Could Urban Spaces Actually Make Us Happy?

For good and for bad, the design of urban spaces can have a big impact on our emotions... and on how we interact with strangers.

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We all know that a bouquet of fresh flowers, a beautiful piece of art or a brand new coat of paint can instantly brighten your mood when you walk into a room. Small changes in your living room or in your office can have a positive effect on your mood and your feelings. It can even change the way you interact with your family and co-workers… but what about public spaces and strangers?

Colin Ellard is an Urban Psychologist. His research explores how urban design can influence the experience of the urban pedestrian. Ellard studies the minutia of different designs and landscapes in public spaces such as architecture, building skins and facades, green spaces, road width, building height and even traffic flow, to name a few. He is concerned with the effects these spaces have on our mood and our behaviour and how these effects can change the way we interact with others in public spaces.

He uses sophisticated technology to measure brainwaves, heart rate and levels of stress.  He also uses virtual reality settings in the lab to measure how the urban dweller responds to changes in the environment they are immersed in. Ultimately, Ellard’s biggest concern is psychological and physical health. He has found that there is a direct link between people’s ability to immerse themselves in natural scenes and psychological health.

Ellard has traveled all over the world to measure the effect of public spaces on our emotions and mood. In his book, Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, Ellard talks about his personal experience with public space and emotion. In his interview with CBC, he listed Mumbai, India’s marketplace as a “delicious shock” and ‘the quad’ at University College, U of T as one of his all-time favourite spaces.

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Colin Ellard, who works at the intersection of neuroscience and architectural and environmental design, has published scientific work in international journals in North America, Europe, and Asia for the past twenty-five years and has also contributed to the public discussion of environmental psychology through his work with museums and the
media. He is the author of Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life and You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon.  A cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory, Ellard lives in Kitchener, Ontario.