Thursday, September 25, 2014

What a Park’s Design Does to Your Brain

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
 As a student in Poland, Agnieszka Anna Olszewska was fascinated by the way that some landscapes seemed to be more contemplative than others. She wanted to research the reasons behind that calming effect, but she found little encouragement. “People told me I can write a novel, I can write a poem about the contemplativeness of landscape, but not a scientific paper.” One well-respected landscape architect told her it couldn’t be done because of the diversity of human responses: Some of us might find a garden conducive to contemplation; others might prefer the bathroom.
But Olszewska, now a doctoral candidate in landscape architecture and urban ecology at the University of Porto in Portugal, persevered. With a neuroscience professor at the university, she conducted a pilot project that culminated, earlier this year, in a conference paper titled “Urban Planning, Neurosciences and Contemplation for Improving Well-being in Our Cities.” It combined questionnaire results with measurement of brain waves in an effort “to prove that there are certain characteristics of urban parks and gardens that can induce in the visitor the pattern of brain activity that is associated with contemplative or meditative states.”

We know that cities can be hectic, stressful places. We also know that green space can have a calming effect on people. But Olszewska is seeking to take our knowledge a step further — to enable designers and planners to maximize the serenity of urban green refuges.

In the study, four design experts examined 50 photographs from three urban parks in Portugal and France. The experts were also given a checklist of design features (such as long-distance views, biodiversity, “canopied,” “panoramic”). They identified which features appeared in each photograph, and also evaluated each setting’s contemplativeness. The settings deemed most contemplative had panoramic vistas with long-distance views (more than 400 meters). They tended to include large empty spaces, natural asymmetry, clearings and stimulation to look at the sky. The least contemplative settings, by contrast, usually lacked these features, and instead had characteristics such as paths and enclosed spaces (as in small pocket gardens).

In the second part of the project, subjects were asked to look at the 15 photos of landscapes ranked highest by the experts for contemplativeness. Their brain waves were recorded by electroencephalography (EEG) during this task. The brain activity, Olszewska said, was similar to patterns known to be associated with mindfulness achieved through meditation. She stresses, though, that her research is quite preliminary; subjects weren’t shown the least contemplative spaces. (She is currently working on a study that includes this kind of control group.)

The most contemplative landscapes are not necessarily the ones that people would claim to enjoy the most. More stimulating landscapes — brightly colored flowers, numerous eye-catching elements — may be more immediately attractive. “If you imagine the French baroque gardens, they are very geometrical, very organized,” said Olszewska. But this kind of environment, however beautiful, may be less relaxing to spend time in.

This is not to say that the opposite extreme — wild landscapes — are necessarily more contemplative. Olszewska thinks we tend to find those overwhelming. Instead, she hypothesizes that the ideal is a “golden middle” between too much design and too little.

The small experiment is part of a larger, nascent movement to try to connect neuroscience to architecture and design. The movement for “evidence-based design” originated in the health care field. One famous finding was that in hospitals — historically not the most pleasant places — surgical patients whose windows faced natural outdoor scenery were discharged sooner and requested fewer painkillers than patients whose windows faced a brick wall. Inspired by this movement, others began to think that there was no reason to limit such thinking to hospitals. It spread to schools, and now, increasingly, the built environment and urban green spaces. Some researchers began to incorporate neuroscience. Much of the interest is focused on contemplativeness. Perhaps, just as hospitals need healing spaces, cities need serene oases to counteract the urban chaos.

Julio Bermudez, an associate professor of architecture and planning at the Catholic University of America, studies how the built environment can induce states of relaxation and mindfulness. In one study, which he presented last week at the second annual conference of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, architects looked at photographs of buildings designed to be contemplative, including the Salk Institute in San Diego and the Pantheon in Rome, as well as ordinary buildings. The contemplative buildings reportedly elicited “markedly distinct” responses, as measured by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Bermudez and his co-authors (including a neuroscientist at the University of Utah) concluded that contemplative buildings “allow subjects to enter into a meditative state with diminishing levels of anxiety and mind wandering.”

In an email, Bermudez speculated about some common features of contemplative design: buildings that frame nature in some way; that exhibit simplicity without being simplistic; and that offer a sense of separation from the rest of their context, among other qualities. Some “remarkable cities,” he wrote, “naturally invite contemplative states.” As examples, he cited Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Bodh Gaya in India, as well as parts of Paris, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

It may be true that, as the landscape architect warned Olszewska, it’s hard to make blanket generalizations about what people find contemplative, and responses may vary culturally too. It’s also notoriously challenging to interpret brain waves conclusively, and this research is in its infancy. But both Olszewska and Bermudez believe there are certain common features that can broadly foster these meditative responses. And rather than write poems, they hope to prove it with the tools of fMRI and EEG.

