In the 1982 dystopic science fiction movie, Blade Runner, Deckard, the futuristic detective, gently stated that he “was looking for 6 replicants in a city of a 106 million people”. As he flew his hover car over buildings touching the clouds, housing the masses in a darkened, grey, mega city lit by the advertisement bill boards with a populace overcrowded, eating, sleeping cheek by jowl the movie sets the seen of a future where population density is more than a fact of life, it is life.
Dozens of similar futuristic movies, from Soylent Green, Elysium to the Hunger Games document the concerns and impacts of overpopulation of our planet and how humans live and survive in them. They aren’t the only chroniclers of the concerns of population growth. The English economist and cleric Robert Malthus, in in his 1798 essay, on the principal of population, famously opined that “population when unchecked, increases geometrical ratio, subsistence increases in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with the numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison to the second”. In short, as population grows unchecked the world will not be able to feed them and his view that only natural disasters, famine, plague or wars could check the mismatch.
Now many may suggest the emergence of Covid is one such natural check. Others, rightly will point out that, the worlds population of approximately 7.8 billion dwarfs the approximately 1 billion on the planet at the time of Malthus and the world is not starving or in Hunger Games territory. In fact through scientific advancements and productivity improvements the world is more than capable of feeding its population. Furthermore, with the UN drive educate the worlds population to eat plant based food and insects and abandon meat consumption (except for the privileged) this will never come to pass.
Yet in one area Malthus concerns and the terror of Blade Runner look like they are beginning to come true. As land becomes scarce in nations like the United Kingdom scientific advancement is enabling developers to build more accommodation higher into the sky squeezing more people into ever smaller areas of space. The government planning policies promote this. Yet as population density increases rapidly so have we seen huge increases in mental health issue affecting those living in higher density areas. The UK and cities of higher density levels are seeing sharp rises in depression, male suicide, psychosis, children mental health issues and an overall decline in human happiness.
The United Kingdoms land mass is a mere 93,409 square miles. In 1981 the population density was 232 people per square km. By 2019 this had increased by 18% to 275. England had in 1981 359 people per square Km and by 2019 this had risen by 20% to 432 people per square KM. A similar rise of 20% was recorded in Northern Ireland, 12% in Wales and only 6% in Scotland. England now is the 5th most dense country by population surpassed only by Rwanda, South Korea, Taiwan and Bangladesh.
But as a lucky few in Britain look outside their windows in Covid lockdown and see trees, grass, countryside and nature to soothe their mental health concerns the vast majority of people in England in particular no longer have that luxury nor ever will. Government statistics will quote that in London the average citizen only has another 5700 citizens squashed into their square kilometre. Yet this is a mere trifle compared to the citizens of Tower Hamlets sector 032D where 106,716 people are crammed into 1 square KM. Thats right a the population of town the size of Wigan or Lincoln occupy one square KM of a sector of London. If Blade runner needed to be filmed today it could easily film there. But Tower hamlets is not alone, Islington sector 011F has a density of 61,107, Hackney most dense area is 50,272.
London is not alone in high density sectors. Leicester has 15 sectors with populations of over 24,000 per square km, Middlesborough has alone area with 21000 per square Km and in Portsmouth there are 55 sectors with over 10,000 people per square KM. Throughout England the picture is the same. Cities are becoming metropolis, towns becoming cities or suburbs of a metropolis, villages are becoming towns. Housing developments invariable bland and ugly with no connection to the land or local heritage are increasing density levels in the country and there is no stopping it. Driven by large scale immigration, births from those who immigrated, and an increase in elderly population the population and density escalation continues apace
As there has been a rapid increase in population and density there is no doubt that in the United Kingdom there has been a huge increase in mental health issues. Mental Health FA England state that 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year, men aged 40 to 49 have the highest suicide rates in the UK. The World Health Organisation establish the ICD-10 categorisation of mental health and behavioural disorders and depression is the second leading cause of years lived with a disability globally. A further 301 diseases found that mental health problems to be one of the man causes of the disease burden globally. In addition to the ICD-10 categories of diagnosed mental health issues there has been an increase in mental health wellbeing issues which fall outside clinical diagnosis. This is particularly rising amongst children.
Of course there are many reasons for increasing number including greater reporting, widening definitions of mental wellbeing, and even the onset of social media. But research is now showing that density levels are having a serious impact on peoples mental health. In a Swedish study of 4.4 million 25 to 64 years olds those living in the most densely populated areas of Sweden had 68 to 77% more risk of developing psychosis and 12-20% more risk of developing depression than those who lived in less densely populated areas. When you consider that Swedens density is 25.4 people per square KM 17 times less than that of the UK and 1000 time less than London. This should indicate the level of mental health strain our densely pack ed country is in.
In 2011 eleven authors contributed to a letter in the Nature that stated that densely populated urbanisation led to a 21% increase in anxiety, a 39% increase in mood disorders and schizophrenia doubled compared to those in less dense non-urban areas. The longitudinal studies showed that it was densely urban areas that had a causal effect on mental health not other epidemiological factors. In addition cancer, respiratory diseases, heart attacks and children’s happiness were markedly suffering. A dutch study showed that out of 350 thousand studied depression was significantly higher in those who only had 10% green space compared to those who lived in 90% green space. A fact only the very few and rich enjoy in England.
And Children are now increasingly suffering more. The crowding of children in ever denser areas is significantly increasing mental health issues for the youngest in society. Children lack physical activity, independent mobility or play stifling child development and increasing a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, anger and introversion. India’s institute of mental health and neuroscience showed that urban children are becoming addicted to technology and substance abuse.. In 2014 records in the UK show 41000 children and young adults between 10 and 24 self harmed. In the UK 1 in 10 children are said to have suffered mental health issues and 45% of child line counselling now deals with mental health.
From studies in the US to Sweden, South America to India, Australia to the UK research is clear that living in densely populated areas increase mental health problems from clinical diagnosis to well being. Those who advocate increasing populations, density in cities and our towns may argue that it is their belief it is economically beneficial to the UK. Yet the figures are clear. The financial cost of mental health was £109 billion in England last year. The human cost of our children, families, suicides of men is far higher. It is time that this who have the wealth and benefit of living in luxury, space or can escape our shores consider their fellow citizens and look at reducing density levels, population increases and the destruction of our green spaces.
This article was first published in the Centre for Migration & Economic Prosperity in January 2021