Brains, cities, NIMBYs, and neurobollocks
I’m going to try to gather together an inchoate collection of thoughts for this post but I’m hoping that, like a good Jethro Tull song (1), something sensible will emerge from the chaos by the time I’m done.
A local story about housing
My story begins at the hyperlocal level, and has to do with a planning issue in my little mid-sized Canadian burg (population about 240K). Like so many other cities in North America, we suffer from a shortage of housing (2). In part because of demand, costs for homes whether purchased or rented are in the stratosphere. If I was a young adult starting out, I’m fairly certain that I would be living in my parents’ basement. I’m no expert in municipal affairs, but an obvious solution to this situation is to encourage more development of affordable housing. Just down the street from me, a developer proposed a fairly intense new development – a couple of towers containing quite a large number of units of varying sizes. The developer also committed to fund affordable housing both on site and in other locations in the city. Following what was described as a marathon session in city council, the proposal was rejected. The frustrated developer is now considering an appeal to a provincial tribunal that adjudicates land use in my province. The proposal was rejected by council for a number of different reasons, but one of the main ones was the concern that the development would “dwarf” neighbouring buildings, mostly detached single-family homes that can sell for a million dollars and are beyond the reach of most people starting out in the market.
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That argument caught my eye. One citizen at the meeting said that the proposal was “not appropriate at this location where established neighbourhoods exist….” Resistance to change in such matters is nothing new and though I think it is short-sighted and selfish, it’s also understandable that when one’s home is the most significant asset that one possesses, one will defend it jealously even if that defence results in suffering somewhere else in the housing ecosphere. But when things are so dire, especially for young adults, it seems unconscionable to protest against a new development because “that’s not the way we do things here.”
A Canadian conversation
Yesterday, I had a really interesting conversation with a senior planner in a major Canadian city. In a few minutes, mostly inspired by his thoughts, we hatched a pretty ambitious plan. Still vague but exciting. I know he’s not alone. There are lots of other planners in other cities throughout Canada, the United States, and the rest of the world who have bold visions for how to move from where we are to somewhere better. For me, the best part of this is that many of those visionaries, like the new friend I made yesterday, understand the power of data, evidence and even experimentation. Approaches based on the human sciences can make a genuine contribution to better city-building and, as I’ve been arguing for decades now, the time is ripe. We have great tools, brilliant access to data and loads of exciting, young, interdisciplinary thinkers to bring to the mix. But what do we do? If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know that this is a conundrum for me. The question is how to bring scientific evidence related to how we live, act and feel in cities to bear on policy and from there to the streets themselves. The great promise, and one that we discussed yesterday, is that data is (or should be) convincing. If we can find ways to demonstrate paths to the future that are likely to be successful, then it ought to be easier to convince municipal politicians, ordinary citizens, and maybe even developers to give those paths a go.
But that’s where the conversation took another interesting turn. What do we do with arguments like those made by citizens at that planning meeting I mentioned whom we sometimes pejoratively label as NIMBYs (3) and who react emotionally to proposals for change? One idea might be to try reason and evidence. If we could show convincing evidence that a proposed new design/building/neighborhood is going to be better for wellbeing, then it might be harder for people who (rationally or not) oppose change to dig in and fight against it. But that’s the real bugger of it, isn’t it? How do we do it? For all of my enthusiasm about data-based approaches to what I’ve always called psychological sustainability, I’m still not sure how to get there.
There’s been something of a groundswell of enthusiasm for approaches to these problems that are based on biology, evolution, and neuroscience. This seems like quite a leap, but the kernel of the idea is that if we think about humans as biological systems, consider ourselves as just another evolved species with a set of deeply rooted capacities, dispositions, responses, then maybe we can make a beginning on a set of firm principles for urban design. One of the nice things about this premise is that if it’s true then it might also mean that there are some universals. Biology runs deep in us. It is us. We are it. Or so it is often argued.
I should pause here and say that few have been as strongly in favour of this approach to urban design as I have been. I’ve conducted studies, written books, given lectures where I’ve made exactly this argument: we can learn useful things about how to build stuff by paying attention to human responses to things like symmetry, colour, complexity, shape and pattern and that such responses are to some extent built in. When conversation turned this way yesterday, my friend asked me whether I thought that those kinds of deep, in-built responses could serve as a framework for thinking about urban design and whether the kinds of tools that I’ve been yabbering about for years now—tools that measure brainwaves, eye movements, sweat glands, heart rate—could give a reliable window into these universals. This is where things begin to fly off in all directions like that mad intermezzo in a Tull song (4).
