The Psychiatric Infrastructure of the City

A few years ago, the Boston Globe looked at what we might call the psychiatric impact of that city's Big Dig project. The Big Dig was a massively expensive urban engineering project that put Boston's Central Artery underground, freeing up space on the earth's surface for parks and businesses.

The project, however, was plagued with cost over-runs, engineering difficulties, and the periodic collapse of public support (even the periodic collapse of the ceiling).

From the Globe:
    In the short term, mental health experts say, tempers may flare as the public deals with the logistical inconvenience of detours, lingering uncertainty about the safety of the tunnels, and mounting cynicism about the project. (...) And there may be long-term effects as well – ones that could subtly reshape the city's identity.
What interests me here is not the obvious fact that bad traffic might cause tempers to flare, but the idea that people might develop historically unique psychiatric conditions because of a work of public infrastructure under construction somewhere in their city.

A new tunnel, say, is being dug between Manhattan and New Jersey, and moods in the city begin to darken. Psychiatrists notice a strange surge in patients; people come in complaining of nightmares of forced reunion, being in the same room again with an annoying relative they thought they'd left behind long ago. Homeowners wake at 3am each night, convinced someone's trying to break into the basement. The whole island is ill at ease.

And it's all because of that new tunnel getting closer and closer to completion.

Or, say, a new flood barrier is under construction outside London – a gleaming wall of metal that will rise from the tidal murk. Would it change the dreams of city residents? Would this distant piece of hydro-infrastructure affect how Londoners feel about their city – or about themselves? A new confidence. Dreams of survival. Psychoanalysts report that no one dreams of drowning anymore.

On one level here, the answers are both uninteresting and obvious: of course, these sorts of projects would affect the dreams, thoughts, and nightmares of a city's residents – after all, those new landmarks would be a part of the world these people live within.

But a less obvious, or less easily tracked, impact might be postulated here – that, say, a new bridge between San Francisco and Oakland might subtly change how San Franciscans think about their peninsular city, and that this only becomes obvious in retrospect, when someone notices that prescription rates have changed or the divorce rate has plummeted: it was the psychiatric implication of a new bridge that did it.

Put another way, if a new highway can have a measurable, and easily detected, impact on a city's economic health and administrative well-being, then could a new highway – or bridge, or tunnel, or flood wall, or, for that matter, sewage treatment plant – have a detectable impact on the city's mental health? After all, these sorts of massive public works "may carry a psychological burden," the Boston Globe wrote back in 2006.

It's the psychiatric infrastructure of the city.

(Thanks to Josh Glenn, Eric Fredericksen, and the Hermenautic Circle for the Boston Globe link).

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Blogger OU Pre Med said...

Think about how people would react if a nuclear power plant was built near there home. Psychiatrists' books would be filled all day. Great post.

July 31, 2008 12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

psychiatry with less emphasis on medication for issues and more on "being" is a more applicable method of cultural analysis of architecture perhaps than form and symobls (my opinion). via psychiatry with an empahsis on medication it would at least be more quantitative with perhaps more interesting results, i.e the city of NY may take a hell of a lot more this and that drug than any other city. this effectively proving that space may need medication!?!

but i'm going with Foucalt, Binswanger, and Heidegger on this, the standard method of sciencemay not apply 100% to psychiatry...

but hell if it did the future consequence of what you suggest above is incredible.

very interesting post.

July 31, 2008 12:47 PM  
Blogger timothy said...

without a doubt big public projects probably have an impact on the "mental health" of a city. Although we know it today as an impact on a "city's culture". There was a recent interview with HdM where they talk about the social impact of their stadium and it pairs up very nicely with this post (also because both of them over dramatize the situation, but thats why I love both of you ;)

here is the interview:,1518,569011,00.html

July 31, 2008 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paolo Soleri has made the same point: by building suburbs that are isolated boxes, supported by infrastructure which isolates even more, the people who live in the suburbs end up being isolated from their own humanity.

July 31, 2008 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live outside of Minneapolis, MN, where almost exactly a year ago, a bridge-portion of I-35W collapsed.

A year later, it's still a spectacle watching the new thing getting put up. I mean people get lawn chairs and sit on the Washington Ave. bridge. People clap.

At the same time, there's an awful lot of other construction. The highway is getting expanded to the south, with new bridges going up; there are long stretches of crosstown construction; large portions of highway shut down unexpectedly. It's part of living in/near Mpls; the roads are always in between usable.

