Urban Update 26 November 2015

Download Urban Update 26 November 2016


Human physiology, psychology and place-making

Giving urban design a basis in science and evidence

The debate about urban design and health has tended to focus almost exclusively on obesity, neglecting mental health, happiness and wellbeing. Any initiative that takes a broader look at health has to be a good thing.  And this is what a new initiative by Briony Turner and Kay Palaris intends to do.  Last week they ran an event at the Welcome Trust where a succession of speakers gave snap presentations on the current state of research knowledge.

Saskia Heijnen of the Welcome Trust explained the research streams that it is funding and its underlying strategy of sustaining health and in particular, inking environment, nutrition and health. 

Rhiannon Corcoran University of Liverpool, spoke about the Prosocial Place Programme.  Its central tenet was “places change people”. 

Studies show that where resources (in their widest sense  including strength of community, quality of the environment etc) are stable, reliable and predictable, people plan their futures, and plan with others a future together. Where they are unstable and unreliable (as might be the case if an area is neglected, vandalised and litter-strewn) – people develop thrill seeking, pleasure seeking behaviour and tend to conduct their lives in a- non-cooperative way, making impulsive self centred choices. 

She reeled off a long list of cases and quotes, including a recent Demos Survey where 85 percent of people polled, stated that the quality of public spaces had a direct impact upon their lives and the way they felt. 

To obtain a clearer picture as to what influences people’s wellbeing, researchers a Liverpool had interviewed a broad sample of people – ask three simple questions:

  • “What’s a good place?”: community spirit and neighbourliness, nature and open space, and a clean living environment.  Other questions produced revealing answers:
  • Where do you go to feel better? people offered nature and open space and family and friends; and private activities and diversions. 
  • Where's your dismal land?, people identified certain aspects and features of city living, matters of governance and politics, and being alone.  

A second experiment with students in the street, found that Kevin Lynch’s approach to analysing seemed to broadly reflected what the students were naturally doing.

Antonio Caperna, International Society of Biourbanism. talked about “Bio-Urbanism” ( bio meaning “life”)   Humans he claimed respond positively to natural geometries, fractals, colours, scaling and symmetries.  He outlined some of the work and theorising that has gone on in this area such as Edward Wilson who coined the biophilia term in 1984; and argued that architectural and urban design should be founded on scientific principles. This was followed by a debate as to whether the “golden section” was actually a scientific principle.

Dr Georgina Hosang’s research interest has been the exploration of the relationship between the city and mental health.  There is no health without mental health, she stressed.  Research surveys have found that people who live in urban areas have a 2-3 times increased risk of developing depression or schizophrenia, but apparently there is no difference for biopolar disorders. She made clear that wellbeing is different to mental health, such as having a sense of purpose in one’s life, and a connection with other people.

Other presenters included Professor Layla McCay, Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health and Panos Mavros, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL who covered ways to measure how people respond to different environments, including apps such as the “London Mood Project App; galvanic skin response; and electroencephalograms that seek to measure electrical activity in the brain and from this infer the type of emotion the individual is experiencing.


The plain language used by the presenters gives practitioners an opportunity to change architectural and urban design practice to better fit human need, and to provide the weight of science and evidence necessary to get better practice implemented.  Rhiannon Corcoran spoke of a 10-15 year delay between research and implementation.  Let’s all work to reduce this to 10-15 months.

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