When environmental psychologist Colin Ellard and Lab Team member Charles Montgomery first teamed up during the New York Lab to design Testing, Testing!—an interactive experiment measuring people’s emotional, mental, and physiological reactions to different types of urban environments—it was a bold foray into unknown territory.
In fact, as Ellard put it to me in an interview back then, it was “total chaos.” Why? Because the experiment was attempting to do something that had never really been done before in Ellard’s field of environmental psychology: take the studies out of the laboratory, and test them in real life. As much as Testing, Testing! was seeking to measure people’s reactions to the real-life urban environment, it was also seeking to discover whether or not it is even feasible to reliably measure that at all amidst all the noise.
Now, nearly two years and three Labs later, Ellard’s hard work has more than paid off. Yes, it turns out, taking this kind of research to the streets is very possible to do. And what you find when you do it is fascinating and important, providing essential direction toward new and better ways to plan and build our public spaces.
The Lab recently released the final report on Testing, Testing’s tri-city run with the Lab in New York, Berlin, and Mumbai, including key findings, and next steps. According to Ellard, some of the findings are not too unexpected. Green environments, for instance, were shown to mentally and physiologically relax participants, for instance. Even green environments carrying something of an emotional overtone, such as the cemetery participants were brought to in Berlin, or the hospital garden in Mumbai, relaxed participants just as much physiologically as any other green space, despite the fact that participants’ self-reported emotional state was somewhat less eased. Areas of high permeability (busy areas with many entrances, and things to look at and do) put people in good moods and pumped up their physiological systems, as compared to blank facades that, generally speaking, had the opposite effect.
Some of the more exciting and noteworthy findings have little to do with aesthetics. For instance, especially in New York where there was a strong mix of local residents and tourists or people from other parts of the city participating in the experiment, Ellard found strong variation between the reactions of locals and foreigners to certain locations. “People who don’t know an area respond quite differently to a place than people with local knowledge,” said Ellard. This, he said, is an interesting and important finding in a field where so much of the research is based on aesthetics and visual perception. Our mental, emotional, and even physiological reactions to place, it turns out, are based on far more than just that, and this needs to be recognized in urban planning and architecture.
“If you look at how this kind of science has been used in environmental psychology, a lot of the time the methods are kind of rooted in simple procedures that show people stuff they’ve never seen before. It maybe doesn’t take into account the influence of what people know about a neighborhood,” Ellard said. “There’s a whole field of research that looks at how we understand and relate to the appearances of places in a city, but I think if you’re planning something for the everyday experience of local residents, then they’re going to be responding as much to the story of a place . . . as to what they actually see. You should be thinking about how that neighborhood is going to feel for the people who actually live there and visit those places every day, rather than kind of the visual pizazz of somebody seeing it for the first time.”
For more on the findings from Testing, Testing!, go to the article and download our illustrated guide to the project.