Placing mind in the metropolis

Our journalist Ella Rhodes speaks to psychologists about what we need to bring to our urban spaces.

More than half of the world’s population lives in an urban area. According to the United Nations’ World Cities Report 2016, three-quarters of cities have higher levels of income inequalities than 20 years ago; there are growing populations, slums and insecure settlements; more people than ever are having to migrate involuntarily; and many cities are facing threats associated with the environment and climate change. Could the design of our cities combat some of these challenges, and embrace the changes technology will bring? Is psychology well placed to form the foundation of the cities of the future?

Cities can sometimes feel like the world in microcosm… beyond the wide-open spaces of rural areas, the everyday interactions and experiences of people can feel squashed and squeezed into urban life. Psychology itself can feel concentrated and magnified. The rich and powerful rub shoulders with the down and out. Sometimes this is brought into sharp relief: when I talk to Dr Daniel Masterson, who works as a consultant giving advice to local authorities on healthy urban planning, the Grenfell Tower disaster is fresh in his mind.

Masterson wasn’t surprised that cost (in a deprived part of the borough) and the external appearance of the building were placed ahead of the safety of residents. ‘The reason for this cladding wasn’t to improve the community, it was done to the community for the benefit of another area of the community. The work we do as psychologists is to help people to live longer with better quality of life. A lot has been undone by inequality in society; where you’re born seems to have a greater impact on your health and wellbeing than anything psychologists can do. I think it’s something we’re obligated to inform in some way.’

These are challenging times for crystal ball gazers. Society has reached a strange impasse where technology has never been smarter and unimaginable advances are likely to be affecting us very soon, but where we also face enormous threats, politically and environmentally, which make the future difficult to see. Yet all the psychologists we spoke to vehemently agreed on two themes as vital in helping our cities of the future to flourish – health and inequality. They felt that psychology has an opportunity to place itself in the heart of cities, but that to do so psychologists must embrace their neighbours in other disciplines and use all available tools to build better, fairer urban areas.

Finding direction
My journey into the heart of the city begins with Dr Hugo Spiers from University College London. We start off with bricks and mortar, but quickly veer off into psychology’s accepted place in a city.

Spiers tells me there used to be psychologists within many architecture departments [and indeed see this piece in our archive]. Yet he adds, ‘I’ve spoken to large construction firms and they’ll say, “Look, we don’t want to hear about p-values, we just want to know does it work?” But that’s the antithesis of what we do as scientists. I don’t go on the Today programme and say, “Our data shows it works 100% of the time!” Buildings are a piece of engineering and what goes into them now is incredible, but you can’t apply smart technology to buildings and just assume it’ll work for people… human beings are very complex. The jump to psychology, neuroscience and smart technology is big, but it’s really hard for firms to get their heads round.’

While companies happily accept ‘neuroscience’ in guiding buildings and urban plans, Spiers said psychology was also essential. ‘A lot of what we need to do is bring psychology into this field with just a sprinkling of neuroscience. Over time I expect more neuroscience will enter the game, but what is really needed now is methods and innovations from psychology. People’s perception of psychology isn’t fully rounded, and that’s very true in real estate – a major focus is on spending money, organising sites and energy consumption calculations. From their world of green or smart buildings neuroscience fits in as a ‘hard science’, but psychology doesn’t.’

Spiers has spent his career exploring the neural mechanics of navigation, and how the modern age is affecting this ability. He recently worked with the company The Centric Lab in London on secondment. The company is trying to create a vision of the city of the future using psychology and neuroscience. In recent years Spiers has been assessing people’s navigation within real cities, rather than in simulated experiments. One study has shown the areas of the brain involved with navigation don’t tend to be activated when people are passive in navigation – or using a sat-nav for example. ‘A big challenge we face is going from “this is how your brain responds” to “this is predictive of a good experience”. Your brain might well be doing all sorts of things, but it doesn’t mean we can say, “Because your brain will be active in these ways, we know you will be upset or confused.” You need to ask people things and you need to study human behaviour and psychometrics and psychology, characterising how people behave and their emotional reactions to things, in well-constructed questionnaires. Carefully understanding people’s experience using experimental psychological methods has a lot of potential and needs to be brought into the worlds of real estate and architecture more.’