I've wondered to myself about what you're talking about. I imagine it makes everybody feel, I don't know, under construction... always in a process of becoming, with no finality in sight... Can't count on infrastructure to be there for you when you need it, so you're always anxious, always feeling cut off, always about to be re-routed across rough terrain...

July 31, 2008 10:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ramifications of civic projects upon the psyche of inhabitants of, and visitors to, a city is certainly an interesting area of thought; But reading your post, i can't help but think that it would be the fact of public works being undertaken in the city that would have a greater affect on people, over their intended function.

Though changes to roads and transportation systems, must have a great effect on the way people see and experience a city, and the subtle forces this exerts on the mental construction of a person; to my mind, the future promise of a change to a road might well have less effect than, say, the endless inefficiencies of a poorly undertaken road building project. Creating frustration, and souring the way people think of the city administration, and the city itself. [Though the promise of a new road where there was none before must be deeply affecting to isolated people.] In the same way, a massive, monumental, or well run project could bring feelings of well being in the security of competant powers, and optomism or hope for the future.

Forgive the terrible spelling/grammar, and the little this post adds to any discourse, but i wished to add my 2c.

August 01, 2008 5:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both the post and the comments are fascinating to read and think about. I agree with Anon's point about the promise of a project being a catalyst for psychological change as much as an actual project. Many, many neighborhood advocacy groups suffer from an endemic bitterness about things that were promised and never delivered.

Also, I can definitely testify to the fact that growing up in a booming American edge city during the early '90's had effects on my psychology. Buildings seemed to sprout spontaneously out of the ground every spring, and it seemed like a law of nature that more and more of the fields I loved playing in would be destroyed every year.

The rapid consumption of space all around me was the first thing that ever gave me a sense of real loss and melancholy.

Which maybe leads to the next subject. What about the psychology of people who decide to change a city? What are we after?

August 01, 2008 7:14 AM  
Blogger Stelios said...

I came back to my hometown after living abroad for some months and I noticed something I hadn't(or didn't pay much attention to) before.It seemed to me that everyone was behaving a bit anxious, nervous. Especially when driving. We are supposed to be friendly people. After reading this, I 've started thinking that the fact that this city is under construction for several years (roads are being dug constantly, new roads being built, bridges and stuff like that for 4 years now), must have something to do with people's anxiety. Public works are constantly keeping us busy. We are drowning in noise and dust, routes keep changing. I think it is a strong reason.

August 01, 2008 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post made me think of a building at my college campus, which is a very foreboding structure. The rumor was that the interior was designed to be riot proof - few classrooms at ground level, hallways get progressively smaller the further inside you go, cell like windows. Almost as if it says "do not approach" and then is designed to discourage large groups of people from entering.

Little wonder then, that few people like it, and the school is planning on tearing it down. Its psychological effect once were charms, but now are faults?

"its windows are tiny slits; and its rough limestone walls are canted away from the street, as if to warn visitors away. There is no clearly defined front door; rather, a series of high staircases, leading to a maze-like interior with multiple dead ends.

August 01, 2008 10:02 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Of course, another way to invert all this would be to look at how dreams, nightmares, psychological diagnoses, psychiatric prescriptions, and so on change when major pieces of infrastructure are not opened up but shut down.

A tunnel that connects Manhattan to New Jersey is closed and so the dreams of the city's residents change. Nightmares of claustrophobia, isolation, or freedom ensue. Or the Golden Gate Bridge is, for whatever reason, dismantled, leaving San Francisco and Marin disconnected except by sea and so each population begins thinking differently. The psychological residues of urban infrastructural change. What you're connected to and what you're not connected to. Parallels to the I-35 bridge collapse, perhaps?

August 01, 2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger ERic said...

I can't speak about the psychology of the construction process, but I can say that it was really wonderful to visit Boston last spring and walk through that plaza over to the East End (do I remember the name right?) It does make me wonder, though, if removing that fence for the large buildings downtown will now permit the notion of large buildings on the east side of the new plaza. Not that I know squat about Boston building laws.

August 01, 2008 1:52 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

The NYC subway system certainly lends itself to a strange experience: going underground and emerging in the middle of another set of buildings with very little reference to how this transformation takes place (other than a map). I'm sure it adds to the schizophrenia that characterizes New York and a lot of New Yorkers.

However, if NYC lost all its confusion and anxiety, I don't think Manhattan would exist. As Koolhaas points out, Manhattanism survives by complexity and confusion. Maybe cities actually needed a little psychosis.

