Imagine walking over a bright rainbow-coloured crosswalk in Davie Village, Vancouver’s vibrant gaybourhood and then making a turn into a laneway lined with shrubs and shared gardens. Would you be more willing to chat to a stranger en route rather than in an area surrounded by simple, raw concrete constructions?
In an experiment involving a walking tour of the city district, cognitive neuroscientists and urban planners found exactly that: visitors reported feeling happier and more trusting of strangers around the rainbow intersection and greenery than anywhere else on the guided walk. They believed that if they lost their wallet there, chances were higher of getting it back if a stranger found it.
Meanwhile in London, British Land has turned the concrete-scape of Paddington Central – a campus with office, residential, hotel and retail spaces – into a green community centre with air hockey and table tennis tables, artwork, a herb garden for the local restaurants, and out-of-office-hours activities for workers and residents. Happy City, a Vancouver-based urban design and planning consultancy, helped the British property developer with the transformation towards a green campus, which was completed in 2017.
As people are becoming more aware of the influence of the surroundings on their health and wellbeing, urban planners and architects are starting to consider the social aspects of spaces to stave off loneliness and isolation, improve quality of life and ensure individuals and communities can pursue their own happiness.
Happy City often works with psychologists and neuroscientists to understand the implications of urban design. Using psychological surveys and skin electrodes to measure people’s emotional arousal in the moment, they learned that “people were much happier on sidewalks with active edges, that is sidewalks lined with small shops and services, than they were on sidewalks with blank or glass walls,” says Charles Montgomery, Happy City’s founding principal and author of the namesake book, adding that pedestrians usually walk more quickly along blank edges. “When you combine that insight with others, it gives you direction on how to design,” he says.
Psychologists have long known that exposure to green space improves people’s mood and wellbeing. Even in busy cities, a mere 20-minute walk through nature can reduce stress and symptoms of depression – at least for a spell, says Robin Mazumder, a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
He has been using VR to examine how being surrounded by tall buildings makes people feel. To do this, Mazumder exposes his test subjects to a range of digital and real-life cityscapes of London whilst monitoring their sympathetic nervous system through skin conductance measurements – an indicator of stress that changes when we sweat. The observed increases in stress levels could be associated with feelings of enclosure, intimidation, lacking view of the sky, or an evolutionary response to non-natural settings, he says.
That high-rise buildings can cause a sense of oppressiveness and that people prefer to wind down in a quiet, green space is perhaps not so surprising, not least because skyscrapers are known to amplify noise, concentrate air pollution on ground level, and cause a downdraught wind effect. “If my work shows that these [skyscrapers] have negative impacts on people’s emotional states, how can we use that to advocate to maintain open spaces in cities?,” asks Mazumder. His research aims to explore whether city environments with a high density of tall buildings can have a long-term detrimental effect on wellbeing or whether people are able to recover from daily stress, a question he admits is not so simple to answer just by measuring study participants’ physiological responses and subjective answers to a mood questionnaire.
Cities shouldn’t stop building up altogether, Mazumder says, but could create more rooftop gardens, open up existing parks to the public and encourage art installations. “I think that also does something to our psychology. Access to beauty is extremely important,” he says. People living in concreted areas with no access to nature could benefit from such installations. “There’s been research that suggests when people experience awe, they are more social and more likely to connect with other people,” says Mazumder.
In the Vancouver case study, people’s mood was lifted around the colourfully-painted crosswalks, which comes as little surprise according to Happy City’s Montgomery. “Colours are symbols. The rainbow crossing, for some people, triggers feelings of playfulness and contentment, and for others, connotes social inclusion,” he says.
Most of the study participants were from outside the city of Vancouver and still reported feeling a greater sense of belonging in a place that was more oriented towards people and reflected the local inclusive culture. The urban intervention also made people slow down. “When we slow down, we are more likely to make eye contact with other people,” Montgomery says, explaining that this can produce a feeling of conviviality, trust and safety.
But it’s not only about how buildings and neighbourhoods are developed but where. Araceli Camargo, a cognitive neuroscientist and co-founder of The Centric Lab says people living in London’s most deprived areas are often exposed to more noise, light and air pollution and heat, which can lead to chronic stress and illness.
“This starts to come into wellbeing when you have no rest, because you’re just moving from one stressor to another,” she says. Whether a busy road or a poorly-insulated building keeps people up at night, “there is no way for your body to come back to homeostasis (equilibrium)”, Araceli explains, adding that this can have an effect on how someone is going to interact with people the next day – particularly if they are already suffering from anxiety and depression.
Her London-based research institute has teamed up with University College London to help developers, investors and architects better understand how people experience buildings and places. Combining the UK government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) with satellite data, the group has been categorising London’s neighbourhoods based on their risk of environmental stressors.
The hip area of Shoreditch, for instance, scores badly compared to Stratford, six kilometres to the east. The high density, influx of delivery vehicles, ongoing construction work and resulting air and noise pollution make Shoreditch one of the worst locations for offices and residential buildings. “If you want your workers to perform well and not to call in sick, where would you put them so they can work calmly?,” she asks.
Araceli’s team has been ranking locations across London and, in the coming months, will be releasing a report highlighting emergency areas from a health perspective. “We have so many core challenges in cities that if we just make people less sick, then after that we can start aiming for happiness,” she says, stressing that developers and architects should focus on providing healthy environments for people. “If a person has access to dignity they have a greater opportunity to create their own happiness.”
Public space designers and architects have long measured their success based on the number of people who dwell in the places they create. But given that people’s health and wellbeing is primarily influenced by the environment, their lifestyle and behaviour, designers of the built environment have an important role to play, says Barbara Bochnak, a former lead architect for the late Zaha Hadid.
In 2017, she founded ITOLab, a practice specialising in human-centred design, with her architect brother Jan. As a key factor in health concerns, loneliness and isolation can be tackled by “creating a more inclusive environment, which encourages interaction and enables full accessibility by all ages and ability,” Bochnak says.
In conventionally private places like hotels and offices, public and mixed-use spaces where people can meet and socialise are increasingly sought after. For Bochnak, buildings should be functional and allow for admiration and inspiration at the same time. When asked whether urban interventions and green spaces were becoming the new standard in architecture and urban design, she says with a smile, “I wouldn’t call it a new trend. Art and nature are needed in our life as much as good quality air and water. It’s what makes us human or, if you prefer, happy humans.”
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