Cities have a long-standing reputation of being epicentres of culture, politics and industry owing to cohesive social networks facilitated by their concentrated infrastructure. From a societal perspective, cities catalyse movements and inventions, making them highly important to human society. It’s fair to argue, as someone pointed out to me recently, that we’ve been doing placemaking for over 5000 years. From Quito to Damascus via Varanasi and Hanoi to Beijing the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities have adapted over time and have been maintained as homes for millions of people. Whilst, roads, buildings, businesses and cultures have come and gone the core constant has been the human-to-human interaction within them. Cities are the places in which human collisions occur to create legacy, it was Paris where Picasso and Matisse met and subsequently changed the course of modern art. It was on a train platform in South East London where Jagger and Richards discovered their mutual love for blues music, and it was in Brooklyn where Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey met through friends and established a business that has changed the commercial real estate industry like nothing else.
Humans have thrived in cities for many millennia, however despite the evangelists heralding the next wave of human evolution thanks to technology, such as Yuval Noah Harari, Elon Musk, and Brian Johnson. However we are also at a point of human crisis never experienced before that threatens the next 5000 years of urban placemaking.
Cities are economic hubs driving growth at ever strengthening rates, however bubbling below the surface of this heralded growth are human consequences that need addressing. Given this, we were commissioned by the Future Cities Catapult to identify where and how neuroscience will be a tool for years to come. It’s value starts at helping reveal the unintended human consequences of the built environment on biology, physiology and ultimately cognition. The field, whilst relatively nascent has decades of research allowing neuroscience to be used as an evidence based process to provide mitigations that will support health, wellbeing and productivity. Some key findings from the playbook include:
children who grow up in high traffic and pollution zones are increasingly developing life long neuro-developmental issues
urban dwellers are facing earlier and increased diagnosis in dementia and Alzheimer’s
ecological disruption causing wider human implications such as in Houston, Texas where a dominant concrete base over a porous mangrove base increasing flood water stagnation
mental health disorders leading to 127m hours of lost productivity in the UK, roughly costing £3.7bn to private business, and the public purse £26bn per year
unintended urban ghettos resulting from infrastructure layouts limit socio-economic opportunities and result in rising inequality.
Rather than delivering cities of health and wellbeing are we actually creating places of wealth and hellbeing?
This is not a capitalism or business bashing piece. Quite the opposite, business is great, and should be encouraged however we have researched and articulated how urban stressors of noise, air, light pollution alongside commuting, density disparity, are affecting our mental health and cognition. Have we created an always on urban culture that exacerbate the very things that threaten the sustainable society and economy of our shared future?
As a neuroscience lab our job is to understand the links between built environmental stressor and it’s biological and consequential cognitive impact. If the future of our human economy is based within creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and empathy should we not ensure that our cities enable that, or at the very least don’t directly work against them? Examples of what this means for industry are;
IoT and smart city enablers to drive the next generation of living labs in listening to urban activity and creating autonomous systems to first mitigate, secondly counteract, and thirdly prevent built environmental stressors.
Smart buildings creators to start basing comfort levels from neuroscientific data, moving beyond cultural trends and identify the core human functions that relate to self generated wellness, wellbeing and productivity.
Architects and Designers to gain a deeper understanding of how physical comforts and elements effect people on a physiological and cognitive perspective. To ultimately develop new risk assessments from a human perspective.
The Development Industry can adopt more effective user testing, such as VR+Neuro, to deliver the next wave of housing, offices, and leisure spaces fit for multigenerational, differently abled, and neurodiverse use.
Urban Planners can understand the physiological and cognitive effect of poor transport infrastructure and it’s deeper effects of perceived exclusion and isolation.
We don’t need to radically rip up everything we’ve done to date. We just need to think a little more networked in how understanding how urban built environment systems work. We need to use science to identify what is experienced but cannot be expressed by people. We need to get smarter in understanding how modern commuting is leading someone to be “useless until their 3rd coffee at 11am”, or why young people “feel excluded” in a city of huge opportunity? We need to identify these problems and mitigate them without shouting about it. You shouldn’t get a reward for solving the problem you created. The data and evidence is there, as someone rightly said of our collective findings, these are non-negotiable terms. It’s now a shared responsibility to be leaders of a new built environment, and not the silent bystanders continuing the pasts mistakes.
To be leaders in the built environment it takes responsibility to up one's game. It should be a matter of fact that we use wide evidence bases to ensure health, wellbeing and productivity are standards delivered. Like the technology products we all use daily, deep analysis into expectation, past experiences and insight go into driving seamless products that deliver a great user experience. Our built environment should offer the same levels of UX based not on technological capability and function, but intuitively providing what we as humans need from our built environment in a technological world.
The Neuroscience for Cities playbook was commissioned by the Future Cities Catapult and is a joint project between The Centric Lab and University College London. In it we present a framework for all practitioners in the built environment from app developers, to real estate developers to local authorities to adopt a new knowledge base to enhance their offering. We believe this playbook helps establish neuroscience as a sophisticated lens into human experience of the built environment. We hope you enjoy it.
Thank you to all those who made this happen.
Download a copy here - https://futurecities.catapult.org.uk/project/neuroscience-for-cities-a-playbook/