Spiers and colleagues are embracing technology as a useful tool for those designing buildings and spaces with people in mind, allowing them to experience a place before it really exists. ‘You can put someone in immersive virtual reality in a film simulation and they can experience a journey through streets. This changes the power of psychology experiments; you will be able to put people through the exact same 3D film experience, can measure where they all look, how they feel, plot their head and eye movements, delete and edit the landscape and move buildings and delete them.’

While navigation will be important for new and growing cities, Spiers said he hoped that health would be at the forefront of designing for new metropolises. ‘In a nutshell, I’d like to see cities of the future designed with health in mind… Can we make inspiring cities that nurture our mental and physical wellbeing?’   

Towards better mental health
Writing for Scientific American Mind Dean of the Boston School of Public Health Sandro Galea described the increased health risks cities bring with them. Asthma, depression, cancer and overall rates of mortality have been linked to living in a city. In the 1930s sociologists Robert Faris and H. Warren Dunham documented a high concentration of schizophrenia and other mental health problems in the slums of Chicago, while a recent meta-analysis showed urban areas were associated with a 39 per cent greater risk of mood disorders and a 21 per cent greater risk of anxiety disorders. PTSD symptoms are also more commonly found in the city, with an astonishing 40 per cent of patients arriving at Chicago’s John H. Stroger Jr Hospital showing signs of the disorder.

Psychology Professor Rhiannon Corcoran (University of Liverpool) and her husband, Urban Designer Graham Marshall, have teamed up in recent years on the Prosocial Place Programme (PPP). This aims to tackle this higher prevalence of severe mental health problems in cities, called the urbanicity effect, and improve cities in terms of how good they are for mental health and wellbeing. ‘What we want to do is provide a decent social scientific evidence base… trying to analyse what it is about places that make them distressing for us so we can then begin to build hypotheses on how to make them better.’

There are many theories about why cities seem to be so bad for mental health, with ‘social drift’ being favoured by some – the idea that those in distress may move to cities to find work or accommodation. Yet birth cohort studies in Scandinavia seem to suggest the ill effects of cities are dose-dependent – the more time we spend in cities as children, the more likely we are to experience mental illness. ‘People are also starting to think about things such as traffic, highways and pollution and the stress of inner-city living. Some have suggested that it’s got to do with the perceived resource of an environment, whether or not you believe you’re living in areas of deprivation or low quality,’ Corcoran tells me.

One of the PPP’s first published studies asked participants simply to contemplate photos of residential places and assessed distress-related variables before and after. After looking at the photos, participants seemed to think about the future less and felt more risk of threatening events when looking at the less desirable areas. In more recent work, submitted for publication, groups of students were guided on a walk around Liverpool from its leafy, relatively affluent suburbs to inner-city areas of deprivation. They filled in diaries along the way. ‘Some of the more interesting findings for me were incidental things we did,’ Corcoran says. ‘We asked students to assess the relative socio-economic status of their family at the beginning and end of the walk. At the end they recognised their relative privilege rather better – there was a significant increase in how well off they saw themselves. It seems going to places reminds you of your place in the social world. That was really quite powerful.’

People were also asked to imagine they had a certain amount of money that could be given to community groups to improve the neighbourhood. Across the walk there was a significant change in the amount people would theoretically give. ‘We think places have a powerful effect on altruism – which is where the Prosocial Place Programme really came from, the idea that our social cognition, our ability to be a sociable species and cooperate, will be impacted by the places we live.’

Beyond the immediate
What do Corcoran’s findings mean for urban planning? She talks in terms of resources. ‘If people perceive resource in their environment – and I mean resource in a very wide sense, including green space, features like heritage buildings, beautiful windows, well-maintained gardens – this will tell people whether they can afford to behave in a prosocial manner. This is consistent with life history theory, from evolutionary psychology: that if we live in an environment that seems to be low on the resources we need to thrive, we are going to quicken our life history, we’re going to future discount. We’ll do things for immediate gratification, we’ll get hedonic wellbeing and quick rewards, because we can’t afford to think about the future too much if we don’t know if we’re going to be flourishing. This is an adaptive reaction: the behavioural life choices people make are primed by their environment, and it potentially explains a lot of the characteristics you see in groups of people living in deprived conditions.’

So if we change places to feel more well-resourced, more cared-for, could this lead to better community spirit and potentially more altruism? ‘I think it’s really important for psychologists to be involved with this,’ Corcoran says. ‘We can ask the right questions. Architecture in the 20th and 21st century has been about “starrytechture” – the big impressive buildings. These tend to be statements of the architect, not about the human experience of the building or how well a place makes people feel. Those human questions are the ones we want to ask and the ones we’re trained to ask.’

