A tale of two cities: how place management can shape our assumptions about neighborhoods and their residents
by Rhiannon Corcoran, UDMH Fellow and Professor of Psychology and Academic Director of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool, UK
It’s a sad fact, I’m afraid. Our cities don’t seem to be very good for us.
Anonymous, via the Only Us campaign
The isolation and mistrust in this anonymous note will be familiar to many who experience periods of low mood, anxiety or feelings of paranoia from time to time.
To understand the psychology that underpins a phenomenon known as the urbanicity effect – the higher prevalence of diagnosable mental distress and low wellbeing in cities, we, the Prosocial Place research team, have run a series of group walks through a 2-mile route of the South of our great city, Liverpool, collecting ‘data’ along the way.
At 16 stops along this reversible route from station to station, we asked our 48 participants to record their gut reactions to place, resulting in a rich resource of residential city sentiment. What’s interesting about this urban walk is that it transits some stark living contrasts and includes neighbourhoods, only metres apart, that are amongst the most different in terms of overt deprivation (confirmed by official Index of Multiple Deprivation statistics).
In typical psychological science mode, this information must be rigorously analysed using complex statistical procedures so that we can be sure that we report only the findings that emerge as having a 95% likelihood of being ‘true’ or ‘real’. However, much of the richness of the walkers’ responses exist in what they say about the things they notice when they stop to consider how they feel.
Using a text mining software package called Sentiment Analysis, we were able to show how the way our walkers described ‘salient features’ – those things that catch our eye and grab our attention as we walk through places, correlate with the inferences we make about the characters of the people who live in those places. This tells us how poor place management speaks unjustified volumes about matters such as the trustworthiness and the amount of control that the residents of places have over their own lives. This is psychology in action – where sensory information entering our central nervous systems provides the basis for ‘higher level’ decision-making and reasoning. In effect, what we are seeing is the operation of an automatic, evolutionary-selected process that tells us where we should go and where we should avoid if we want to survive.
Word clouds of the descriptions given of salient features while walking through relatively non-deprived and the relatively deprived areas in South Liverpool.
Of course, the inferences we make about people on the basis of sensory information is based upon ‘quick and dirty’ heuristic reasoning which, in Nobel prize winning research, Daniel Kahneman tells us is often incorrect.
So, when we see cues to threat in the residential places of our cities, we make biologically and psychologically inevitable, but nevertheless likely incorrect, inferences about the people who live there. We were able to show this inaccuracy using a classic research technique of social psychology called the dropped letter method.
Our dropped letter experiment
During the months of November and December using careful methods to control for timing, weather and distance from post box, the undergraduate members of our research team ‘dropped’ Christmas cards in the two shopping lanes through which our walks passed, a relatively deprived and a relatively non-deprived area. The envelopes were addressed to consenting friends and families of the research team who reported how many of these cards they received in the post along with the details inside about where and when the cards were dropped. This gave us an objective snapshot of the ‘prosociality’ of the folk who live in these areas and use the two shopping lanes that differed starkly in terms of official deprivation statistics and contrasted greatly in terms of the sentiments they elicited in our walkers.
In compelling contrast to the heuristically-driven decisions we make about the people who live in areas characterised by neglected fabric acting as cues to threat, exactly the same number of Christmas cards were returned from both lanes, demonstrating just how wrong our ‘quick and dirty’ reasoning can be when making judgment about the nature of a neighbourhood.
Unless we are those "lucky fucks and angels” that Pete Townsend sings of, who spend their time and money amidst the abundance of wealth and resource that marks our city centres these day, we live locally: we forage in our high streets and walk routes of our neighbourhood streets and parks with our kids, our friends and our dogs. But in resource- torn Britain we have made some curious choices about how we manage our urban ecologies – the places where we work, rest, and play. The residential, not retail or commerce, city has for the most part, been devastated from lack of management to the extent that we intuitively react to the lack of assets, signalling a lack of thrival and so a threat to survival. It looks like ‘the fittest’ have adapted by going to forage elsewhere. It is they who live the thriving life of plenty and who wax lyrical about the culture and the opportunity that their city affords them. A Tale of Two Cities - still. Dickens’s opening lines are spooky:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
That we have residential places in our 21st century cities that our biological system tells us we should avoid for our own good is surely a human rights issue and an international scandal (because Britain is not alone in this). By walking to understand and by placing the living environment at the centre of psychological study, we can begin to understand how and why we are so dramatically affected by the cities where so many of us now live. If, by coming out of our research labs and onto the streets, psychologists and other researchers can influence equitable place-making policy for the common good, we will achieve something very powerful .
The Research Team
Rhiannon Corcoran, Professor of Psychology and Academic Director of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool and UD/MH Fellow.
Graham Marshall, Landscape Architect, Urban Designer and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool and UD/MH Fellow.
Rosie Mansfield, Demonstrator in School of Psychology and postgraduate student, University of Liverpool.
Christophe de Bezenac, postgraduate student, University of Liverpool.
Katherine Overbury, undergraduate psychology student, University of Liverpool.
Ellen Anderson, undergraduate psychology student, University of Liverpool
Sanity and Urbanity: