Certain areas in every city add a little joy to your life, however minute, whenever you pass through them — think beautiful, tree-lined, family-filled streets, or roads with colourful houses and intricate gardens. Inversely, there are always less-than-inspiring neighbourhoods or streets one might describe as “gloomy,” “scuzzy,” or “depressing.” Traditionally, we pay little attention to the way these spaces make us feel, but a group of scientists in Ontario are attempting to shine a light on those emotions and identify the settings that evoke them.
“Greenspace is key,” says Dr. Colin Ellard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo and the leader of the research group, the Urban Realities Laboratory, which is spearheading an ongoing experiment in Toronto. “There’s been a real revolution in our understanding of the importance of landscaping in cities.”
Ellard and his team have studied urban spaces around the world, using a mix of technology, like brain-wave-sensing headbands, and questionnaires to measure how certain cityscapes affect the moods of pedestrians.
“There are all sorts of factors within urban design that affect how we feel, how we think, where we go, and what we do,” he says. “We know that people don’t like long, homogeneous facades that contain no complexity at all. Think of a block-long, blank façade in front of something like a corporate headquarters for a bank. We know that when people walk past a façade like that, their posture changes, their walking speed increases, they tend not to look around or to pause. If you ask them how they feel, they will report emotions on the low or negative scale. And if you measure their bodies as well, you’ll find that they are at a low level of arousal.”
On the other end of the spectrum are areas that attack your senses with stimuli. Ellard points to places like Times Square in New York or Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, where the level of complexity can be overwhelming just to witness, let alone navigate.
“There’s kind of a sweet spot in the middle,” explains Ellard. “Think of something like Queen West, where there’s a good buzz of activity, lots for people to see, but it’s not overwhelming. Those types of settings tend to produce a positive mood.”
But each type of area serves its purpose. The corporate buildings need to convey a professional image, and, conversely, the busy tourist squares are invested in that fun, party atmosphere.
“We all have to spend time in settings that aren’t completely psychologically healthy,” says Ellard. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a matter of finding that balance. It doesn’t require a weekend camping trip in Algonquin Park to feel the restorative effects of nature. It seems to be something that happens really quickly and arises over the course of a couple of minutes and lasts for quite some time.”
So that’s it — a few moments walking under some trees and your mood elevates, even if you don’t notice it. Excuse us, we’re going for a stroll. Look how beautiful it can be.
If you’d like to learn more, or get involved in the experiment and take a guided tour of some of Toronto’s most evocative neighbourhoods, you can visit Psychology on the Street‘s website, or check out the Urbanspace Gallery exhibition open to the public at 401 Richmond St. W. in Toronto.