Press release: Public Space Improvements Can Boost Trust Among Strangers

by Mitchell Reardon on

A new study has found that a rainbow crosswalk painted by the City of Vancouver is linked to greater trust among strangers. That’s one finding from the Happy Streets Living Lab report, released today.

This unique study used Vancouver, Canada, as its laboratory. The goal: to understand how urban design interventions can support wellbeing, belonging and social trust – an antidote to the growing crisis of loneliness in many cities. More than 100 people joined tours where the study team measured how changes to public space influenced their emotions.

“It was amazing to see how adding lush greenery to a laneway, or bright colour to an intersection, can induce people to trust strangers more,” experiment lead Mitchell Reardon explained, “Cities are full of mundane, everyday spaces. Imagine the potential to transform them into catalysts for positive emotions.”

Transforming the everyday into the amazing
The experiment, led by Happy City and the University of Waterloo’s Urban Realities Lab, brought participants to three types of settings that most city-dwellers pass daily – a residential laneway, an intersection and a manicured green space. Participants then visited three similar but contrasting sites, where activations had taken place.

“This research sheds light on how urban design influences the way we feel,” said Robin Mazumder, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, “It’s just the beginning of a fascinating journey into understanding how we can design cities that support our well-being.”

Lush greenery & vibrant colour support wellbeing & trust
Experiment results indicate that cities can indeed improve wellbeing through interventions that inject nature, colour and unique elements into public space. Participants who experienced the City of Vancouver’s interventions expressed a greater sense of happiness than they did at the standard sites. They felt more care for these places. They felt that strangers were more trustworthy. And they were more willing to pick up litter.

Notably, Happy Streets found that spaces covered in community fingerprints – DIY projects, signs of local maintenance and reflections of local culture – all scored highly for belonging and trust towards strangers. The results also confirmed the restorative power of nature: The team used skin sensor bracelets to measure physical arousal, and found that participants were most calm at locations with plentiful greenery.

The experiment, which was carried out during the global Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference, was supported by Viva Vancouver, MODUS and Project for Public Spaces.

The experiment’s results build on previous Happy City research. This includes a January 2017 experiment in West Palm Beach, Florida, where a one-day public space activation found that designs that provoke feelings of fascination can also boost wellbeing. Happy City is now preparing for its next real-world study, The Light Up Experiment, which will use light-projected murals to strengthen the understanding about how public art can support wellbeing and trust.

Watch project videos

Read the full report here

For more information, contact:
Mitchell Reardon
Project Lead, Happy City
+1 778-990-6663

Happy City is a consulting group that helps build health and happiness into neighborhoods and cities by illuminating the intersection between urban design and wellbeing. Using master planning, design studios, urban experiments, unique engagement events and consultation, we draw on over a decade of research in psychology, neuroscience, public health and behavioral economics to help developers, planners, governments, non-governmental organizations and citizens understand happy design.

The Urban Realities Laboratory (formerly known as the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments) came to life in 2006 as an entity within the Psychology Department at the University of Waterloo. Using both mobile data collection methods in field settings and immersive virtual reality, we focus on understanding the perception of architectural forms and how they influence cognition, wayfinding, and emotion. We work at a wide range of scales from house interiors to city streetscapes.