An Interlude in India
Before I answer that question, I ask that you indulge me in a reminiscence of a talk I once gave in Mumbai. This was during a month-long visit to the city that I was lucky enough to fall into as part of a stint with the BMW-Guggenheim Laboratory. At some point during my sojourn, I gave a talk about my work. In the day leading up to my evening talk, as I wandered around our beautiful exhibition site, I happened to look into our casual little canteen. I saw a man sitting at a table who looked familiar. He looked much like the distinguished psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. I was sure I must be wrong, as why would Humphrey be sitting in our dinky little canteen eating a plastic dish of middling curry? I put the oddness of this out of my mind and went on to prepare my talk. When I showed up for the sparsely attended event, there was Nicholas Humphrey seated prominently near the front of the room. I’d never met him but he’s such a major figure in the history of my science that I’d seen his photo many times and I’d read some of his books. I had no doubt that it was him. For those of you who might not know the name, imagine it like this: you’ve just stepped on stage for an amateur community theatre production. Before it starts, you peek through the curtain to get a look at the audience and there is Matthew McConaughey sitting in the front row, waiting to see your work and perhaps deliver a crit. If you think this is exaggeration, look him up (Humphrey, not McConaughey).
I gave my talk, the usual thing about the power of psychology to help us understand how cities work. I spoke in detail about the data that I had collected during the psychogeographic walks that I have run in various cities world-wide. I felt that the small audience was suitably impressed. But then Humphrey put up his hand. I experienced a cremasteric reflex (5). He pointed out that as many of my experiments recruited people who were already invested in a particular way of thinking about cities (planning and architecture students, urbanists, various types of fans), wasn’t I worried about demand characteristics? In other words, was there a concern that my participants just told me what they thought I wanted to hear? My response was straightforward. I explained that our physiological measurements, crude as they might be, mirrored our self-report findings. “The body,” I said tendentiously “cannot lie.” Well.
“The body,” he said, “might not lie but it might just be following the lead of the mind.” In other words, Humphrey was suggesting that even my miracle meters might not be picking up some raw, unmediated biological signal about human responses but, rather, the bodily signals may just be an echo of what the participants had decided to feel about a question.
It’s not that I had never thought about the possibility of such complex interactions between bodily state, beliefs, opinions and perception, but I have to admit that nobody had ever really challenged me to address them. One of the problems in this field (6) is that people tend to be far too ready to put unwarranted faith in the fluctuations of a needle in a device that measures physiology compared to, say, simple utterances about what we like, don’t like, what we fear, what arouses us. We are too willing to take multi-coloured brain maps much more seriously than we do the self-reports of our participants. Humphrey was, in a way, highlighting that problem (7).
What Humphrey’s question has to do with the psychology of urban design
Getting back now to my discussion with the planner, the question really boiled down to one of comparison between those supposed universal, in-built, biologically based responses and the kinds of reactions to settings that might come from history, learning, and culture. This is a really important question because, especially in some of the circles I’ve inhabited, these two kinds of things are pitched against one another as a kind of either-or. It’s not the same as the endless, tedious nature-nurture debate but it is related in the sense that it is just as pointless. The way that I answered the question in the discussion with my planner friend was by citing examples of observations from my own work where I thought that I knew what was going on in a setting because I understood the biological universals that were at play, but then found myself knocked on my heels by aspects of a setting that had little to do with any kind of deeply rooted neuro-aesthetic. In Manhattan, for example, I saw sterile, cinder-block construction in a social housing complex that was abhorred by visitors but cherished by residents (8). In nearby Red Hook I saw long, featureless industrial streetscapes penetrated by tiny, ornamental flourishes of wrought iron that had no purpose other than to signal that someone cared enough about a long, warehouse wall to design and install these little features. In Berlin, I saw squatter houses, frightening to an outsider perhaps but symbolic of the fascinating history of dissent in that city and a target of fond reminiscence for many. I think that all three of those examples would probably have an impact on the physiological state of a visitor and that impact might well differ depending on the meanings attached to even very small features. And I don’t think it very likely that any of those examples relates to grand, sweeping, essentialist conjectures about what we like and what works well for us in an urban streetscape.
As these bumbling thoughts rattle around in my head, I’m not always sure I understand how to sort all of this out. Returning to the beginning of this essay, I described a NIMBY-istic response to a new development in my own city. Looking at the renderings for the proposal, I could see aesthetic features that worked pretty well. I could easily imagine justifying the design on the basis of things that I know about how brains respond to the built environment. I could even envision an experiment where I showed the pretty renderings to participants in a laboratory experiment and demonstrated that nice things were happening in their brains. But I could also imagine that if I were to measure the brains of people who lived in that neighborhood, saw shadows of high-rises falling across their yards and worried about increases in neighborhood traffic, I might be able to pick up signs of a visceral negative response to the design.
