Biophelia and Berlin: can green space make urbanites kinder?

by Charles Montgomery on

Is it possible to design cities in a way that makes people nicer?

I began asking this question at the BMW Guggenheim Lab last year, when Colin Ellard and I found that certain places in NYC’s Lower East Side caused our tour participants to feel more or less happy than others. What made people cheeriest? A humble community garden in Sara Roosevelt Park. This reflected a mountain of existing research showing that contact with nature makes us feel refreshed, happier, and better able to cope with everyday challenges.

But recent research in environmental psychology suggests that contact with nature does not just make us feel good: it alters our attitude towards other people. What’s more, nature immersion can cause this prosocial effect within an hour or less. One experiment found that participants who spent just a short time looking at nature actually expressed more social and less materialistic life goals than people who had been gazing at a grey cityscape.

I’m certainly no research psychologist, but I love to play with these ideas, and the BGLab, which has now set up shop in Berlin, has offered me that opportunity. This July, I’ll be inviting Berliners on a psychogeographic tour of Prenzlauer Berg. The price of admission? Play along with my informal experiment. We will visit two very different sites: a lush parkscape, and a barren, concrete island. Once we get immersed in either landscape, we’ll engage in some games to test just how generous and trusting participants are in that place and time.

Here’s the terrain. If you’re a Berliner, perhaps you can suggest a particularly blank expanse of concrete for us to visit. They seem to be few and far between:

Why use game theory? Because it provides fun and quick (1-5 minute) games that tell us about everyday ethical dilemmas that involve altruism and trust. For example, in the ultimatum game, one player must choose how much of a gifted sum of money to share with an anonymous partner. The partner may accept or refuse the offer. If she accepts, they both receive the agreed-upon sums. If she refuses, then they get nothing. Their decisions will be based upon their private calculations of rewards, but also upon how trusting and cooperative they are at that time.

I hypothesize that people will play these games differently when they are experiencing effects of nature exposure. They might be more altruistic, creating outcomes where all players benefit. The implications for urban planning are significant. At very least, they will give us something to argue about over some nice German beer once we’re done!

I’d love to hear any thoughts on methodology. Otherwise, stay tuned for results!