Cities should fulfil our ‘basic needs’, in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy – food, water and shelter. But that is not enough for the cities of the future. The built environment also needs to make us feel safe, connected, and inspired (to learn, be creative, play and be active). How can our cities be enhanced to optimise and fulfil these needs?
First, architectural practices need to focus on building relationships with and between their users. For example, the Living Architecture Systems Group looks at how architecture can elicit qualities that come close to life – environments that can move, respond, learn, adapt and empathise with their inhabitants. As well as needing spaces that interact with their users, we need spaces that enable interactions between users. Helping people build connections with others is a major part of a healthy city.
The built environment also needs to care for its inhabitants. The design of a building should focus on having the maximum impact on wellbeing, and this is particularly important in schools and hospitals, where things like the amount of nature and light available to people affects their healing and learning.
Finally, we need to consider how the physical aspects of the built environment can affect us psychologically, so that we can optimise the design of a space to enhance needs such as perceptions of safety or inspiration and awe. This is where neuroscience comes in. For example, researchers in the built environment have begun to use skin conductivity or EEG data to understand the ‘emotional topographies’ of an area (Colin Ellard, Urban Realities Laboratory). Augmented and virtual reality can also be used to experiment with different designs or scenarios even before they are built. Understanding the psychological impact of a design on its potential users means that the design can be reworked and optimised to elicit a desired feeling or response.
As new technologies develop and cities become smarter, the built environment is likely to become more emotionally in tune with its users. Although there is a lot of promise in this area, as with any psychological research, there are also ethical considerations to make sure this work is not causing harm to the city’s inhabitants. How can we ensure the psychological impact of a design is positive for all users? How can we make sure a place actually is safe and doesn’t just feel safe?
As long as we take these sorts of questions into account, and ensure we are placing users at the heart of our research, the incorporation of psychological methods in designing cities is likely to help make them healthier and happier places to live.
This article originally appeared in The Psychologist.