Yet even more so than psychologists, communities need to be involved too. ‘Most people know what makes a nice place and somewhere people want to live,’ Corcoran says. ‘We can analyse those kinds of responses to build the themes that would then build guidance and policy. Furthermore, we have shown that getting people involved in designing their places is good for them – it has wellbeing benefits.’

Cold, hard realities
Resources. ‘Beautiful’, ‘nice’ places. I don’t want to shatter the futuristic visions of clean, green, opulent city spaces, but are they realistic in these ‘austere times’?

I think back to Daniel Masterson, who knows the realities of local authorities having worked closely with Stoke-on-Trent City Council public health and planning staff. He told us that while the National Planning Policy Framework in England makes reference to the importance of health in new developments, very often such impacts are considered an afterthought. Masterson delivered training on Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) and guided planning officers and developers. Yet many were not aware of their own healthy urban planning policies, or were simply too overstretched to give these policies their full attention. ‘Planning officers are very dedicated, but they’re constantly overworked, and health was largely seen as a bolt-on.’

Inequality emerged as a key issue for Masterson while working with developers. He noticed affluent areas attracted better-quality and healthier developments, while in poorer areas developers tend to invest less in healthy urban planning. In deprived areas, he said, there is greater pressure on local authorities to attract investment, which restricts a planning officer’s ability to negotiate. In addition, planning officers also have to consider a wide range of statutory requirements as well as local authority priorities. Masterson gave one example of a proposed development in Stoke-on-Trent that included green space but limited parking. Planning officers subsequently suggested removing some of the green space in favour of more parking: ‘I was involved in this proposed development and I thought the plans were fantastic. During a meeting one planning officer suggested leaving out some of the planned green space to fit more parking on the site. I was mortified. People complain to the local authority that there’s too many cars on the streets, roads are too busy, so the priority for elected members is to think about improving traffic flow and parking provision, but they don’t prioritise reducing traffic volume by promoting cycling or walking – and that gets passed on to officers through the chain of command. This is how the planning system works.’

Big data and big opportunities
Dr Catherine Lido (University of Glasgow) has been working alongside the Urban Big Data Centre within the integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project since it launched in 2013. The project has involved an in-depth household survey of 1500 people, capturing movements using GPS tracking, taking real-time recordings of people’s day-to-day lives in cities using wearable cameras, and capturing the holistic activity of Glasgow using social media posts about the city across a year. Her team’s survey measured demographics, attitudes, behaviours and knowledge in an attempt to capture how inequality emerges within education. In one of the first published studies from the data they found older adults struggle to continue learning, both formally and informally, if they felt unsafe or as if they didn’t belong in their urban communities.

Lido said psychologists shouldn’t be coy about coming to the table in terms of urban design. ‘We can work at the individual level and the academic level, and we occasionally dip a toe into the policy level. But I rarely meet psychologists involved with urban planning. The movement towards smart cities had to start with digital and infrastructure issues, and now they’ve got them rolling I think social inclusion is very much on the radar. What’s going on in the world now with Brexit, Trump, the migrant crisis, hate crimes and ethnic tensions has made us realise we can’t just look at digital infrastructure of cities and smart cards, now we need to work on the social inclusion aspects. That’s where psychologists have a much bigger role to play in the future, I hope.’

Interdisciplinary work is central to this, according to Lido. ‘I think the attitude towards stepping outside mainstream psychology is changing… psychologists are appearing increasingly in open access and non-psychology outlets, but there’s still a tension over whether that’s perceived academically as rigorous, and how it will impact our careers as psychologists.  We are often told to specialise and not try to be ‘jack of all trades’, but how does this affect our responsiveness to change, particularly when novel data, methods and urban challenges come along? We need to listen to others in different disciplines, we need to be open to new conceptions of what data is, what psychology is, and new ways to communicate and collaborate so our findings are meaningfully used to address social challenges.’

Coming together
Amidst the uncertainty, and mountains to climb over equality and health, there is hope that cities will be places of unimaginable technological advance and positivity. As Edward Glaeser wrote in Scientific American Mind, cities can be places that foster creativity. More cities in a country means higher income overall; in our cities life expectancy is higher; and in New York City the death rate by vehicle accidents is 70 per cent lower than the USA as a whole. Yes, concentrated populations can result in group conflict and tension, but the American Psychological Association’s urban taskforce concluded in their report that cities also have the capacity to develop intercultural harmony and sensitivity. Psychology is at the crossroads, perfectly placed to promote health, equality and togetherness in order to make cities places of not just technological, but social advances.

- Ella Rhodes is The Psychologist's journalist. She also asked several psychologists for their one way psychology could benefit the design of cities. Here's a selection of their responses.

From the ground up
The problem with integrating nuggets of psychological wisdom into our design of a whole city is that even if we can make sense of the evidence and translate it into a design, it cannot easily be integrated into a comprehensive approach. Designs of many post-war housing estates have taken into account the needs of users at the time and often featured lots of green spaces, access to transport and shops. Although these estates were designed with the needs of ordinary people in mind, many of them are now considered model examples of how not to design modern housing. Where did it go wrong?

Of course, there is not one simple reason. One factor might be the scale of these designs and the impossibility of one masterplan to accommodate the many different small-scale interactions and transactions inhabitants might need or want. Whatever the looks of the city of the future, we know people will thrive when they have the ability to make a living, when they belong to different groups and have stable relationships, when they can rely on being cared for when necessary, when they feel a sense of control over their environment and future and when they trust neighbours and local government to do the right thing.

The challenge in designing cities of the future is in organising the conversation surrounding these questions, not just among psychologists but across disciplines, and especially involving residents and other institutions. The future city is not designed top-down by some all-knowing visionary but has scope for horizontal exchange and bottom-up influence. In order to achieve that, the process of building a thriving community becomes part and parcel of the design process itself.

- Professor Tom Postmes University of Groningen

Transport choices
Our city centres are clogged with cars, so I expect we will see many changes to the modes of transport people use in them. But I think many people are overly optimistic about how fast the use of driverless cars will grow, and about the success they will have.

They will have major benefits in terms of safety and mobility for our ageing society, but people will take time to adjust to the changes. We see that with Europeans sticking to manual gear-shift cars despite automatic cars being readily available. And with the introduction of ABS we expected to see fewer accidents but, actually, people felt safer so braked later and more accidents happened. It’s difficult to know how people will respond to new transport technologies.

Driverless cars may also appear in cities last, given the complexity of the road systems and the number of pedestrians and cyclists. Lots of progress has been made, but we can’t afford machines to make an error here. With automated vehicles, it’s likely we’ll see fewer accidents, but when accidents do happen they’ll probably involve many more vehicles and get a lot of attention in the news (like plane crashes do).

There is also likely to be an increase in the diversity of means of transport – we see it a lot in the Netherlands already with bicycles which can reach 45 km/h.

- Professor Dick de Waard University of Groningen

The personality of cities
We created the Urban Psyche assessment, where you can do a personality test on a city… we’ve carried these out in around 20 cities. It’s not perfect, but it leads to a different form of discussion about where the city can go. You can focus on healing the fractures that come out. Mannheim, in Germany, came out as having a lack of confidence… what do you do when a place lacks confidence? Arts programmes may be one thing. These assessments force you to get out of whatever silo you’re in and consider that the solution may be a combined one.

So much about cities is calculated in an economic way, but human emotions are just so much more sophisticated. Our social and tribal natures bump into each other all the time. When we feel at ease, we’re more social and the city becomes more pleasant in general; when things feel like they’re moving too fast, people close in. Many of the things that make people feel psychologically good are to do with old-fashioned words like beauty. Confusing the priorities, not thinking there can be another way: those are barriers to psychologically healthy cities.

We need to really understand the deeper motivations and feelings of the people living in a city and what makes life meaningful for them. You must link things about health and mental health with other aspects like jobs or the aesthetics of the place. Then embed characteristics of what makes you feel good about a place or project into designs of buildings.

- Charles Landry Co-author with Chris Murray of Psychology & the City: The Hidden Dimension (2017, Comedia), who both also created the Urban Psyche assessment

Beyond basic needs
Cities should fulfil our ‘basic needs’, in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy – food, water and shelter. But that is not enough for the cities of the future. The built environment also needs to make us feel safe, connected, and inspired (to learn, be creative, play and be active). How can our cities be enhanced to optimise and fulfil these needs?

First, architectural practices need to focus on building relationships with and between their users. For example, the Living Architecture Systems Group looks at how architecture can elicit qualities that come close to life – environments that can move, respond, learn, adapt and empathise with their inhabitants. As well as needing spaces that interact with their users, we need spaces that enable interactions between users. Helping people build connections with others is a major part of a healthy city.

