There is an unprecedented global transition happening where the world’s populations are migrating toward urban environments, creating sprawling, densely populated, overloaded, and loosely governed (mega)cities. Urban living is on the rise whereas rural living is becoming the exception – in all parts of the world and at an ever-increasing rate. The rapid pace of urbanization is an important marker of the societal transition at large that has occurred over the past thirty years. This continuous expansion of urban regions constitutes one of the most radical changes in our environment at the beginning of the 21st century.
Clearly, many inhabitants of large metropolitan areas do very well in terms of health and life quality as they benefit from better infrastructure, and a denser system of social, health care, cultural and educational options.
But urban living is also about getting stressed. Stress is the unspecific physiological and psychological reaction to perceived threats to our physical, psychological or social integrity. Stress increases with the anticipation of adverse situations and the fear of not having the adequate resources to respond to them.
Cities, by their very nature, tend to have high population density and heterogeneity of people driven there through economic growth and sociocultural trends, amongst other reasons. But these are demographic facts – they cannot define the experience of living in this environment.
A helpful link between demographic facts and the individual’s experience in the city is the so called stimulus overload, defined as a psychological state wherein scenarios and encounters are so mentally, perceptually, and emotionally arousing that they drain or even go beyond the person. Overload is caused by the cumulative effect of a range of stressors that tend to be particularly prevalent in cities: crowding and invasion of personal space; insufficient working and living space, noise, dirty or untidy conditions, pollution, crime and violence, uncertainty, diffuse social relations and a disorganized environment, to name but a few. Faced with overload, people tend to adapt by starting to withdraw from scenarios that deliver high levels of stimulation. However, prolonged adaptation to mitigate the effects of overload can also diminish the physically social aspect from people’s lives that is so important for mental health and wellbeing. The effects of this withdrawal can include reductions in people’s social, moral and environmental interactions within the city, increased desire for anonymity (to help remove oneself from unwanted events), a search for physical and emotional privacy, and a reduced willingness to trust and assist strangers. Understanding the psychological effects of cities is crucial and it’s inevitable to trickle down into urban and architectural design.
As 54% of the global population lives in cities, with growth rates projected to continue into the next thirty years, urban environments are becoming humanity’s natural habitat. Do we need to prepare ourselves for a more urbanized and, therefore, more depressed world? Or can we benefit from neuroscience in urban design and architecture?
The purpose of our build environment is still too often seen narrowly in terms of functional performance, physical comfort, economy, symbolic representation, or aesthetic values. However, the task of urban design and architecture extends beyond its material, functional, and measurable dimensions, and even beyond aesthetics, into the mental and existential sphere of meaning. Buildings do not merely provide physical shelter or facilitate distinct activities. In addition to housing our fragile bodies and actions, they also need to house our minds, memories, desires, and dreams. Our buildings are crucial extensions of ourselves, both individually and collectively. Buildings mediate between the world and our consciousness through internalizing the world and externalizing the mind. Landscapes, built settings, houses and rooms are integral parts of our mental landscape and consciousness.
Urban design and architecture is a realm that is deeply biologically, culturally and mentally grounded, but today frequently neglected in theoretic studies, education as well as professional practice. Urban design and architecture are by origin hybrid and ‘impure’ disciplines. The practice contains and fuses ingredients from conflicting and irreconcilable categories such as material technologies and mental intentions, construction and aesthetics, physical facts and cultural beliefs, knowledge and dreams, past and future, means and ends.
But in our consumerist society, often dominated by shallow and prejudiced rationality and a reliance on the empirical, measurable and demonstrable, the embodied, sensory and mental dimensions of human existence continue to be suppressed.
A new beginning starts with re-rooting modern man back in his biological roots and neuroscience can be expected to valorize the internal workings of these genetic and instinct behaviors and reactions. Neurological studies can also be expected to reveal the neural ground for our fundamental spatial and environmental pleasures and displeasures, as well as feelings of safety and fear.
Of course, urban living has many different facets, which may have a variety of consequences for mental health and well-being. And naturally, the layout of our cities does not project 1:1 on our neurobiology. Cities are complicated structures, and the human brain is an even more complicated organ. Through structuring and articulating lived existential space and situations of life, urban design and architecture constitutes our most important system of externalized order, hierarchy and memory. Building environments with its users’ neurological biases accounted for could dictate an entire new discipline of architectural research, and empower designers by making informed choices.
A future more empathetic architecture where architects collaborate with cognitive science and neuroscientists at the primary level of design, could provoke a whole new idea of what human scale means.