If you were asked to imagine what sort of qualities residents want from their cities, you'd probably come up with a list of bland but worthy adjectives like clean, safe, convenient, etc.
Does science agree? What does research tell us about what sort of cityscapes actually make us happy -- and what sort take a psychological toll on us?
It turns out that the qualities that cause a place to appear on most livable cities lists aren't necessarily the same ones that research shows best support our psychological well being. Rankings might value bland convenience, but humans prefer a little chaos.
That's the fascinating takeaway of a review of recent research on the subject from Jacoba Urist that appeared on New York Magazine's Science of Us blog recently. The in-depth post is well worth a read in full if you're interested in architecture or urban planning, but the bottom line is that clean, neat but utterly bland cityscapes actually seem to make people pretty miserable.
All those Starbucks are boring people senseless.
If you're looking for a caffeine fix,a Starbucks on every other block is handy. But the parade of chain stores that increasingly fill many cities has been scientifically proven to bore people to the point of negatively impacting our mental and physical health, the post contends.
One study that proved as much by carefully measuring the moods of study subjects as they walked around New York City. "Participants recorded their response to questions at each stopping point and wore sensors that measured skin conductance, an electrodermal response to emotional excitement," Urist explains. When subjects passed a block entirely taken up by a glossy but utterly bland Whole Foods their "state of arousal reached a nadir," he writes. "Physiologically... they were bored."
When subjects walked through blocks bristling with local restaurants and small businesses, on the other hand, their "bracelets measured high levels of physical excitement," Urist writes.
Who cares that the uninspiring buildings housing the likes of Whole Foods bore people silly? Urist argues that the monotony is more of a serious problem than it might first appears. "Studies show that feeling meh can be more than a passing nuisance," he notes. "For instance, psychologists Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert's work suggests that even small doses of boredom can generate stress." In these experiment "boredom, surprisingly, increased people's heart rate and cortisol level more than sadness. Now take their findings and imagine the cumulative effects of living or working in the same oppressively dull environs day after day."
Not only does architecture-induced boredom increase our stress levels, but other studies show that glossy but bland buildings encourage people to be less kind and social, which might drive up the already high psychological costs of our increasing social isolation.
Small businesses to the rescue
These are fascinating findings for those of us who are sometimes frustrated by the lack of architectural imagination in many neighborhoods. But perhaps the most interesting takeaway for Inc.com readers specifically is that small businesses just might be the answer to boring blocks.
"Researchers argue that humans are healthier when they live among variety--a cacophony of bars, bodegas, and independent shops," claims Urist. Tufts urban policy professor Justin Hollander and architect Ann Sussman recently reviewed the science on the subject and concluded, people "function best in intricate settings and crave variety, not 'big, blank, boxy buildings,'" he reports.
That's great encouragement for small business owners. Not only might your local shop delight patrons with delicious eats or exceptional products, but just by being your own unique self, you might be helping the psychological health of local residents. Good on you.
Does your experience line up with the research -- do you feel happier and more alive surrounded by messy-but-lively cityscapes versus blander buildings?