What if cities were mapped according to how you felt as you navigated it? It will be sort of like Rappler’s mood meter but it will show for example a major boulevard with skyscrapers as “intimidating” and the back alleys which have grown quaint shops and unexpected artwork as “interesting” and “warm.” Maybe those maps will show the sharp differences between what place designers such as property developers, architects and urban planners intended and what actual dwellers or navigators of cities actually feel when they are in them.
Indeed, places have real and measurable effects on our bodies and minds. Busy streets can cause people to get disoriented and have anxiety attacks. Crossing the street always stresses me out. Roundabouts can make our cortisol (hormone marker for stress) spike as it must have with writer Bill Bryson when backpacking in Europe and trying to cross the roundabouts in Paris as motorists sped by. He said he felt like he had a bullseye mark in his butt.
Buildings can make you feel powerless. I remember being toured by a bank chairman to a couple of bank headquarters in New York City. I was not the ideal person you would want to go see banks with but I guess it became his professional habit to do so. He deliberately pointed to the massive buildings with high ceilings saying this made you feel like your money cannot go wrong in places like this. He said this was deliberate in that they made you feel like can make you can fully trust these banks. But he also said that their scale made you feel very small and powerless. If we marked all these places with how we felt and behaved in them, then I think we will have a "Googlefeel" version of Google Maps.
This is what the BMW Guggenheim Lab urban project started to investigate in 2011-2013 in New York, Mumbai and Berlin. Armed with wristbands that measured skin conductance which is a good marker of your emotional arousal, and smartphones that would pop up questions as to what you were feeling depending on where you were, they started to build up data as to how people felt as they made their way in these places. Initial findings of the study reported significant positive emotional responses of people encountering open facades and green spaces versus closed facades and noisy, congested areas. The study also found that there was, as could be expected, a lot of variability with emotional responses to city features, depending on the background of the participants. But this shows that there is a fundamental response of humans to common places like green spaces and an “open” quality to buildings. There is also a suspicion that unconnected places or those that put up fortresses like perhaps the many gated communities especially in Metro Manila do not foster a sense of community because it runs contra to the deep social wiring of humans.
This is also why studies have found that there is a difference in the wiring for “stress” of those who have been raised in urban environments and those in the countryside. Urban environments have been found to increase the risk for psychotic behaviors in children and also for schizophrenia which could account for some of the factors beyond genes. When socially stressed, urban-raised individuals seemed to experience primal emotions – the ones that stem from the amygdala – unlike the ones raised in the countryside. This was really interesting to me as I have always envied people who have home provinces that they speak of and go to during holidays and special occasions. Generally, friends of mine who have provinces seem to be more put together than I am in terms of resilience and composure when it comes to handling of stress.
I remember reading about a project in Lancaster, California, when crime rate went down and well-being of dwellers significantly improved when speakers were installed in a boulevard that had birdsong and the sound of water. This kind of sound had a tranquilizing effect on humans which researchers suspect suppressed the alert level that criminals should have if they are about to do crimes as well as relax walkers. Soundscapes can shape the urban landscape.
We now know that spaces are not entities or objects outside ourselves. In 2014, John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine for their discoveries of place and grid cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain. But other scientists are also finding out that there are other brain cells that affect the way we sense where we are and this is not just about direction but also how we emotionally connect with spaces which speaks more and deeply to how we remember and therefore, bear on our identity.
I heard that Waze is looking for new voices for their app. Instead of a new voice, I propose a new way of navigating that the voice would champion. Maybe instead of saying “in 200 meters, turn right and you will reach your destination,” the voice could say “in 200 meters, you will feel quite inspired as you see the trees all line up on the road and then as you turn right, you will feel a sense of excitement and anticipation, as you see the park that leads to your front door where your dog is looking out the window, eagerly awaiting your return.” Or whatever your wrist mood band will signify. Maybe that would be an alternative way to navigate your way to a space. Sapces inhabit us as much as we inhabit them. Outerspace is also innerspace. – Rappler.com