Lab | Log

This is Your Brain on Cities

We know surprisingly little about the effects that the minutiae of urban design have on our bodies and minds.

But if Colin Ellard has his way, that will have changed by the end of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s run in New York.

Last week I joined Ellard as he kicked off a program that could drastically improve environmental psychologists’ ability to measure these effects.

Called “Testing, Testing!,” the program (designed in partnership with Lab Team member Charles Montgomery) is an actual scientific study of the impact that different types of urban design have on our thoughts and feelings. Sessions will be held every Thursday from 2 to 3 pm throughout the Lab’s stay in New York.

And it starts with a device so day-to-day that most of us have probably used one before—a BlackBerry.

Ellard and his fellow guides give groups of participants BlackBerrys that have been preloaded with an application specifically designed for the experiment. Then they set out for a walking tour of the Lower East Side.

The app on the BlackBerry consists of a set of questionnaires and tests that the participants must answer and perform each time they are stopped at a strategic location in the neighborhood.

It may sound simple, but of course there is another layer. Some of the participants are also equipped with high-tech devices that are capable of detecting small changes in their physiology (nothing freaky—think doctor’s office, not Clockwork Orange).

Why would he want to do this?

A psychologist with the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, Ellard investigates the relationship between human behavior and environment—more specifically, how the appearance and organization of our physical surroundings influence our feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and physiology.

Up to now, Ellard’s work has been constricted to the laboratory and the realm of virtual reality.

But at the Lab, he is moving his experiment into real reality. It is the first time a study comparing different types of street scape design has ever been undertaken in the real world.

Previously, psychologists have conducted real-world measurements of the differences in human responses to natural versus urban environments. “But to move into something like this, I think is so much more ambitious,” Ellard said after his first session at the Lab, “because what we’re doing is trying to compare different types of urban environments rather than just nature versus city, which we already know. It’s something that’s much more interesting, and potentially much more useful.”

The shift from virtual to real-life environment is one that Ellard describes as “total chaos” and one he recognizes may invite critique from his peers in the academic world. Outside the walls of a controlled laboratory, one can never be sure what external factors—from construction noise to unfriendly passersby—might influence the experience of the study’s participants.

But that’s a risk Ellard is willing to take in order to understand the true psychological implications of the design of our cities.

“We’ll take flak. We’ll take heat. But I think that smart people will realize that the data we’ll collect is really valuable, and there’s no other way to do this. If you’re going to do this in the real world, you’ve got to put up with the noise,” said Ellard.

He hopes that the findings will eventually be able to inform policy makers on the influence their design decisions have on the psychology and well-being of citizens.

I won’t give away too many details of the study, such as locations or why they were chosen.

Okay, fine, I can’t give away too many details, lest it cloud the data coming from those of you who have read this post and decide to take part. I can’t even tell you what I learned when I took part.

But trust me, if you decide to partake, you’ll learn surprising and fascinating things about your own physical and psychological relationship with the design of the streetscapes you walk through every day.

The data should be ready to digest come mid-October, and I’m dying to dig into the results to see what they show. Stay tuned.

. . .

Photo: used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License from Eric Fischer.

  • Sunity

    I love this Lab. Its a perfect example of how you can create even the unimaginable into something innovative and worth creating. If everyone combined their talents or ambitions and worked together to plan something BIG, you have the ability to create a society where everyone ultimately respects a city for all its comfort and dynamism. Thank you for this wounderful lab!!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks so much for your comments. We’re so glad to hear you’ve enjoyed and been inspired by the Lab!