Sprawl and Depression: Is There a Link?

The American Dream of the suburban home with a white picket fence and 2.3 kids has been decried for having negative and far reaching environmental and public health implications. Besides the paving over of fertile agricultural lands, air pollution from longer commutes, increased need for infrastructure development, and subsequent increased tax load, there’s the thought that suburbia disconnects people from community in a way that is simply unhealthy for the psyche.

But does sprawl make people unhappy? And conversely, does living in a livable, walkable city improve people’s happiness?

A recent article in Men’s Health chronicled 100 American cities for happiness. They ranked the cities based on a few factors relating to psychological well-being. Variables included were the number of people who self-reported as being unhappy most of the time, the number of people regularly taking anti-depressants, suicide rates (from the CDC), and unemployment rates (from the Department of Labor).

I compared this list with a recent list in the Christian Science Monitor for cities with the most sprawl. The cities with the least sprawl, according to the CSM article, with their ranking from 1-100 in terms of happiness (1 being happiest city in America, 100 being the most miserable, according to the Men’s Health study):

1. New York  (39th happiest)

2. Jersey City, N.J. (not surveyed)

3. Providence (62)

4. San Francisco (20)

5. Honolulu  (1)

6. Omaha, Neb.  (4)

7. Boston  (5)

8. Portland, Ore.  (69)

9. Miami  (93)

10. New Orleans  (44)

The cities with the most sprawl (with the same happiness scale in parentheses next to it):

1. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.  (65th happiest, using LA as a proxy)

2. Greensboro-Winston-Salem- High Point, N.C.  (79)

3. Raleigh-Durham, N.C.  (24)

4. Atlanta  (87)

5. Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. (not surveyed)

6. West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Delray Beach, Fla. (not surveyed)

7. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk Danbury, Conn.  (not surveyed)

8. Knoxville, Tenn. (not surveyed)

9. Oxnard-Ventura, Calif.  (65, using LA as a proxy)

10. Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas  (48)

The average happiness rank for the cities with most sprawl is a 61 with a median of 65/79. The average score for those with the least sprawl is 37 with a median of 39. It’s not scientific by any means, but I know from personal experience that my favorite places to live have been San Francisco (4th least sprawl) and Honolulu (5th least), and having grown up in the Boca Raton area, I know what sprawl is (6th most). There is no comparison in terms of quality of life between these places.

What do you all think? Is there a link? Anyone have a study they can cite?

Photo courtesy KaizerRangwala on Flickr Creative Commons


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Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

One response

  1. When people are purchasing a home, they often choose style and size over a short commute, failing to consider just how many hours a day they’re signing up for sitting in a car, bus or train. I’m pretty sure there was a study show that the amount of time one spends commuting is inversely proportional to one’s happiness.

    Yep, here we go. It’s called “the commuters’ paradox”:


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