A new study argues that that current urban planning detaches inhabitants from ’real’ nature to the point that it manipulates the normality of what ’nature’ is. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

URBAN DESIGN

Space syntax error

Why future urban design must include cognitive and emotional experiences from inhabitants, not just focus on functionality

Story highlights

  • Current urban planning detaches inhabitants from ’real’ nature to the point that it manipulates the normality of what ’nature’ is
  • The authors calls for a new framework within urban design which not only considers form and function but also learning aspects and emotional experiences from our surroundings
  • The authors highlight the concept of ”space syntax”, a research field looking more specifically at human behaviour in cities

Imagine sitting in a car driving through a city. Imagine all you see are buildings, busy people and traffic. Perhaps the occasional neatly trimmed green park well adjusted to its surroundings. This scenario applies to many urban areas across our planet and may not strike you as particularly strange. But something is missing according to a recently published study by Lars Marcus from the University of Technology Gothenburg together with centre researchers Matteo Guisti and Stephan Barthel. They argue that current urban planning detaches inhabitants from ’real’ nature to the point that it manipulates the normality of what ’nature’ is.

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An edited reality

The researchers argue that what a person sees and experiences in the public space is an ”edited” version of reality: urban design becomes a professional practice where the central material, spatial form, ’edits’ the ’realities’ of the city. As a consequence, what is left out affects the development of our assumptions about life around us. This ”edited” reality is the lingering legacy dating back to the Industrial Revolution when humans and the environment slowly started to detach from each other.

”The degraded and limited forms of nature often found in cities today may end up being what most urban citizens consider and expect ’nature’ to be”

Matteo Giusti, co-author

To counter this reality, the authors call for a new framework within urban design, which not only considers form and function but also learning aspects and emotional experiences from our surroundings.

”Urban form engages humans not only through physical activities, but also mentally through reinforcing and impeding behaviours on a cognitive level. This means that the urban landscape is not only a physical environment but also a learning environment in which the norms and values of urban life are constituted, including those associated with sustainability,” Stephan Barthel explains.

Space syntax theory

The authors highlight the concept of ”space syntax”, a research field looking at human behaviour in cities. A key aspect of this theory is the concept of distance, both in physical terms but also cognitively and emotionally. Physically we think of the city as a system of metric distances but it also exists through our visual interaction

To demonstrate how this works the researchers refer to a previous study of two groups of preschool children raised in urban areas around Stockholm. That study, conducted by the same researchers as the present article, looked at whether the spatial separation of the children from natural environments could be a proxy for an emotional and cognitive distance from nature. The two groups of children were similar in most aspects apart from their access nature environments. The results show that children who have spent more time in nature are better equipped to feel empathy with living creatures; have better ability to link ecological resources with products that they use in their daily life; and are better at identifying polluted environments as something negative and "clean" nature as a good thing. The authors conclude that these children in this sense seem to have developed a higher affinity with nature.

”These results clearly indicate the interdependence between the spatial patterns of the designed urban landscape and the cognitive patterns emerging from it,” Lars Marcus says. He warns that one side effect from the tremendous technological advancements we have witnessed since the Industrial Revolution is the separation between humans and other forms of life.


Model of the results of the preschool children study conducted by Matteo Giusti and his colleagues in 2014. Children with poor nature routines have developed significantly lower emotional and cognitive appreciation of the bond between humankind and nature. Design: M. Giusti, 2014.


Staggering effects

The consequences of such cognitive detachment and the loss of nature experiences is widely indicated to reinforce a sense of disaffection and disengagement with nature that fails to nurture climate-responsible or nature-passionate societies. Hence, the ’editing’ of the biosphere within city boundaries would be recognised by current and coming generations as ’normal nature’.

”In the near future we will build urban landscapes for almost three billion more people on this planet. The way the everyday experiences of these people will be ’edited’ through urban planning and design may have a staggering effect on what type of sustainable future they will choose together,” the researchers conclude.

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Citation

Marcus, L., Giusti, M., Barthel, S. 2016.Cognitive affordances in sustainable urbanism: contributions of space syntax and spatial cognition. Journal of Urban Design
Volume 21, 2016 - Issue 4 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13574809.2016.1184565

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Matteo Giusti is a PhD student looking at the importance of nature routines in cities. His Ph.D. project "Urban Reconnection with the Biosphere" revolves on how to create spatial configurations of urban nature that support the psychological foundation for environmental stewardship – identification with nature.

Stephan Barthel studies environmental issues in metropolitan landscapes and has been part of developing the discourse on urban social-ecological systems at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.