These are certainly relevant factors. However, it should be pointed out that the study does not look at historical factors that might reveal why the cities are considered stressful. Almost all of them are cities in previously colonised countries.

The top two most stressful cities were until recently active war zones and still suffer from acts of violence. No wonder they are stressful.

Malaysian cities do not figure either in the least stressful or most stressful of these rankings. Kuala Lumpur, the only Malaysian city considered, is ranked at 110 out of 150 cities. By and large our cities might be considered relatively moderate, not among the most stressful, not among the least.

Of course, we have our problems such as traffic congestion, cleanliness, crime, and inequality. However, Malaysian cities have done a good job of eradicating the most severe forms of poverty as well as slum settlements.

Many of our cities provide easy access to good food, adequate open space, and, for now, sufficient opportunities for employment and livelihood.

But this should be motivation to plan ahead. Compared to cities like Lagos, Malaysian cities are small. As they grow, and as more Malaysians buy more cars and properties, we might find our cities becoming more crowded, competitive, and stressful even though we are increasing our wealth.

As I wrote in this column two weeks ago, cities like Ipoh are doing a good job of maintaining cleanliness and liveability. We should keep paying attention to how successful municipal programmes are able not only to maintain clean and well-organised public spaces but also provide the elements necessary to ease stress and promote health and happiness.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban planning, housing and urban governance. Comments: