Street Arousal

Is urban design a matter of public health, asks Colin Ellard, an environmental psychologist and neuroscientist, author of “Places of The Heart”:

To find the answer, I led small groups from site to site and had them answer questions that assessed their emotional state via a smartphone. At the same time, I had participants wear bracelets that measured their skin conductance – a simple but reliable window into their alertness, readiness to act, pay attention or respond to threat.

One of the sites in the study was midway along the long, blank façade of Whole Foods Market. A second site was a few steps away, in front of a small but lively strip of restaurants and stores with lots of open doors and windows, a happy hubbub of eating and drinking and a pleasantly meandering mob of pedestrians.

Some of the results were predictable. When planted in front of Whole Foods, my participants stood awkwardly, casting around for something of interest to latch on to and talk about. They assessed their emotional state as being on the wrong side of ‘happy’ and their state of arousal was close to bottoming out. The physiological instruments strapped to their arms showed a similar pattern. These people were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe the site, words such as bland,monotonous and passionless rose to the top of the charts.

In contrast, people standing at the other test site, less than a block away from Whole Foods, felt lively and engaged. Their own assessments of their states of arousal and affect were high and positive. The words that sprang to their minds were mixed, lively, busy, socialising and eating. Even though this site was so crowded with pedestrians that our participants struggled to find a quiet place to reflect on our questions, there was no doubt that this location was to their liking on many levels. In fact, even though we didn’t have the equipment to measure such things effectively, we could read the telltale signs of happiness or misery on our participants’ bodies as they worked to complete the study. In front of the blank façade, people were quiet, stooped and passive. At the livelier site, they were animated and chatty, and we had some difficulty reining in their enthusiasm. Our experimental protocol, requiring that participants not talk to one another while recording their responses, quickly went by the wayside. Many expressed a desire to leave the tour and simply join in the fun of the place.

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