• Robb G. Best

How "Smart" is Your City?

Have you ever found yourself walking down a busy city sidewalk, so overwhelmed and overstimulated by all the signs, sounds, and cars that you felt your mood start to slip? This state, called “cognitive load,” can affect your ability to pay attention and even exercise self-control, and it affects many city dwellers.

Now consider that we could eliminate this problem with the right urban planning. A growing new movement hopes to apply the principles of neuroscience and psychology to city layouts, in ways meant to address and even positively influence human behavior. The term for urban areas built with these concepts in mind is “conscious cities.”

You only need to attempt to navigate the tangled streets of Boston to realize that many cities are not currently set up to be entirely “user-friendly.” The discipline of urban planning as we know it has been around for only about a hundred years, and neuroscience is even younger. Considering the full influence our surroundings can have on us can require fundamental shifts in thinking.

For example, a Guardian article by architect Itai Palti and neuroscientist Professor Moshe Bar points out that we can view it as inevitable when sports teams riot following a big game. However, applying what we know about crowd psychology suggests we might be able to nudge individuals out of a potentially dangerous groupthink mindset if, upon leaving the stadium, the surrounding area was designed to encourage interactions unrelated to the sports event.

How might you be able to improve the mental health of a city? Accessible green spaces could encourage more time spent outdoors in nature, which numerous studies have found beneficial to our emotional well-being. Wide, safe bike lanes and sidewalks could make moderate physical activity more inviting, and decrease dependence on driving. Art installations could be designed to encourage curiosity and creativity. Public seating could be arranged in such a way as to encourage stopping and socializing.

This may all sound utopian, and indeed, the short history of urban planning is littered with examples of design anticipating behavior that didn’t take place. However, on a smaller scale, behavior sparked deliberately by architecture is as old as standing awe-struck at the Pyramids of Giza. Fast food restaurants and shops in malls are carefully crafted with human behavior in mind, as is everything down to the spacing of garbage cans in Disney World.

“Scaling up these efforts by considering the totality of the urban experience isn’t just a matter of making our lives more pleasant or interesting,” write Palti and Bar. “It is also an act of reclaiming for our benefit large swathes of our environment that have long been ignored in subservience to efficiency.”

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