Colin Ellard – How Urban Design is Making Us Unhappy





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Nov 22, 2018
by Anna Rawe
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Colin Ellard – How Urban Design is Making Us Unhappy

Neuroscience professor discusses the negative physiological effect cities can have on human beings and what we can do to stop it. Colin Ellard at Salzburg Global Seminar

For millennia, humans have evolved along with nature, melding and adapting to their environment with the ebbs and flows of temperature shifts, changing weather and terrain. Now with the explosion of an industrialized landscape, the human mind has to cope with environs it has not been accustomed to.

Colin Ellard, professor of neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, studies the effect of urban development on human physiology and was keen to find out at the recent Salzburg Global program, Building Healthy, Equitable Communities: The Role of Inclusive Urban Development and Investment, whether urban planners utilize his research.

While much of the discussion at this year’s program looked at transportation, public space, and air quality, Ellard’s research looks at a typically less dynamic aspect of city life. He said, “I’m very interested in how the designs, the surfaces, the facades, the skins of buildings influence people’s psychological state.”

Much of his research is at the Urban Realities Laboratory, which uses virtual reality simulations and fieldwork to measure how participants interact with the built environment. By measuring brainwaves and bodily states through state of the art equipment participants can wear, the lab can study the physiological and psychological impacts of urban design and from these reactions generalize about the chronic condition of living in a city.

So, what is it about the city that makes it a hostile place for human life? Ellard points to buildings with what Ellard calls a “low complexity” surface, such as the smooth grey concrete box-shaped buildings that have increasingly covered cities around the world. Though the issue lies not in their ‘ugliness,’ but in their uniform plainness.

From his research, Ellard has concluded “even with a very short exposure to one of those monotonous low complexity facades [our tests can measure] the physiological signature of boredom. Boredom is a - whether you think of it as an emotion or not - is a state which is physiologically harmful.”

“When people are bored, for example, they excrete more cortisol - the stress hormone - and we know from all kinds of other work that chronically high levels of cortisol are bad for your health. We haven’t been able to connect all of the dots ourselves yet… but the links are certainly there to suggest that that aspect of urban design has an actual public health impact.”

Mental health does not discriminate with one estimate putting the number of people worldwide with a mental, neurodevelopment or substance use disorder at one billion, and Ellard thinks this can partly be connected to changes in our lived environment, including the densification of people into cramped city space.

Ellard points to the thread of research stemming from primatologist Robin Dunbar, who recorded observations of the relationship between group size and brain size. It suggests humans have evolved to live in social groups of around 150 people, an idea which fails to sync with the increasing number of metropoles which feature more strangers than friends.Ellard added, “There may be other reasons for that lack of community as well, but the encouraging thing is that there are things you can do and design to inoculate society to some extent against the isolating effects of living in dense environments.”

Ellard and his research team look to the natural world to provide this inoculation and try to distill what produces its near magical effect on the human mind so it can be replicated in design. While this area of research is still developing, Ellard has already started drawing up recommendations for the design of urban facades.

He believes buildings and other urban surfaces should ideally be designed with “intermediate levels of complexity,” with features like patterns, symmetry, and curvature which draw the human eye. While funding and planning criteria provide obstacles, urban planners and architects might still consider how to make streets “more permeable [with] lots of things to see, lots of places to go,” Ellard says, which engage us and positively affect our physiology.

Ellard’s ambitions don’t stop there, however. His interest lies in using artificial intelligence in the facades of buildings, with machines learning about the pedestrians who walk past them. He suggested, “The surface of a building would get to know the kind of things you like, and the things people in general like, and perform those things for you as you approach them.”

What of Ellard’s own city then? Ellard grew up in the urban environments he now studies and currently lives in the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, in Southern Ontario, Canada. Ellard said the bad urban design makes him grumpy, but he expectantly added, “I know it’s not that difficult to do better.”

The program Building Healthy, Equitable Communities: The Role of Inclusive Urban Development and Investment is part of Salzburg Global Seminar's multi-year series Health and Health Care Innovation. This year's program is held in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the program. Follow #SGShealth on Twitter and Instagram.