This Scientist Is Using VR to Understand Why Skyscrapers Stress People Out

On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.


I’m sitting on a bench staring up at a 40-storey monolithic skyscraper. It’s flat, grey, and overall it’s pretty ugly. I see similar buildings all around me. I’m in a cavern of concrete.

According to the sensors attached to my arm and a blood pressure reading taken just a few seconds later, I’m feeling stressed.

University of Waterloo PhD student and researcher Robin Mazumder pulls the VR goggles off of my head and takes my blood pressure. Mazumder theorizes that tall, oppressive buildings are contributing to a rise in mental health problems among city dwellers. Even those who have lived in cities their entire lives may exhibit signs of stress, he told me. And that stress is making us sick: studies have linked city living to a range of disorders, while exposure to green spaces has been associated with improved health.

Mazumder, who once worked as an occupational therapist, is now exploring this theory as part of his PhD dissertation, titled The Downside of Building Up: An Exploration Into the Stress Impact of Exposure to Skyscrapers in Urban Centres. That research received a financial boost after he was named the 2017 Vanier Scholar.

Robin Mazumder in the lab. Image: James Jackson

He is testing that hypothesis in a study that assesses people’s stress response to buildings, through the medium of virtual reality. One late summer day, I joined him on the University of Waterloo campus, about an hour west of Toronto, to try it out for myself.

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As I prepared to participate in the experiment, Mazumder strapped a monitoring device onto my left forearm and attached electrodes to my pointer and middle fingers, then took my blood pressure. He took some baseline readings before I put on a pair of VR goggles and immersed myself in a digital cityscape.

The device on my hand measured small changes in sweat, a subconscious response to stress called the galvanic skin response, which is also measured in a lie detector test. “There have been correlational studies that found living in cities is linked to higher levels of mental or physical illness,” he said.

Research published in The Lancet in October found that exposure to and interactions with green spaces in Canada’s largest cities were associated with “significant decreased risks of mortality in the range of 8 to 12 per cent.” The research included more than 1.25 million subjects over the age of 19.

Meanwhile, other studies have found a link between urban environments and various disorders. For example, a 2012 study estimated that growing up in a city can double your chance of developing schizophrenia later in life, an association that was reinforced by a separate 2015 Danish study that found “birth in an urban environment is associated with an increased risk for mental illness in general and for a broad range of specific psychiatric disorders.”

“It’s not that standing in front of a skyscraper will give you a heart attack. It’s about chronic exposure and that chronic experience of stress and what it does to you,” said Mazumder.

Measuring stress response. Image: James Jackson

For the past year, Mazumder has been exploring his theory by exposing four groups of 25 test subjects to four different scenarios in VR. In the first, you are surrounded by enormous grey 40-storey buildings on all sides. (That’s the one I tried.) The second sees subjects surrounded by smaller, two-storey grey buildings. The other two scenarios place landscaped trees on the sidewalk to act as a buffer from these buildings.

Mazumder measures the heart rate and galvanic skin response of each person to determine how they subconsciously respond to the different environments. He uses deception to ensure his tests are reliable: Subjects don’t have the full picture of what he’s researching before they strap on the helmet, so they can’t carry their biases into the VR setting.

“I tell them the study is about examining how people experience virtual reality environments versus real environments,” he told me. “They come in not even thinking about it, and it taps into what I’m interested in—the subconscious impact these surroundings have on our physiological responses.”

Read More: Don’t Plant Trees, Say Calgary Residents Who Fear Criminals Will Hide in Them

For my test, Mazumder had me look at the 40-storey buildings with no vegetation, and the two-storey buildings with trees. To my surprise, my mean arterial blood pressure was about 12 points higher when staring up at the enormous skyscrapers, indicating I may have felt stressed.

Mazumder believes the solution lies in urban planning. That includes biophilic design for new buildings that incorporate curves and a more natural esthetic, varied use of building materials such as rock and stone, and using natural landscaping and vegetation. (Something as simple as planting trees can lower crime rates and reduce levels of stress.)

“Car-centric cities are contrary to anything that would help us be healthier”

In other words, more human-scaled design. Not everyone can afford to live in a detached home, especially in major urban centres like Toronto or Vancouver, so more affordable highrise buildings are going to be necessary.

“I’m not going to be the one to say ‘stop building up’ because I think intensification is inevitable,” he said. “If I can prove that there are meaningful stress impacts, the next step is to identify design interventions.”

Take a quick look at some of the oldest cities in Europe and you’ll see that many of those design details are present: narrow, cobblestone streets that are home to patios and bicycle paths instead of cars and trucks like in most North American cities. A return to those roots would go a long way, Mazumder argued.

“We’ve been living in clusters for millenia, but I think with car-centric cities have become places you drive through, and that’s contrary to anything that would help us be healthier,” he said. It’s an idea that urban planners are embracing once again, he added.

“Cities are trying to think a bit more about what it’s like to experience a city. We’ve gone a long roundabout way to come back to something we knew intuitively.”

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