How urban psychology could radically transform city living

8th August 2017

By Chris Murray and Charles Landry*

Why when over 50 percent of the planet lives in a city and rising, do we know so little about their emotional impacts? It is astonishing that psychology, the discipline that deals most closely with human emotions, is almost absent from urban policy.

Jan Gehl noted acerbically: “It is ironic that we know more about the habitat of mountain gorillas than we do about the habitat of people”. We have programmes for smart cities, green cities, healthy cities, cities of culture but people are rarely centre-stage.

Cities are too often seen mechanistically, as inanimate clumps of buildings and technology. This misses their essential human nature. We should look again.

With this in mind, we embarked on a two-year research programme engaging 11 cities internationally: Ghent, Antwerp, Berlin, Lisbon, Adelaide, Minneapolis, Milton Keynes, Krakow, Bilbao, Oslo and Plymouth.

We recognised immediately that although jobs, infrastructure and architecture are critically important, cities are primarily a lived emotional experience. The evidence shows how this impacts massively and directly on our personal development and state of being. Mental health in cities is generally worse than rural areas, worse the bigger a city gets. This is largely connected to concentrations of urban poverty, and does not in any sense make cities bad. They also teach us to be resilient, live with differences and build robust communities.

But our success as a species is closely linked to cities, so understanding more about how we influence and are influenced by them is crucial. It can help those who make and manage cities increase the best effects and reduce the worst.

‘Place identity’ and ‘place attachment’ theory from environmental psychology demonstrate how and where we live has profound emotional and physical impacts, influencing our sense of self, belonging, purpose and meaning in life (or lack of it). Put alongside this that over the span of human evolution very few people have actually lived in a city and our basic mental apparatus did not evolve in them, and we begin to understand the urgent need for an urban psychology.

The ‘peace psychologists’ Herbert Kelman and John Burton showed how basic psychological needs had to be met before progress on negotiations in disputed territories could be made; it’s not all about land and power. Crucial were: feeling secure; belonging; self-esteem and respect; a right to cultural identity; an ability to participate; and a sense of fairness–sometimes, a simple apology. Precisely the things a city must provide to deal successfully with differences of views, culture or religion.

Even a cursory review exposes a virtually untapped, rich seam of ideas and practices in psychology that could be brought to bear on cities, providing new perspectives and workable solutions.

It is possible to transfer a number of psychological tools from person to place and in our book, we begin to build a toolkit for ‘psychologically resilient cities’. We wondered too what would happen if a city could take a personality test. So, we built one and trialled it. The results have created an entirely different way in to a discussion about place (see urbanpsyche.org).

Geoff Snelson, Director of Strategy for Milton Keynes said: “We are a pioneering place and we were pleased to be the first to take the City Personality Test. The results resonated strongly with local participants, and its ability to humanise complex issues about the city led to a completely new kind of dialogue which was extremely engaging.”

The psychiatrist Mazda Adli, Head of the Flieder Klinik in Berlin and author of Stress in the City, sees the City Personality Test as an important “breakthrough, which could be powerfully linked to other methods of surveying peoples’ feelings about their neighbourhood and city”.

Tina Saaby, City Architect of Copenhagen, said: “Increasingly cities should focus on what really drives human desires and needs and this puts the psychological perspective firmly onto the city making agenda.”

Helena Marujo, psychotherapist and lecturer at Lisbon University, who helped organise the Lisbon survey said she was “surprised the results reflected strongly what I felt the character of Lisboans is, and this presents us with a challenge”.

The results of our surveys are laden with practical implications. The challenges for Lisbon are clear when it says of itself it is more introverted than extroverted, more self-absorbed than nurturing or more an improviser than a conscientious doer. The discovery that the Portuguese capital finds it hard to make decisions for the future is important especially when ‘saudade’, that nostalgia for great things past, remains present in the collective Lisboan psyche.

Berlin says it is introverted yet remains very spontaneous. It comes across as having a strong, at times grumpy, character that likes to talk things through, with a sense of duty. We begin to understand why its civic forums and campaigning attitudes are so important.

When we understand the centuries long Castilian dominance over the Basque country we grasp too Bilbao’s strong entrepreneurial spirit as well as its reluctance to be self-critical.

In Adelaide, where idealistic free settlers came to Australia, we understand how others criticise the city for not ‘walking the talk’ and discussing things endlessly.

Why then is psychology not more at the centre of urban thinking? Is it because different schools of psychology disagree on basic issues? Or is it because city makers do not want to reveal their emotional side, think it vague or without economic return? More likely psychology has simply not been brought to bear coherently. As cities are becoming larger, more complex and resources scarce, now is a good time to start.

Apart from fulfilling basic psychological needs, we might ask a more radical question of our cities. Can we conceive of place making and management which will enable us to flourish psychologically, achieve more of our potential and that of the city?

Patricia Greenfield used software to analyse two million books published over 100 years in the US, showing how the use of language has shifted from the communal to the individual, correlating exactly to the rise in US urban living.

A sense of entitled individualism has grown with consumer culture, which although it has benefits, can be a barrier to successful city living, focusing on the singular ‘I’ and ‘me’ not the collective ‘us’ and ‘we’ that is a defining feature of what makes us human. James Hillman, the US psychologist and urbanist, suggested that a collective care for the urban environment–informed and conscious citizenship–will enable people to find meaning and thrive.

“How we imagine our cities, how we envision their goals and values and enhance their beauty defines the self of each person in that city, for the city is the solid exhibition of the communal soul. This means that you find yourself by entering the crowd …. to improve yourself you improve your city.”

Ultimately, the most successful cities will be those that can build psychological resilience, to adapt, to deal with adversity and complexity, to bounce back and continue to function, providing the conditions where inhabitants can achieve their larger aims. By setting out some big ideas and challenges we hope to spark a debate, as well as take pragmatic steps that will help this to happen.

*****

*Psychology & the City: The Hidden Dimension by Charles Landry and Chris Murray is published by Comedia and available post-free from: www.bookdepository.com/Psychology-City-Charles-Landry/9781908777072

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