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
The World Health Organisation has recognised that increasing urbanisation is reshaping urban population health problems, with depression expected to be the second leading cause of loss disability-adjusted life years by 2030. It is widely accepted that the natural environment has a positive effect on health and wellbeing and plays a role in disease prevention.
Nature in an urban environment can foster a sense of community which is key for improved health and wellbeing as connection with local community can reduce the risk of long-term health conditions such as depression, heart disease and increase life expectancy.
Since the 1950s, psychologists have recognised the importance of community for individual and group wellbeing by understanding human behaviour from both a social and physical environmental perspective. More recently, epidemiologists have shown how mental health outcomes are influenced by community connections, belonging, networks, social cohesion and social capital, therefore a sense of community is considered a preventative method to mitigate against psychological and physical illnesses.
Therefore, urban design should not just consider access to nature and green space but also the interactions that this can facilitate to encourage connection with place both with nature and community which is vital for health and wellbeing.
Outdoor gym, Clapham, London. Photograph by Author.
How can nature foster a sense of community?
In the field of community psychology, a sense of community has been defined by membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs as well as a shared emotional connection. Arguably these factors, particularly emotional connection, can be facilitated in green environments.
An experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester with virtual images, showed the more nature the study group were exposed to, the more likely they were to value emotional connections with other people and have increased generosity than those exposed to city views. Those that were not exposed to nature images were more focused on external goals such as increasing personal income. The research suggests that nature is significant in cultivating values that influence wellbeing and building a sense of community.
Why do humans need to connect to nature and community?
There are some theories that exist which aim to understand why interaction with nature has a positive impact on health and wellbeing. The biophilia hypothesis is a theory commonly referred to, particularly as increasing research through design practice shows the positive impact of biophilic design. However, the topophilia hypothesis provides a further suggestion to why interaction with nature is important in terms of fostering a sense of community.
The topophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess a genetic bias to form bonds with local place which may have evolved due to the need to learn and share knowledge related to local nature for survival. It has been predicted that bonding with place is a critical element of mental health.
Further research is required to investigate the validity of the theory, however if significant evidence can support this, it would provide greater weight for urban design to encourage connection of place through nature and green space.
The challenge for urban design
Nature and green space in an urban environment could be viewed as the heart of building a healthy and happy community, as connecting with both nature and community is arguably an innate need we have as humans. However, green space is limited in urban environments.
Urban design needs to rethink how nature is integrated into our cities and ensure that the community is involved in projects that promote green infrastructure and urban greening to build a sense of community and place. Some inspiring initiatives are listed below:
Wellbeing can be constructed in our cities. In many urban societies, material wealth is traditionally viewed as the path to happiness: a wardrobe of disposable fashion, a better and faster car, a bigger house. We know that this isn’t necessarily a positive influence on wellbeing.
Perhaps through a greater focus on connecting with nature in our cities, we can build more resilient communities where everyone can have the opportunity to experience an increased sense of place and belonging in the world in which they live.
‘The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship’
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, 1836
Community Garden, London. Photograph by Author.
About the Author
A new digital edition of the book Unpleasant Design was published last month. We caught up with one of the editors, Selena Savic, to learn more about unpleasant design and its potential for positive and negative impact on mental health in the city.
You've just published a new edition of your book, Unpleasant Design. What exactly is 'unpleasant design'?
Unpleasant design is an approach to design that intentionally restricts the use of objects and spaces. It is thus not failed design, but rather, a successful, deliberate design to prevent certain behaviours. Often these design interventions are targeted to prevent behaviours that have not been formally banned, but that people may deem unwanted in public spaces. For example, while there may be no ban on people skating, hanging out, or sleeping rough in the city, these decisions can be made quietly between the contractor and the designer, without public participation. In unpleasant design, the decision is often hidden in the design.
Can you give us some examples of unpleasant design in the urban environment?
