06 January 2009

A Good City Stimulates Your Brain

There is a Boston Globe article making the internet rounds with the headline "How the City Hurts Your Brain". I had to make a few comments.

Basically they are saying that there is too much negative stimulus in the city, and that your brain can only do so many things, and thus people who stroll in a garden can think more clearly than people navigating a street full of cars.

Take this quote for example:

In a study ... Some of the students took a stroll in an arboretum, while others walked around the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor.

The subjects were then run through a battery of psychological tests. People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory...In fact, just glancing at a photograph of urban scenes led to measurable impairments, at least when compared with pictures of nature.

"We see the picture of the busy street, and we automatically imagine what it's like to be there," says Berman. "And that's when your ability to pay attention starts to suffer."
The problem with this set up is that the city photograph was probably of a poorly designed, car-dominated street. Is the choice really between living in a city and living in a park? Of course not. The real choice is between living in a city and living in the suburbs. So then the question is, which is more damaging to your brain, walking through Washington Park to work, or navigating the Norwood Lateral?

But the ending of the article is better. It emphasizes that parks and street trees are very important, and must be properly designed. What the article doesn't say is that there are many cities (Paris, Barcelona etc) that are already well designed like this. They end with a statement about the stimulating life of dense cities that I completely agree with:

..When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the brain within minutes. ...Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

...the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory -- the crowded streets, the crushing density of people -- also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the "concentration of social interactions" that is largely responsible for urban creativity, ...


5chw4r7z said...

Good analysis.
Its ironic everyone keeps coming back to traffic, when what "we" are trying to do is get rid of (or reduce) them.

DP said...

So the answer it seems is to have high quality urban spaces with easy access to high quality natural areas. Balance of innovation with the periodic requisite re-charge.

Seems to me that if we hadn't paved over all the area outside the core (present-day suburbs), it would be a lot easier to get to high quality natural areas. Mason was probably very nice to visit 50 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Id value the negative stimulus of an American city over that of most third world rural countries any day.