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Are Cities Making Us Lesser Men?

Psychology professor Peter Khan explains the relationship between urbanization and health

There’s something vaguely emasculating about living in a city. Cities are engineered for efficiency and convenience, but leave us disconnected from nature and all the fortifying activities that involves. You eat lunch from a Styrofoam container instead of having to kill it and prepare it yourself. You bask in the comfort of climate-controlled rooms instead of having to chop firewood. You don’t have to erect the walls of your apartment. And should a problem arise, a handyman is only a phone call away.

The “crisis of urban masculinity” was credited with giving rise to “lumbersexuality” — the phenomenon in which city-dwelling men dressed like Paul Bunyan and took up antiquated manly hobbies such as building furniture, tanning leather and brewing beer in a vain attempt to recapture their masculinity

But cities are also where people comes into contact with one another — a hive where ideas are exchanged and culture is produced. It could be argued cities are the ultimate displays in humankind’s strength — they’re testaments to man’s ability to subdue nature and plan and build at the grandest scale possible.

So which of these is our natural habitat? MEL posed this question to Peter Khan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who recently wrote in Science about how “urban conditions increase the risk of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression” and rob us of the redemptive qualities of nature.

Khan talked about how cities “imprison” us, the need for green spaces in urban environments and which cities are the most stressful to live in.

What is man’s natural state: Relatively secluded, but connected with nature, or around his fellow man but disconnected from nature?
Maybe both. Man interacted with wild nature for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s part of our genetic make-up and the architecture of our brains, minds and spirits. We still have that need for the wild.

At the same time, we don’t have minds that are identical to people who lived 50,000, 100,000 years ago. Once we moved out of Africa and started domesticating nature, our minds started changing and that, too, is part of us.

An example: If you’re in the mountains and you encounter a bear. There’s usually just a moment where you can look the bear in the eye, and it looks at you. It doesn’t last very long, just an instant, but you see bear consciousness — this powerful force that you don’t control, with internal autonomy and immense power. And it looks at you and sees your consciousness. That’s a beautiful wild experience.

The domestic version of that is when you look into your dog’s eyes. That’s beautiful and it happens every day, but it doesn’t substitute for the wild form. That’s why people tap on the glass at the zoo. They’re trying to say, “Hey, look at me,” to the animal.

It seems what you’re saying is we have a need for both wildlife and other people, but city living throws off the balance.
Yes, especially in the direction we’re heading. Cities can be good — there’s immense vitality and different perspectives coming together.

But when those environments become urbanized — like with the trend toward more “megacities” [cities with at least 10 million people] — with no robust nature connection, then we suffer. There’s sickness here. Two thirds of people are overweight or obese. One in ten of us takes antidepressants. The list goes on — diabetes, asthma — and with cities, we’re accentuating the disease.

What American cities strike a good balance?
Seattle. We have walkable neighborhoods, which falls in line with European cities and the idea of being able to walk to work. That’s powerful. And any city with long walkable corridors. That’s happening more with cities taking decommissioned rail lines and turning them into walkable, bikeable pathways, that’s enormous progress. [Examples include the BeltLine in Atlanta, the 606 in Chicago and the High Line in New York.]

People usually cite New York City as an example of a well-designed city.
My experience of it is tense, urban and ugly. But it has features that make it livable in other ways. There are neighborhoods, there’s walking, there’s good transportation and an enormous cultural life.

It’s easier to cite cities that make mistakes, such as Houston. It has very few sidewalks and there’s no zoning so it’s difficult to have neighborhoods.

With urban populations increasing, what direction are we headed?
Places like Tokyo, Mexico City, Shanghai and Beijing, they’re already hard places to live, so when they have 20 million people or more … it’s problematic. We can adapt to these places, but just because we adapt, doesn’t mean we thrive. We’ll get increasingly diseased and won’t flourish as people.

It’ll be like elephants in a zoo. They often live long lives, sometimes longer than if they were in the wild, but they’re not doing well as wild elephants. They’re in a prison. They were born to be around other elephants and race hundreds of miles.

With the pace of technological change accelerating, will this problem only get worse?
Yes. Technologies are increasing the distance between ourselves and nature. Even if people are at a park, they have their heads in their screens. You can put on a virtual reality headset and be on a mountain somewhere while you’re on your couch eating fast food. That experience gets some of the benefits of the actual experience, but not as many as actually being there.

Do men and women experience city living differently?
Men used to chase down buffalo for six hours, until the buffalo the buffalo overheated and stopped, and then slit its throat. That’s part of our heritage, but what do you do with all that pent-up energy when you live in a city? Some people run marathons. Maybe that’s the draw of the NFL. We know there are concussions and that it’s harmful. It could be a version of that wild energy that’s still a part of us.

But so much of traditional manhood is defined by having a relationship with nature — it’s why we send boys to Boy Scouts. So are the detrimental effects amplified?
In that men can’t express their primal energy and it gets perverted? It’s possible. Modern education demands kids be sedentary, and boys seem to have more difficulty just sitting in their seats. It starts early, potentially.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about trying to understand how his hardass father could also be a Deadhead.