A waitress sleeps as she take a break at a restaurant located in the Pudong financial district of Shanghai in 2013.
A waitress sleeps as she take a break at a restaurant located in the Pudong financial district of Shanghai in 2013. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Your feelings about your surroundings affect how well you snooze, according to new research.

Billie Jean Bateson, a 30-year-old fashion marketer, has lived in some varied places. These include a peaceful part of Bloomington, Indiana, as well as the noisy and densely populated Waikiki, Hawaii. While Bateson slept easily in Bloomington, Waikiki was another story.

Street noise from the bars and restaurants made it tough for her to nod off. But sound wasn’t the only impediment. Bateson was generally ill at ease. “I felt insecure in the neighborhood I lived in, and when the night [fell] it was impossible for me to turn my brain off,” she says. Her sadness at leaving her loved ones behind contributed to her insufficient sleep, and in turn this lack of sleep affected her mood. This went beyond the disruption of a move, she says. “I knew that adapting to a new neighborhood takes time, but when I realized that it seriously affected and undermined my sleep quality, I became worried I would get chronic sleep deprivation.”

From ubiquitous smartphones to intensifying noise and light pollution, it can seem like modern lifestyles are incompatible with a good night’s sleep. You might expect this to be especially true of disadvantaged neighborhoods, or ones that are especially dense and bustling.

Well, that’s sort of true. But a growing body of research into neighborhood-level effects on sleep has found that when it comes to how much and how deeply people sleep, perceptions tend to matter more than physical factors. A resident’s subjective experience of a neighborhood is strongly linked with health conditions and sleep habits, explains Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation who specializes in sleep equity.

A Sleep Health study co-authored by Troxel found that perceived safety and neighborhood satisfaction had the strongest relationships with self-reported sleep quality (basically, how well the respondents estimated they’d slept over the course of a week, using a 1–5 scale). These two factors beat out objective measures, including infrastructure, such as sidewalks and street lights; neighborhood disorder, such as street litter and broken windows; and land use, such as the quality of public spaces and services. The study controlled for other factors like poverty, psychological distress, and obesity, to show that how the Pittsburgh respondents feel about their neighborhoods affects how well they sleep, beyond their physical and mental health or socioeconomic status. The effects of these perceptions on sleep are small, but statistically significant, Troxel says.

The Sleep Health study is the first output from an ongoing research project that compares sleep effects in two Pittsburgh communities, Homewood and the Hill District. These largely African-American neighborhoods are similar racially and socioeconomically. The key difference is that the Hill District has undergone recent urban renewal projects in the forms of new housing, public spaces, and a supermarket (a big deal for a neighborhood that had been without one for 30 years). The aim now for Troxel and her colleagues is to investigate whether this urban revitalization has affected residents’ sleep—and, in turn, how sleep affects other health outcomes like obesity.

The work of Troxel’s colleague, Stony Brook University’s Lauren Hale, shows that these kinds of effects aren’t limited to Pittsburgh. Replicating findings from North America and Europe, Hale’s team has established that perceived neighborhood safety is associated with fewer insomnia symptoms and better sleep in Mexico, Ghana, South Africa, India, China, and Russia.

All this isn’t to say that infrastructure has no connection to sleep quality. Street lights are a good example. City authorities tend to like powerful white LED lights because they’re very bright, cheap, and long-lasting—but the bulbs can be so harsh that they suppress melatonin, disrupting circadian rhythms. This is one example of the many trade-offs that city officials have to make when it comes to ensuring resident wellbeing. It may be ironic that a measure intended to make residents feel safe is actually, in some places, keeping them on edge.

Infrastructure, like street lights, can affect how you sleep. But so can your feelings about your neighborhood. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Another caveat is that neighborhood-based explanations can only go so far. “If you live in a neighborhood or a home where you’re physically or emotionally or financially insecure, you’re more likely to have a more difficult time sleeping,” Hale says. And these factors can vary a great deal within a single block or even in the same home. Planners and policymakers might be able to, say, strengthen public spaces to build up a feeling of social cohesion. But there’s little they can do to address individual health factors.

Here’s what they can do: Listen to residents. One example might be a housing unit where residents have a say about where facilities are placed. In a real-world example, residents of Lake Worth, Florida, complained about intense LED lights. After conducting a survey, the city replaced harsh blue lights with warmer yellow ones, in keeping with residents’ preferences. City officials also allowed residents to choose brightness settings of individual lights, and to opt for light shields. The research of Hale and her colleagues might suggest that consulting on neighborhood affairs and subsequent changes helps residents feel secure enough to sleep well.

There’s still plenty that researchers don’t know about differences in sleep quality. It’s well-documented, for instance, that black Americans get less sleep than white Americans. But while there are plenty of theories, ranging from homelessness to food insecurity, the prevalence of shift work, and neighborhood effects, there’s a lack of consensus.

What does seem clearer is that a lot of this is relative. Hale says that “safety and security are the underlying root factors” of non-physical effects on sleep quality. Bateson, who moved from Indiana to Hawaii, is an example of how feeling more secure in a neighborhood can lead to more reliable sleep. In her case, her neighbors helped her find that comfort. “Meeting new people and making friends is certainly what helped me overcome the fear of the new,” she says. “In fact, they helped me become familiar with the city I lived in. I started feeling much better in my new home and I didn’t feel like a stranger anymore, so that affected my sleeping, which largely improved.”

More research will be needed to tease out all the different effects on sleep quality, which can’t be attributed to a single cause. But increasingly, it seems to be the case that neighborhood design and inclusion are vital parts of the puzzle.

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