How does the urban environment affect your daily life?
A growing roster of scientists believes there's a crucial link between our perceptions of city places and how we feel.
At the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, for instance, scientists at the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments (Relive) combine simulation, motion tracking, and neuroscience to determine how city spaces affect those who live there.
"Participants are placed into highly immersive simulations of city spaces using sophisticated head-mounted displays and precise motion tracking," stated Relive director Colin Ellard in a recent article in the Guardian:
They are able to walk freely through photo-realistic simulations of urban spaces that are replete with depth, colour, and motion. We can monitor their gaze and their movements along with their physiology using a set of unobtrusive sensors while they do so.
Awhile back, Ellard described a similar project undertaken in Mumbai, which used smartphone feedback to monitor citizens' perceptions, as shown in the video below:
When I wrote to Colin Ellard to ask whether he knew of other projects involving the link between psychology and architecture or urban planning, he mentioned the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, which is directed by Carlo Ratti. The project's website describes how technology can now help scientists determine what works and what doesn't in cities, based on human perception:
The increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years is allowing a new approach to the study of the built environment. The way we describe and understand cities is being radically transformed – alongside the tools we use to design them and impact on their physical structure.
Sensors aren't the only way to get information about how citizens view their surroundings. This week, design experts Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico plan to launch a project in Toronto to capture real-time information from social networks in order "to visualize cities' human geographies and affective flows." Similar projects have been undertaken by the pair in Rome and São Paulo as part of a larger "Human Ecosystems" undertaking. Iaconesi states on the Toronto project's website:
Human beings generate an enormous amount of public information during their daily lives to express their emotions, desires, visions and ideas. Using a set of technologies to map public communication flows on social networks in the city, this project... seeks to reveal how cities’ relational ecosystems are formed and which roles different people assume in their communities...
The purpose of all these projects focused on the psychology of city spaces is to help folk better manage the stress of where they work, walk, and go for recreation in today's urban environments. The research also encourages a fresh look at urban design and architecture and how both can better serve human needs.
Last month, for instance, Roger S. Ulrich, a visiting professor of architecture at Chalmers University of Technology, in Gothenburg, Sweden, described in a NY Times article how minor adjustments to the design of psychiatric hospitals has proven more effective for patients and healthcare systems. He wrote:
Thanks to decades of study on the design of apartments, prisons, cardiac intensive care units and offices, environmental psychologists now have a clear understanding of the architectural features that can [reduce patient stress] – and few of these elements, if incorporated into a hospital design from the outset, significantly raise the cost of construction.
It makes enormous sense to put sciences like psychology and neuroscience to work for the betterment of cities. Here's how Colin Ellard put it in an email to me:
Generally I think there's lots of stuff going on around the edges of the human sciences in schools of planning, geography, public health, etc... The field of environmental psychology, more or less born in the 1970s as, in part, a response to eco-consciousness, has faded quite a bit in more recent times but, with new tools like the ones I described in the article, I believe a resurgence of some kind may be in the offing.
— Mary Jander, Managing Editor, UBM's Future Cities