August 01, 2008 4:34 PM  
Blogger Writer said...

Is there an image of the During?

August 02, 2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Writer, if you do a Google Images search for "Big Dig" or "Big Dig Excavation" you can find some construction shots.

As it happens, though, a friend of mine was working for a filmmaker in Boston back in the winter of 1999 when the excavations were underway - and we got to go down into the tunnel as part of a location-scouting trip. It was amazing, by almost any standard, but it wasn't the huge, yawning chasm inside the earth, stretching off for several miles, that I think I wanted to see; it was a rectangular space choked with supporting equipment, railed walkways, steps, digging machines, and so on, with no long views anywhere, and it felt like any sort of run-of-the-mill digging operation. Which, obviously, is still a cool digging operation - but it wasn't quite the heroic Jules Verne-like experience I think we all had hoped it would be.

August 02, 2008 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to recall several discussions--maybe a whole genre--of how the Brooklyn Bridge created New York City as a city and a state of mind, but I may just be projecting.

And I'm sure the suburban commuter-friendly Robert Moses projects affected the perception of NYC itself as a place apart, not our [sic] problem, which could have contributed to its deterioration and decline in the 60's and 70's.

As for the psychology of closing a piece of infrastructure, it'd be worth looking at the closing of the Holland Tunnel post Sept. 11th. Or it's reopening to cars, but not to trucks, which had been using it--and Canal St--as a thruway to Brooklyn. I remember a distinct feeling of seclusion and recuperation, which was helped by not having so much annoying traffic.

August 02, 2008 9:42 PM  
Blogger Derrick said...

The Big Dig had such an affect on people in Boston because of how long it took as opposed to how long it was projected to take. People just began to come fed up with the project as it ate away at tax dollars as its pace to completion was no more than a crawl. But in the end I think that the Big Dig has nothing less than a positive improvement on the city. I attend school in Philadelphia and I hear that they are still thinking about moving I-95 underground to reconnect the city with its once life-line, the Delaware River. I wonder if the city of Philadelphia would take any lessons from the Big Dig!

August 03, 2008 12:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geoff, this is fascinating. Of course, I'll turn it around somewhat to wonder about similar issues in conflict space. What of the psychic/psychiatric impact of urban infrastructure in the wartime city?

August 03, 2008 7:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post seems somewhat relevant to the topic. Even if it isn't, I still found it interesting. Hope you will to.

August 04, 2008 1:58 PM  
Blogger August Dorsett said...

I think one of the most interesting psychological shifts in American architecture is the abandonment of the front porch in favor of the back deck.

I think the connotations are obvious.

It would be interesting to "diagnose" a city or neighborhood in order to create a program of architectural therapy.

August 05, 2008 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The city that I live in has incredible people, but it has no overall development plan which is resulting in such a mish-mash of condominium towers (over 100 condos are currently under construction) I can't take it anymore. It makes me crazy to think of what the final product will be (vertical slums?), and the lack of forethought.

Consequently I'm moving in two weeks.
I find it to depressing to think of the outcome here.

August 07, 2008 5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the person who understood this innately was Richard J. Daley of Chicago. He used the freeways to carve up and separate neighborhoods as effectively as if they were the pens of the Union Stockyards - notice the correlation how 50's and 60's Ward maps in Chicago align beautifully with highway construction (unless it was supposed to in order to dis-empower a potential future enemy). Never did a church get separated from its flock. The Dan Ryan is a rampart for Bridgeport.

All this makes me wonder what would happen to Chicago when those walls of moving cars are ever torn down - will it be like the people on either sides of the Berlin Wall who were neighbors for decades without ever knowing anything about the other?

Thanks for the great post Geoff.

August 12, 2008 2:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have been working on the idea of psychoterratic syndromes (mental health issues linked to the state of the earth/environment). I have also developed the idea of solastalgia or the homesickness you have when you are still at home and your home environment is changing in negative ways. Most of my work so far has been on large-scale development and climate change issues, but I am also interested in cityscapes and how change in this domain might be a cause of solastalgia. As the BLDG discussion suggests, the built environment is just as relevant to identification of psychoterratic issues and solastalgia as is the non-built environment ... very interesting.I have more information about solastalgia and other psychoterratic concepts on my blog healthearth:
Happy to learn more from the design world about this important area.

August 19, 2008 11:54 PM  

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