The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a columnist for Next City. She has also written for the New York Times, Slate and Dissent, among other publications.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Three Perspectives on Designing Resilient Cities

Hurricane Sandy has changed the national conversation on climate change. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which much of the country was happy to pin the blame for on New Orleans itself (“they shouldn’t have built there in the first place!”), Sandy revealed climate change to be a growing threat to nearly all coastal settlements. Formerly abstract warnings of growing inundation risk, stemming from rising sea levels and increasing storm frequency, suddenly became concrete and impossible to ignore. A new found sense of vulnerability descended on coastal cities. In this light, urban design cannot be dismissed as merely a luxury or an aesthetic consideration. The discipline has taken on a new relevance and sense of urgency: cities, particularly in coastal settings, must reconsider their built form in order to adapt to radically altered environmental conditions. Three new books by Island Press approach these issues with renewed sense of the value of the urban design.
Entertaining and attractively designed, Alexandros Washburn’s The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience provides a fantastic introduction to the discipline of urban design for non-designers. Washburn, the chief urban designer for New York City, uses that city as case studies to explain what exactly urban designers do and why it matters. He broadly defines urban design as “the art of changing cities, guiding growth to follow new patterns that better meet our challenges while improving our quality of life.” Of course, perhaps the biggest challenge facing cities today is climate change, and The Nature of Urban Design uses Hurricane Sandy to illustrate the need for adaptation, and how urban design can act as an agent of change.

Washburn includes the suburbs in his definition of the city, stating that the suburbs simply represent low-density cities, thus breaking down the false city/suburb dichotomy. Washburn’s inclusion of the suburbs is important because it allows him to expand the purview of urban design beyond the city center to the entire metropolitan area. Urban design isn’t about recreating a single notion of what the city is, but instead about adaptation and improving living conditions, regardless of location within the metropolitan region. Instead of seeking a rigid urban design toolkit, Washburn asks, “Is there a form of the city that can survive new extremes of weather, that can accommodate millions more citizens in dignity and prosperity, that can avoid contributing more to climate change, and still be worth living in?”
He methodically walks us through why urban design matters, how urban designers work, how urban design can be a catalyst for transformation (using the High Line as a case study), and how it can lead to resilience in the face of climate change. He discusses two strategies for resilience: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing greenhouse gases in order to prevent adverse climate change, while adaptation involves reducing vulnerability to projected climate change. With a certain degree of environmental change now inevitable and a dramatic, global reduction in greenhouse gas production seeming less and less likely, Washburn’s approach to resiliency is both idealistic and practical.

Like Washburn’s book, The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods: Lessons from Low-Carbon Communities, by Harrison Fraker, uses global climate change to frame the new importance of urban design. Unlike Washburn’s broad overview of the profession, however, Fraker’s is more narrowly focused, using four European case studies to dig into the specifics of several low-carbon urban design projects. Fraker describes how sustainability issues such as energy efficiency have historically only been considered on the building scale. The neighborhood scale, however, represents new opportunities for carbon reduction. Fraker argues that the neighborhood scale has the “potential to integrate the design of transportation, buildings, and infrastructure while engaging the design of the public realm as part of the system.” He refers to this as a “whole-systems approach,” where all urban systems are considered together, greatly expanding the potential for resiliency.

 The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods is about mitigation, citing examples of low-carbon urban design projects. This does not mean, however, that Fraker is merely presenting a series of utopian designs. Each of the examples in the book is actually built, and Fraker looks back at commonalities between each project’s implementation and subsequent performance. Furthermore, he applies the lessons learned from the four European examples to sprawling, patchwork American urbanism, describing the potential for infill opportunities. Fraker could have spent more time addressing how to retrofit existing development rather than concentrating on new development. Still, as he states, new models can catalyze paradigm shifts, and we should appreciate his effort to translate European lessons to messy American cities.

If The Nature of Urban Design is a layperson’s introduction to urban design, and The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods is a case-study resource for urban designers, The Guide to Greening Cities, by Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Steven S. Nicholas, and Julia Parzen, is probably of most interest to urban planners. Like the other two books, The Guide to Greening Cities lays out the challenge of designing cities in the face of climate change. Johnston and his co-authors also refer to Hurricane Sandy, as well as other climactic events, to establish the new urgency of resilient city design.

 Instead of studying the design of resilient cities, however, Greening Cities explores how city leaders can implement new sustainability projects. Johnston and team state that the book is “written from the perspective of green city leaders and champions who are working inside city governments in North America and who have succeeded in pushing forward innovative green projects.” Rather than emphasizing the design of sustainability, Greening Cities walks through how city leaders can make a case for, fund, implement, and subsequently monitor green projects. In this way, The Guide to Greening Cities is a useful book for urban planners wishing to increase the resiliency of their communities.
Cities are now faced with the task of both adapting to inevitably changing environmental conditions and minimizing their contributions to future climate change. The political, economic, environmental, and technological challenges associated with this task are bewilderingly complex. However, recent events such as Hurricane Sandy have shown inaction to be an increasingly tragic prospect.

The complexity of designing for urban resilience requires a broad cultural shift across many different disciplines. These three books address the same problem of designing in the face of global climate change, but do so for different audiences – the general public, urban designers, and urban planners. With the consequences of global warming no longer abstract, hopefully the sense of urgency that inspired these books will not abate.