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Skyscrapers send stress to new heights

Oliver Baumann

No wonder New Yorkers have a reputation for being angry – all those skyscrapers could be stressing them out. 

New research from Bond University has found concrete jungles make our hearts beat faster, while quiet streets can boost creativity. 

The study by Assistant Professor of Psychology Oliver Baumann and Briana Brooks-Cederqvist measured people’s physical reactions to urban environments by tracking their heart rate and brain frequency. 

They used portable heart monitors and EEGs to track the responses of the same people in two different locations on the Gold Coast, known for its towering beachside skyscrapers. 

Combined with a questionnaire about how participants felt in each location, Dr Baumann found they felt significantly more stressed in higher density areas. 

“Previous studies of how people respond to urban environments have relied largely on self-reporting by the participants, and that always leaves room for potential internal biases,” he said. 

“Having this physical evidence alongside the questionnaires meant we could clearly see the impact that the different environments were having on people’s stress and comfort levels in an objective way.” 

In lower density areas their subjective feelings of comfort were increased, negative mood was decreased, and their heart rates were reduced, showing they were more relaxed. In addition, their EEG brain activity was indicative of a more contemplative and creative state of mind.  

“There are a couple of possible explanations for this,” Dr Baumann said. “In more closely built or condensed areas, people can perceive them as more dangerous because there is less open space and more traffic which can increase their vigilance and fear response,” he said. 

“In a more open area, these feelings are reduced, and that’s what we saw in the brain activity measures.”  

Dr Baumann said he hoped the study would provide evidence and opportunities for urban planners and residential community developers to embrace human-centred design. 

“This has shown really clearly how urban environments can affect people’s health and wellbeing and it offers a real opportunity to shape how we design cities, public spaces and residential developments. 

“It also allows for consideration of how we want people to respond to a place. 

“We’ve seen this used before mainly in office design – Google is a good example of where they have used this type of information to design workplaces that create certain responses in staff.” 

Residential design tended to be more focused on star ratings that were achieved through environmental elements such as the inclusion of a water feature or a green wall, for example, Dr Baumann said. 

But designing places based on strong evidence of how they make people feel could be a significant opportunity for developers to add value and ensure projects’ longevity. 

“The portable and flexible nature of the equipment we used to gather the data opens up the possibility of doing this at a pretty granular level too – there's no reason it couldn’t be used as part of a planning process in the design of a residential development or community.  

“Creating places that we know people will want to live and then want to stay in can help reduce the risks that come with large financial investments and increase their long-term value. 

“It could be particularly valuable for public infrastructure like social housing when we want to ensure the money is spent well.”

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