How Urban Landscapes Shape Emotional and Mental Well-Being

The Urban Mind smartphone app researches the impact of the urban environment on our mental well-being, with a view to aiding better psychological treatment and to helping architects and planners create a more sympathetic built environment

New communication technologies, the internet of things and the sheer volume of data we now generate means the idea of Smart Cities has been pushed to the top of agendas as politicians, policy makers and urban planners seek to improve the quality of life in urban spaces. But a highly original approach to assessing mental well-being in the city is being taken by a group of researchers who have developed the Urban Mind app; a project using participant data to explore and measure how the built environment – architecture, streets, the urban landscape – shapes our psychological and emotional dispositions. 

The Urban Mind app is a project lead by Dr Andrea Mechelli – a neuroscientist at King’s College London – in collaboration with artist Michael Smythe, and Johanna Gibbons and Neil Davidson of the J&L Gibbons landscape architecture practice. ‘It’s a truly cross-disciplinary study where we have tried to combine two different perspectives,’ says Mechelli, Reader in Early Intervention in the Department of Psychosis Studies at the Institute of Psychiatry. Mechelli explains that Joanna Gibbons is involved in contributing to policy making, helping decision-making about what should be built where or how new buildings should look. But many of these planning decisions are based on well-meaning assumptions. ‘Someone might say we must include a shopping mall at the bottom of a building because that’s what people want. Or “we must use a certain kind of material because that will make people feel better than this other material,” but where is the scientific evidence?’

Vulnerability and the city

Equally, the notion that city dwellers feel better in a space with trees, or when they have a view of the sea or a river, or water space, may feel intuitively or anecdotally right – but having evidence for this adds weight, especially when there is a major investment of money at stake for developers. In any case there is already extensive scientific literature around mental health and the city, how the urban environment makes people more likely to develop mental illnesses. 

This research really took-off in the 1970s, says Dr Mechelli, ‘when people realized that the proportion of people with schizophrenia were much higher in the city than in the countryside. The first studies were epidemiological, they were looking at rates of illnesses and different environments. The more recent studies over the last 15 years or so looked at brain-scanning and other biological tests to actually understand the mechanism behind the fact that living in the city makes you more vulnerable.’ 

Working one day a week as a Clinical Psychologist with the NHS in London, Dr Mechelli sees the impact of the built environment on his patients, for example on their vulnerability to relapses. The Urban Mind app has been developed to reveal characteristics of the urban environment that make people more stressed, anxious.

Ecological momentary assessment 

But the app is also an example of new technology extending traditional research methods. It has been designed to encourage more accurate information than that delivered by participants using traditional methods, where logging responses occurs in the artificial environment of the clinic or research institution. ‘One key aspect of this study which is important to emphasise, is that we are using something called “ecological momentary assessment”,’ says Dr Mechelli. ‘What this means is that we are measuring how people feel and what they are doing in real life context, in real-time, as opposed to asking people what did you do last month? How did you feel when you were in that environment? Because when you ask people to remember there are lots of issues with recall bias and the fact that you can’t be very detailed with what questions you ask. The data should be more ecologically valid than what people have done in the past when the participants were asked to remember where they went, how they felt and what they did in those environments.’ 

The method of ecological momentary assessment has been around since the early 1980s as a way in which patients report on their symptoms or how they feel. ‘We used it in psychiatry to monitor psychiatric symptoms,’ explains Dr Mechelli. ‘We give people a standalone device that would make a sound, maybe five six times a day, and when people heard that sound they had to complete a questionnaire.’ But he explains that it is not very practical carrying a standalone electronic device and a diary around with you all the time. Plus, responding to the prompt while in social situations can mark you out – some patients reported that it felt a bit stigmatizing. 

The Urban Mind app is less socially intrusive, and has been designed so that after the participants fill in the answers a couple of times, they grasp the simple iconography of the interface meaning that it’s fast, and elicits more immediate responses. As a smartphone app downloadable from the web, the team has access to a much bigger group of people who can participate as they go about their daily life in the city. 

Continuum of addiction

As the study is open to anyone (and is entirely anonymous) the team is exploring a range of questions. ‘For the purpose of this study we are looking at mental well-being in general and are also looking at health-related behaviours in particular – how much people are drinking, the extent to which people are using the internet for recreation. We are using a definition of addictive behavior that is quite broad, the idea is that everyone is on a spectrum, we are all on a continuum. There are some people who are very vulnerable and susceptible to certain behaviours and they might drink during the day. Other people are the opposite. The idea is that we are all on the same continuum, this is a definition of addiction that is very much grounded in the current scientific understanding because what we do know about addiction is that everyone has some risk genes, there are many risk genes for addictive behaviours.’  

It’s initially a pilot study in London but the team is working towards getting more funding to research other cities. The app also contains a visual component – purely voluntary – so alongside questions that could be about how noisy it is (subjective) or can you see trees, the app also invites participants to take a photo of the ground where they stand, or take a 15-second recording of the surrounding sound. The work is posted on the project’s Instagram account. It’s visual documentation that also encourages participation, engagement and sharing. 

Most of all, the teams have designed the experiment so that they can pick up on the different factors that shape people’s individual responses to the environment – their backgrounds, lifestyles, where they came from. ‘For example if someone grew up in the city they might respond to certain aspects of the city differently to someone who grew up in a very rural environment. Someone who is very stressed, impulsive and anxious might respond to certain aspects of the environment differently to someone who is very calm or really relaxed.’  Ultimately the project may lead to doctors having a better understanding of the urban triggers and stress points of their patients, and to make architects and urban planners better informed about the psychological impact of buildings.