Dealing With Space Denial: How does urban life affect our wellbeing?

Image: Andrew Nussbaum

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. And urbanization is only accelerating. By 2050, it is estimated that seven out of ten people will live in urban areas.    

In ancient times, outdoor spaces were designed primarily for community activities and rituals. They were social and religious spaces, part of an individual’s identity. But today, we are witnessing a deprivation of public space that creates boundaries and aggravates social inequalities. We experience urban space differently than before.

We increasingly see discussions about a “denied city” caused by non-inclusive policies and designs. In such a city, it’s increasingly difficult to find common spatial goods that belong to everyone. The question is – how do these conditions affect human well-being?

What are the consequences of space denial on a neuroscientific level?

It has been shown that “hard spaces” such as prisons can cause severe and permanent neurological damage. These spaces offer precarious opportunities for sociability, the development of one’s individuality, and poor living conditions. They are characterized by depressive and repressive atmospheres that induce a sense of victimization and agitation.

The hippocampus plays a critical role in managing the interface between the individual and the external world by mapping the physical environment in three dimensions. It sets the emotional reactivity and anxiety level, encodes stressful events and controls the body’s response to stressors, and plays a primary role in encoding memories of recent events.

Bland, Amy Rachel, et al. “The impact of COVID-19 social isolation on aspects of emotional and social cognition.” Cognition and Emotion 36.1 (2022)

Under conditions of severe and prolonged stress, the hippocampus loses its neuroplasticity. The amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety, becomes more active, leading to a loss of emotional and stress control. This can lead to a loss of stress regulation, sometimes resulting in defects in memory, spatial orientation, and other cognitive processes.

Attrition Has Left Some Buildings Surrounded by Only Concrete and Asphalt and Others With Pockets of Green. Kuo, Frances E., and William C. Sullivan. “Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment via Mental Fatigue.” Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33(4):543-571. Sage Publications. 2001a

Sensory perception is neither static nor simple. The senses influence each other during multisensory stimulation and can be suppressive and super-additive. Monotonous environments or spaces that don’t support socialization, relationships, movement, and activation of the senses are detrimental to a person’s health.

Environmental enrichment has been shown to accelerate the visual system’s development, increase the visual cortex’s plasticity in adulthood, and provide long-lasting emotional responsiveness.

These are some reasons why it’s essential to design the outdoor environment as if it were an indoor environment, providing opportunities to experience cities in the most dynamic and participatory way possible.

It’s crucial to maximize walkability and accessibility by avoiding noisy, polluting, and stressful traffic and to avoid creating overly chaotic environments where opportunities for individual mind-body connection are difficult.

Strategies for coping with contemporary urban issues

Nature, parks, and green and blue urban spaces have been shown to have the potential to heal our minds and bodies. They also help people feel safe when resting places throughout the city are designed in a biophilic way. This concept has been explored through innovative design approaches at the street and vertical levels, such as French biologist Patrick Blanck’s Mur Vegetal in Paris.

A good city must be porous, visually permeable, designed with details at different scales of perception, and facilitate good wayfinding. Differentiation of materials and colors is vital for memory and emotional activation.

Agreeable city structure. Image: Dora Maitan

Yet we continue to build skyscrapers without considering their impact, which can create feelings of oppression and invasion of space. In his research, Colin Ellard measured the impact of high-rise and low-rise buildings in London. He demonstrated that the urban environment shapes our psychological state.

Participants rated the high-rise environment as less open and less friendly and rated themselves as less happy there. They also felt a diminished sense of control compared to low-rise settings.

Biophilic urban design now seeks to create spatial enclosures in public spaces that address the need for safety and shelter from the surrounding city. According to Appleton’s Prospect and Refuge theory, people prefer to be in environments that offer protection from threats (refuge) and provide large fields of view (prospect).

Therefore, well-designed green spaces and landscapes play an essential role in enabling good urban life, as a new approach called Green Matrix Urbanism shows. A study in the city of Chicago showed that inner-city crime rates were seven to eight percent lower in areas with greener surroundings.

Urban living can change your brain. Studies show that city dwellers have higher rates of mood disorders and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia than those who live in rural or suburban areas.

They also show greater activation of the amygdala – a sign of increased stress. That’s why it’s important to balance the stressors of urban life with environments that calm the human brain and support community and social relationships.

Environmental refugees and rapid changes in way of life

Another issue that cities are increasingly facing is the phenomenon of “environmental refugees”. Defined by Essam El-Hinnawi, these are people “forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of severe environmental disruption”. It is predicted that 1.2 billion people worldwide could be displaced by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters.

Currently, the most vulnerable places are those threatened by rising water levels and disasters, such as island nations, China, India, and Pakistan. Other countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Mediterranean Europe, totaling about one billion people, are affected by desertification.

Siri Derkert exhibition in Venice, 1962. Image: Wikimedia Commons

We now know that rapid, forced change of the environment can also be psychologically disruptive. For much of our history, there has been a clear distinction between cognition (perceiving, thinking, reasoning, and deciding) and emotion.

But as Colin Ellard writes in his book, Places of the Heart:

“Despite this deep bias in our thinking, modern evidence in neuroscience and psychology suggests a different relationship between affect and thought. 

Antonio Damasio’s remarkable studies of individuals who have suffered focal lesions to areas of the frontal lobe, once considered the highest reach of rational thought, have demonstrated that such lesions produce deficits in adaptive decision-making and behavior precisely because such lesions cut important linkages between our emotional and our cognitive selves. 

These new ideas about the key role of emotion in the guidance of everyday behavior also have great impact on our understanding of our psychogeography – how our surroundings influence us”.

Colin Ellard

Our bodies have evolved in environments that have remained stable for thousands of years. But our way of life has changed abruptly in the last hundred years. Our brains are not used to living in these conditions and adapting so quickly, leading to many adverse effects of urban living as we know it today.

What everyone can do, and what architecture, design, and planning are called upon to support, is to change the way we approach the experience of the city. We need to take back the denied space and start building places for human living, belonging, and coping with the challenges of the near future.

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Dora Maitan. Image: Archive of Dora Maitan

Dora Maitan is an architect from Venice working at different scales of design, focusing on the relationship between humans, spaces, and regenerative projects. She graduated in Architecture at Università degli Studi di Trieste and in Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design at Iuav University of Venice. She also attended the YACademy program. She’s currently working on researching the effects of space denial in indoor and outdoor spaces, with particular focus on the detention system.


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