In the book, we divided unpleasant designs into unpleasant objects and unpleasant devices. This taxonomy brings on one side a large number of seating designs that prevent rough sleeping, obstacles to skating, anti-urinating corner installations, and surfaces that prevent attaching stickers and climbing. On the devices list, we include the infamous mosquito device (a high pitch buzz that annoys teenagers), blue lights (obfuscating veins and preventing intravenous injections), pink lights (emphasizing skin blemishes in teenage population to deter them from the area) and CCTV systems enhanced with facial recognition and motion tracking (thus theoretically capable of discriminating against skin colour, outfits and gait).
No-sleeping bench at a metro station in Rotterdam. Source: Unpleasant Design.
What are some of the ways in which unpleasant design in the city could impact people's mental health and wellbeing?
The most obvious link I see between unpleasant design and wellbeing is the prohibition of rough sleeping. While it is obvious that simply making a bench "unsleepable" is not in any way addressing the problem of homelessness (people don't stop being homeless because a bench is uncomfortable), this kind of design also sends a hostile and careless message to the whole population. Not only is it evident from interventions like this that social diversity and inclusion is not on the design agenda, but it is also okay to repel people like pests.
Does unpleasant design have particular impact on the mental health of certain groups of people?
Absolutely. Unpleasant design can exclude groups like teenagers or homeless people from spaces without any possibility for negotiation and without even questioning the ethics behind this. Some would argue that the solution is to create dedicated spaces, for example where skaters can safely perform their tricks without bothering others. However, imagine if this approach was applied to all groups that those making design decisions find incompatible with their own preferences for the use of urban spaces? What if homeless people were only allowed to be where other homeless people are; if square meters of publicly accessible space were allotted to youth based on their number in the area; if older people had no opportunity to be in contact with youth? How could a frictionless society function without the opportunity for negotiation between any of the conflicting entities? What would happen when they met somewhere by chance? Designing people out of space is particularly dangerous for young people as it deprives them from the possibility to learn and adapt to the society and to the needs of other people.
Are there any positive aspects to 'unpleasant design'?
I couldn't say that there aren't. Obviously, unpleasant design helps the majority keep the space in the shape they deem pleasant. Children can play in parks where benches are clean and free to use. People are not endangered by wild skaters running along urban furniture. Toilets with blue lights have not been possessed by drug addicts. However, I would like to stress once more that these benefits are only short-term and unsustainable. All these behaviours we design against will take place elsewhere. And the message of exclusion grants the right to people and institutions to create their own little oases of law, which is not always in the best interest of majority.
What are the messages from the book for architects and city planners?
We need to be able to negotiate the use of public space. We need to talk about unpleasant designs before we implement them. We need to make it very clear what unpleasant designs are against. Unpleasant design can also be subverted, as beautifully shown by artists and activisits whose work we published in our book.
Why did you decide to create this book?
At first, we wanted to collect examples of unpleasantness in public space and show that there is a language and an intention behind these. During this process, we learned about many other groups and collectives who were doing this type of work. We decided to create a compendium of designs and reflections on the topic, hoping to spur the debate among design professionals, city planners and other interested parties. We think we succeeded in that, as the book has proved to be a resourceful reading for anyone interested in the topic.
What's new about the new edition?
The new edition is digital only, and contains some updates and new stories. For example, there is an interview with a design office which explicitly specialises in unpleasant designs, Factory Furniture.
Finally, which is your favorite city and why?
I like cities a lot. I don't have a favourite one. Lausanne is a very pleasant city, it treats people with dignity. There are very few instances of unpleasant design against homeless people (there are not many homeless people either, so that's probably why) and there is a general tendency to design public space for flexible use. The view on the lake is also winning over many other beautifully designed cities. Apart from Lausanne, I love the agitated relaxedness on the streets of Belgrade, the monumental fragmentation of venues in Vienna and other unique contradictions that appear in cities I have spent time in.
Sanity and Urbanity: