Big Picture: Inside the heart and mind of a city

Psychologist Colin Ellard is applying traditional and technological approaches to the study of urban spaces and those who inhabit them. Download PDF for poster.

‘If we want to know how to make a better city, the place to start is at ground level, using observation and measurement, and applying what is known of the human sciences to those measurements to build a psychologically grounded view of the relationship between the physical design of a city and what happens there.’ So says experimental psychologist Colin Ellard (University of Waterloo, Canada). Ellard told The Guardian Cities website how he is going beyond simple observations of overt behaviour, to look inside the bodies and minds of city dwellers.

‘We can measure their gaze, their beating hearts, the state of their autonomic nervous systems as they react to arousing and stressful events, their brainwaves,’ Ellard says. ‘With apps on our phones, we can record our location and movements, but also our moods, interests, and our patterns of thought.’

But a truly scientific approach to the city is a challenge. We can't tear down and rearrange city blocks to compare alternative urban realities. So in the research laboratory for immersive virtual environments (Relive) at the University of Waterloo, Ellard and his team have turned to simulation methods to help build such a science. Participants are placed into highly immersive simulations of city spaces, using sophisticated head-mounted displays, precise motion tracking, and a raft of sensors. ‘One of our environments is based on Shibuya, a hectic and seemingly chaotic part of Tokyo with its famous scramble crossing’, Ellard says. ‘We have found that journeys through systematic spaces are stereotyped and efficient and accompanied by low levels of arousal and attention; journeys through more chaotic spaces are longer, filled with more hesitations, arousal and effortful attention. Such findings give us a set of powerful methods by which to predict the psychological effects of an urban design before anything is built.’

Sometimes, though, there is no substitute for experimentation at street level. But what excites Ellard is the opportunity to then take those ‘real-world’ findings back into the simulations to pinpoint exactly what aspect of the environment is having the effect. He concludes: ‘As we move into an exciting new era of city design in which engaged citizens have never been more interested in how to make cities better, and in which they can be provided with good tools to contribute to the efforts to do so, this marriage of simulations and real-world observations leaves us poised to move into high gear.’

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