The built environment also needs to care for its inhabitants. The design of a building should focus on having the maximum impact on wellbeing, and this is particularly important in schools and hospitals, where things like the amount of nature and light available to people affects their healing and learning.

Finally, we need to consider how the physical aspects of the built environment can affect us psychologically, so that we can optimise the design of a space to enhance needs such as perceptions of safety or inspiration and awe. This is where neuroscience comes in.
For example, researchers in the built environment have begun to use skin conductivity or EEG data to understand the ‘emotional topographies’ of an area (Colin Ellard, Urban Realities Laboratory). Augmented and virtual reality can also be used to experiment with different designs or scenarios even before they are built. Understanding the psychological impact of a design on its potential users means that the design can be reworked and optimised to elicit a desired feeling or response.

As new technologies develop and cities become smarter, the built environment is likely to become more emotionally in tune with its users. Although there is a lot of promise in this area, as with any psychological research, there are also ethical considerations to make sure this work is not causing harm to the city’s inhabitants. How can we ensure the psychological impact of a design is positive for all users? How can we make sure a place actually is safe and doesn’t just feel safe? As long as we take these sorts of questions into account, the incorporation of psychological methods in designing cities is likely to help make them healthier and happier places to live.

- Lucy Barrett Design Researcher for the government-funded Future Cities Catapult

When the waters come
Coastal zones are areas of deep concern when it comes to climate change; 60 per cent of the world’s population live in these areas, and 80 per cent of coastal populations live in cities. Of the world’s 19 largest cities, 14 are port cities. There are two primary threats to human wellbeing: slow-onset events (sea-level rise) and extreme weather events (hurricanes).

EcoAmerica and the American Psychological Association have recently published two documents that illustrate the human impact of storm surges, sea-level rises, and more. These documents starkly demonstrate that climate change is already affecting communities. Areas in coastal Louisiana and islands in the Chesapeake Bay are losing land to erosion and rising seas. Recently, residents of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, which has lost 98 per cent of its land since 1955, became the first climate refugees in the United States. Currently, and in the future, coastal cities will need to address adaptation, resilience and risk preparedness from sea-level rise and extreme weather, not only for the physical infrastructure but also for the resident populations.

The impacts on the individual of slow-onset events may include displacement, a sense of loss, helplessness, substance abuse and anxiety, while extreme weather events may lead to trauma, shock and strain on social relationships.                 

The impact on community health may include loss of sense of belonging, increased violence and aggression, and social instability. Many of these outcomes are discussed in both the IPCC Group II Fifth Assessment and in the joint publications by ecoAmerica and the APA. The report Mental Health and Our Changing Climate states that psychology is well placed to address group process, community problem-solving, social cohesion and connectedness, a lack of trust between community members and institutions, differences in vulnerability, attitude–behaviour links, risk perception, and fear appeals.

The report also argues that leaders in mental health have the opportunity to raise awareness of many of these issues. It suggests those in the field should remain up to date with climate-change news, run workshops on climate issues to inspire action in others, encourage and work with local community leaders to find solutions to climate-related issues, and support solutions by publicly sharing expertise to influence the media and policy makers.

- Dr Peter R. Walker Environmental psychologist and Representative for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues at the United Nations in New York

Illustration: Guido Iafgliola

Key sources
APA Task Force on Urban Psychology (2005). Toward an urban psychology.
Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health: www.urbandesignmentalhealth
Clayton, S. et al. (2017). Mental health and our changing climate. Washington, DC: APA and ecoAmerica.
Corcoran, R. et al. (2017). Places change minds: Exploring the psychology of urbanicity using a brief contemplation method. SAGE Open, April–June, pp.1–11. doi:10.1177/2158244017707004
Environmental Design Research Association:
Galeo, S. (2016, 16 September). Shaping the urban brain [Blog post]. Scientific American Mind.
Glaeser, E. (2017). Triumph of the city: Engines of innovation. Scientific American Mind, March, pp.102–105.
Javadi, A-H. et al. (2017). Hippocampal and prefrontal processing of network topology to simulate the future. Nature Communications, 8. doi:10.1038/ncomms14652
Lido, C. et al. (2016). Older learning engagement in the modern city. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 35(5), 490–508.
United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) (2016). Urbanization and development: Emerging futures. World Cities Report 2016. Nairobi: Author.

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