Emotions in place: why do visitors to New York have a different physical reaction to streets than locals?

by Charles Montgomery on

My friend Colin Ellard has just issued final results for Testing, Testing, his study of the psychophysiological effects of public space in New York City, Berlin and Mumbai. The results are fascinating, and should lead to more adventurous work in the field.

When we started this experiment at the BMW Guggenheim Lab back in 2011, we wanted to measure how various environments in the Lower East Side affected people’s arousal (or excitement) and their affect, (or sense of well-being). As Christine McLaren writes on the BGLablog, the experiment was “attempting to do something that had never really been done before in Ellard’s field of environmental psychology: take  studies out of the laboratory, and test them in real life.”

The program involved taking small groups of volunteers on neighbourhood tours, and collecting data at various distinct stops on the way. Colin hacked Blackberries in order to accept participants’ self-reports on affect and arousal. He also attached skin conductance monitors to some participants, to gather objective data on arousal.

Some of the results were not surprising. People felt happier and more relaxed in green environments such as a senior’s garden, a cemetery, and a hospital garden in NYC, Berlin and Mumbai respectively. People felt better standing next to facades with many doors, windows and things to look at, than they did next to blank facades.

What was surprising, though, is the role that symbolism and memory may have played in forming people’s reactions to place.

For example, visitors to that NYC community garden felt both happy and calm. But while visitors to the Berlin cemetery and the Mumbai hospital garden felt happy, they were  significantly more aroused by their green experience. This, speculates Colin,  may be due to the meaning associated to the latter two sites. Hospitals and cemeteries may trigger thoughts of illness and death.

Equally intriguing: residents and non-residents of a city appear to have markedly different reactions to place. Residents of NYC, for example, responded more positively to a messy, visually busy, permeated building facade than did non-residents. Visitors to NYC were much more aroused and happy standing on the wide median of Allen Street  than were residents.

This is a powerful reminder that when we experience a place we are not merely responding objectively to geometry and design. We are responding to the idea of the place, our previous experience and memory of it, and the messages and stories that it might trigger.

Funnily enough, one of the interns working on the project in NYC told us as much when we began the program. The Lower East Side is a neighbourhood of gritty history, of successive waves of immigrants, of social activism, and of battles over gentrification and displacement. Those of us who were new to the neighbourhood could not imagine the invisible histories that residents would see woven through the places we were studying.

These results, then, carry a crucial message for city planners and policy-makers: if you don’t include local people in planning and decision-making, then your plans will simply not be based on an accurate understanding of the place.

Here’s a slide show of the final results.