The psychological tricks designers use to make cities happier places

From rainbow crosswalks to communal herb gardens, urban planners and architects are borrowing from neuroscience to build environments that people want to work and live in

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Credit: Citymapper / WIRED

Happy City was recently featured in WIRED UK! Here’s an excerpt:

Imagine walking over a bright rainbow-coloured crosswalk in Davie Village, Vancouver’s vibrant gaybourhood and then making a turn into a laneway lined with shrubs and shared gardens. Would you be more willing to chat to a stranger en route rather than in an area surrounded by simple, raw concrete constructions?

In an experiment involving a walking tour of the city district, cognitive neuroscientists and urban planners found exactly that: visitors reported feeling happier and more trusting of strangers around the rainbow intersection and greenery than anywhere else on the guided walk. They believed that if they lost their wallet there, chances were higher of getting it back if a stranger found it.

Meanwhile in London, British Land has turned the concrete-scape of Paddington Central — a campus with office, residential, hotel and retail spaces — into a green community centre with air hockey and table tennis tables, artwork, a herb garden for the local restaurants, and out-of-office-hours activities for workers and residents. Happy City, a Vancouver-based urban design and planning consultancy, helped the British property developer with the transformation towards a green campus, which was completed in 2017.

As people are becoming more aware of the influence of the surroundings on their health and wellbeing, urban planners and architects are starting to consider the social aspects of spaces to stave off loneliness and isolation, improve quality of life and ensure individuals and communities can pursue their own happiness.

Happy City often works with psychologists and neuroscientists to understand the implications of urban design. Using psychological surveys and skin electrodes to measure people’s emotional arousal in the moment, they learned that “people were much happier on sidewalks with active edges, that is sidewalks lined with small shops and services, than they were on sidewalks with blank or glass walls,” says Charles Montgomery, Happy City’s founding principal and author of the namesake book, adding that pedestrians usually walk more quickly along blank edges. “When you combine that insight with others, it gives you direction on how to design,” he says.

Get the full WIRED story here:

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