San Franciscans who stubbornly oppose upzoning height limits on new buildings may now have some neuroscience on their side, although the results of experiments that suggest human beings find high-rises fundamentally depressing are not quite so cut-and-dry as architecture antagonists might hope.
Colin Ellard, a Canadian researcher who began studying how architecture and design affect people’s mental health in 2011 when he noticed that a particularly bad Whole Foods in New York City seemed to be depressing people, suggests that being surrounded by very tall buildings may be inherently depressing too.
Ellard tested this theory via a virtual reality program at his Urban Realities Lab at the University of Waterloo. Subjects strapped on a headset and were subjected to a variety of urban scenes; scenes with tall buildings tended to yield the worst results, Ellard told the Guardian:
“When people are in these very dense environments that produce oppressiveness and increase negative emotion, it seems logical that those things will spin off [...] Those are the variables that are most likely to show relationships with [increased incidence of] psychiatric illness.”
San Francisco received its first officially recognized skyscraper, the de Young Building, in 1889, 218 feet at the time. (It’s grown taller since then.)
But the city has generally kept its profile low until recently, never building above the Transamerica Pyramid’s iconic 853 feet (which was itself controversial at the time) for over four decades until opportunity combined with necessity a few years ago.
In the 20th century, English researchers suggested a causal link between depression and living in high-rise buildings too:
Mothers who lived in flats reported more depressive symptoms than those who lived in houses (Richman, 1974). Rates of mental illness rose with floor level in an English study (Goodman, 1974). Psychological symptoms were more often present in high rises (Hannay, 1979). When residents moved out of high-rise dwellings, they reported fewer symptoms of depression
But the conventional wisdom is hardly set in stone (or mortar, in this case). In 2015, Italian researchers noted that:
There is scanty evidence of the impact on and inequalities in [mental health] from the different dimensions of the building environment that define the urban structure. This limits the ability of urban planners to take into account the health and health equity impact of their decisions.
That study finds only minor effects of building design on mental health.
In his own lectures, Ellard notes that there’s probably more to the towering effect on mental health than size alone, suggesting that “facade design, the presence of urban greenscape, and street geometry” all play a role in city-dweller’s long-term head space.