Experimenting with the emotional city in NYC

by Charles Montgomery on

The city is a behavioral system. It alters how we feel, how we see each other, and how we act. This would be a terrible thought if it were not for a second truth, which is that the city is malleable. We can change it whenever we wish.

These are the ideas at the heart of the Happy City project. Between Sept 28 and Oct 16, I will test them at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City. If you give a damn about the future of cities, if you are curious about the city’s ability to design sweet moments into or out of your life, or if you simply like to hug strangers, I invite you to join me as we poke at both the city and the human brain.  I could use your help.

If you can’t make it to my opening presentation, here’s what we’re up to the first week:

We have already started by examining the emotional life of public space. The Canadian psychologist, Colin Ellard, has designed an experiment that uses various gadgets to measure the effect of locations in the Lower East Side on participants’ brains and bodies.  We’re learning about how these places influence visitors’ levels of arousal, affect and cognitive function. You can sign up for the tour .

For most New Yorkers, the most common experience of public life occurs in transit. On any weekday, 8.5 million people depend on the MTA’s busses, boats and subways. How does the commute influence your sense of status, comfort and well-being? There is no better guide to that question than Carlos Felipe Pardo, a psychologist who has examined the emotional effects of transit around the world. Join Carlos’s transit psychology tour. Then brainstorm new ideas for commuting comfort with panelists including the author of the bestselling Traffic,Tom Vanderbilt

Despite this focus on designed experiences, our comfort can be shaped by unseen systems that define how we see and treat other people. If we can redesign our spaces and mobility systems, can we redesign the cultural and cognitive software that shapes our social behavior? We’ll explore these ideas in a couple of slightly mind-bending programs. First, Kio Stark will send volunteers on missions to interact with total strangers on city streets. I am hoping this will prime us for Love Night, where an all-star team including neuroeconomist Paul Zak, psychologist Emanuele Castano, Stark, artist Ryan Brennan, the folks at Project for Public Spaces and Sabine Seymour’s fashionable technology students at Parsons will use the entire BGLab as an environment for building feelings of trust and altruism.

To cap the week off, Justin Luke at Audio Visual Arts has put together a mash-up of acoustic ecologists and sound artists to consider the science and wonder of the urban soundscape.

This, of course, is just the beginning. As we roll into the second week, we’ll take these ideas and imagine ways to retrofit NYC for comfort and joy. Stay tuned…