All of this is really to say that if someone argues to you that demonstrating a certain kind of physiological response to a design presented devoid of any context—the history and culture of the place in which it is set—has anything much to say about the way that a development will be received is really trying to sell you a bill of goods no matter how many times they append the stem “neuro” to whatever adjectives they are using to describe their approach (9).
I’ll just finish off with a caveat. In case my point isn’t clear, I’m not trying to debunk all of the really interesting work that is going on in neuro-aesthetics nor to suggest that it is devoid of meaning in the real world. I have some really good friends who are invested in these approaches and know what they’re doing. There are many others whom I don’t know as well but whose work is top-notch, well-reasoned and fascinating. I’m also not trying to say that approaches to understanding the psychology of urban design are not advanced at all by tools that measure bodily state.
So what am I saying? Only that I see a tumult in many different fields at the moment—architecture and planning in particular—where the bold idea is that using neuroscience methods will enhance practice. But for all of the buzz about this, I can think of remarkably few examples (maybe none) where measurements of the brain have told us anything that we might not have discovered in other ways—perhaps simpler ways. And I think in the end a lot of this buzz is being driven by a powerful reductionist agenda that would try to convince us that we are simple beings with easily characterized and quantified psychologies, almost like bots. Perhaps it has to do with my advancing age and experience, but the more that I learn the more I realize that we are not such simple beings. Along with this realization comes the concern that such misconstructions of our nature will not only fail to produce better places but will put the new multidisciplinary approaches to buildings and cities that involve biological sciences in peril of collapsing like a house of cards.
(1) I know the reference dates me a bit, but fans of the band will remember how their songs would often start strong and then dissolve into an instrumental bridge of discordant chaos before, somehow, miraculously, coalescing into something powerful. It was like a distant view of a shimmering mirage that slowly comes into focus.
(2) Especially of the affordable kind. It’s pretty remarkable that a mid-sized, affluent city like this now commonly experiences tent cities, and worse. When I take walks through certain natural areas scattered through the city, it isn’t at all unusual to stumble upon a sad little bivouac that has clearly served as someone’s home. It’s often nothing more than a few sheets of cardboard scattered on the ground and a handful of implements presumably plucked from the garbage.
(3) I think everyone knows what this means but just in case – Not In My Back Yard
(4) It occurs to me that for those who are not familiar with the genre, I’d better give you a good example of a Jethro Tull song to illustrate my meaning. Buckle up for this one if you decide to click. It’s nine minutes long. If you go to about the four minute mark, you’ll see a pretty good musical analog of where I think I am so far in this post.
(5) If you don’t know what this is, look it up. Quite fascinating.
(6) And I realize I may be doing myself out of some lucrative consulting dollars by admitting this.
(7) I should say that all of this happened in a gracious and kind way. At a full-blooded academic conference, Humphrey could have skewered me if he had wanted to. But he didn’t. In fact, following the talk, he and I went out for a slap-up dinner together at a beautiful restaurant. He was a lot of fun. He has great stories. He worked with Diane Fossey for goodness sake.
(8) Not to suggest that there is a universal fondness for cheap, ugly design, but in this instance there were signs of affection for this particular complex.
(9) One such word that I’m particularly fond of is “neuro-bollocks” because it captures the flavour of what I’m trying to say here.
What I’m eating
With encouragement from my daughter, we’ve continued our mad summer frenzy of eating but most of it tucked into so quickly that the photos are forgotten. But here’s something that my sister made for us during a weekend retreat at her lovely place in the country. I’m usually skeptical of vegan substitutes for meat in traditionally meaty dishes, but these tacos featured some remarkable roasted quinoa, which you can just see peeking out from underneath the pile of somewhat un-vegan fixxin’s I added for myself. The gist of the recipe is that you cook quinoa in the ordinary way using stock and then roast it with seasonings of choice (chili, garlic, etc) for a while. I’ve just finished lunch, which was this delicious shrimp tempura salad,
And I’m salivating nevertheless.
What I’m Reading
It’s still the tome by Wootton on the Scientific Revolution that I mentioned last post. I’m enjoying it, not completely sure I’m getting what I wanted from it (an understanding of the general view of truth, fact, and theory in the 17th century) but I know its so dense that if I stop reading it I won’t pick it up again. I’m gasping for some fiction. My mother-in-law just gifted me a novel called Scarborough, which is set in the neighborhoods where I grew up. I’m hoping to claw my way through the Wooton book soon so I can rest my reading brain slightly. It’s July after all.
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My dear Colin, only one year to transform you from skeptically enthusiastic to full-on skeptical? Oh, I don't even know how to begin! Just think of it from this perspective: when architects and urban designers claim their inspiration from parametricism or rhizomes, correctives must be offered. Let's leave it at that. As ever, a wonderful read.