Berlin Lab

Designing Altruism: Can the Shape of Our Cities Make Us Nicer?

Charles Montgomery

If the shape of our urban landscape can change the way we feel, can it also change the way we act? More specifically, can it change the way we act toward each other?

Charles Montgomery is hoping Berliners will help him find the answer to this question next week.

The author of the forthcoming book Happy City (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, by Penguin in the UK, and by Doubleday in Canada), which investigates the link between urban design and human happiness, Charles was a Lab Team member in New York. There, among many other things, he worked with Colin Ellard to design “Testing, Testing!” It’s an experiment that continues to run here at the Lab in Berlin and that measures the influence of streetscape and urban design on human emotion.

Now Charles has  been invited back to the Lab in Berlin by Lab Team member Corinne Rose (who took over the reins of the Lab’s programming this week) to take that newly gained knowledge one step further. To do so, he’s staging an experiment that relies on public participation: “Green City, Grey City, Good City” on Wednesday, July 18.

As he told me recently over the phone, he planned this new experiment based on an investigation of data from his work in New York. “We know that the urban landscape can change the way we feel,” he explained. “We learned this through our ‘Testing, Testing!‘ program in New York City. We found that people display a physiological response to places. We also found that some places made people feel happier than others. So I looked at some of this data and then I compared it to some new insights in environmental psychology, and realized we simply must go further. We need to understand how places and place design change the way we regard and treat other people.”

To avoid botching the experiment, there are only so many details I’m allowed to give away about what it will actually be like. I can tell you, however, that the workshop is part tour, part game, and part psycho-investigation intended to reveal how different urban environments change the way we regard and treat other people.

Some related work has been done in this field already. When evolutionary biologist D.S. Wilson came to the Lab in New York, for example, he told us that people who took part in a study in his hometown upstate changed their view of a neighborhood and the trustworthiness of its residents based on seemingly unrelated design elements, such as the quality of a sidewalk. Other studies have shown that when people spend time immersed in nature, as opposed to a grey cityscape, they respond differently in surveys asking them about their life goals, putting more value on friends and less value on money. It has also been shown that people are nicer and more generous after they’ve ridden up on an escalator than when they’ve ridden down.

As this experiment will bring together three separate branches of science—game theory economics, neuroscience, and environmental psychology—this will be the first time an experiment this comprehensive has ever been conducted in this field.

Charles has no qualms about admitting that the experiment has an agenda. Five years of studying the science of happiness and its relation to urban life have shown him that there is one thing that science tells us with certainty: there is no more powerful ingredient to human happiness than positive social relationships.

While he emphasized that this is not intended to be an exercise in architectural determinism, he said, “We’re hoping that the things we learn will trigger a discussion in the Lab about building cities for altruism. The question is, how do we build cities that make people be nice to each other? We know that architecture and design are just one element among many that influence how we behave, and that if we work hard enough as individuals and groups, we can overcome these barriers even without changing design. But my point is that if we know walls separate us, then why wouldn’t we at least try to break some holes in these walls so that we can talk to each other. In other words, why not redesign cities that nudge us a little closer together, rather than pulling us further apart?”

He added, “The city is a social machine. That’s its purpose. But can its design tinker with the social architecture of our own minds?”

You can help answer Charles’s question—join him Wednesday, July 18, from 2:30-4:30 pm.

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Photo © 2011 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

  • Jen

    Thinking about the basic shapes and how certain ones promote unity….. a circular city with a park/central meeting place, if all cross roads radiate out from there…. or have clusters of buildings around central parks/meeting areas. Maybe that is part of what Central Park was supposed to accomplish for NYC when it was planned. I know that is part of what the Latino design, with the municipal buildings circled around a central park/meeting area, was supposed to accomplish.  

    Do lower buildings, where one can see the sky more and feel more a part of a planet vs. isolated, promote unity?

    I wish I could join the discussion on the 18th but I fly out for vacation that day. Please post it, I would love to read the results. It is a fascinating question, and I am so happy that someone is asking it.

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