Great Places, Everyone

The future is fine at the intersection of neuroscience and urban design.

After my first year of architecture school, a lucky break landed me a summer job at a healthcare design firm. Their manifesto was simple: good buildings promote good health, and good coffee—to be brewed hourly by the junior hire, me—promotes good design. In Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, Colin Ellard points out that these two beliefs might be converging at neurons not terribly far apart. Great places, like great coffee, act deeply on our brain’s complex workings, and over time, these places can change our brains themselves.

Scientists are probing these links with a toolbox that is growing daily, says Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo. For example, the ubiquitous smartphone has made us “traveling beacons of personal data,” while some buildings now host embedded sensors to measure the biometrics of passersby. Places of the Heart, Ellard’s second book, is an exploration of how these technologies provide testable opportunities to understand the human relationship with our environment. Taking five such environments—which he calls places of affection, lust, anxiety, awe and the surprisingly interesting “boring places”—Ellard competently swaps hats as neuroscientist, architectural historian, sociologist and occasional futurist to guide us through what we know about how humans perceive, adapt to and seek to individualize our environments.

The challenge in this, says Ellard, is to leverage the proliferation of today’s digital tools to enrich the human experience of place rather than to scientize it into an efficient but isolating simulation. But striking this balance in a changing world of technological opportunities and costs is difficult. On one hand, sentient homes of the near future may detect ill health and safeguard the aging, and virtual nature worlds might bring the restorative effects of a forest walk to those who lack the time, means or mobility to access it. But only standing in the real Stonehenge—which Ellard uses as his bookending image—can trigger the kind of necessary spine-tingling awe that makes us human.

Neuroscience is both vanguard and sentinel here. Ellard cites an affordable immersive technology helmet that may soon supercharge Facebook into a self-contained and carefully curated virtual world of 3-D friends, places and content, much of which will surely be available for purchase. At the same time, research suggests that smartphone maps are slowly killing parts of our brains because we never really get lost in a city any more. Ellard deftly negotiates these two positions, showing a psychologist’s delight in the scientific possibilities of “the toys” while attending to implications for health, privacy, human connection and the value of authentic spatial experience.

He does this in an accessible tone that belies his high-tech subject. That tone will be a welcome relief to technophobes who own paper maps, leave tweeting to the birds and still carry cash. By contrast, Ellard is a self-confessed early adopter, which together with his academic record makes him an informed voice in popular-science literature where scientific rigour, infectious enthusiasm and occasional gravitas are not always found together. With examples from Mumbai to the Outback, there are pages where Oliver Sacks’s lucidity on neurology meets Witold Rybczynski’s explorations of world cities. You hear the voice of a flâneur with a functional MRI machine.

This voice is particularly clear in Ellard’s penultimate chapter, where he caps his walk through his “five places” with a larger and sometimes prophetic view of the role devices have, and will soon have, in modulating and recoding our experiences of our environment. To ground his argument, he takes the example of the common home thermostat, which is about as far from the philosophical challenges of technology’s bleeding edge as one could get. Or is it? His scenario centres on an elderly cousin who lived in rural New Brunswick, relying on a wood stove through the winter. In classic for-want-of-a-nail fashion, he points out that this necessitated monitoring of her firewood pile, which in turn spurred conversations with family members to schedule resupply, all tied to frequent checks on the weather: psychosocial benefits dressed as needless labour. By contrast, a thermostat (and the furnace that comes with it) allows us to completely decouple from those beneficial social and environmental processes via a technological “advance” that requires merely paying a gas bill and scheduling a rare technician. Extending his logic, Ellard ponders location-aware smartphone apps such as Yelp that may ensure a better meal in an unfamiliar neighbourhood but cost us the cognitive benefit of unmediated raw experience. Ellard is hardly suggesting a Luddite’s return to urban woodcutting and mapless wandering—on balance, Places of the Heart skews technophile—but this chapter delivers particularly succinct examples of the risks of the automation of life and the commodification of experience.

Not all of these arguments are new, although the tools to unpack them may be. As early as 1960 the urban planner Kevin Lynch—author of our current understanding of wayfinding—was empirically testing how shared images of landmarks as well as so-called “nodes” and “edges” bound together groups and communities, and how differing environments hampered or facilitated this process of urban image-making. The long arm of Jane Jacobs inevitably touches Ellard’s book in his reluctance to unquestioningly accept order and efficiency as the chief organizers of urban space. Other influential urbanists of recent decades—particularly Oscar Newman and Jan Gehl—get their time under Ellard’s microscope, the mechanisms of their theories decoded through a neuroscientist’s lens.

In places, the cost of this ambitious breadth is depth, and in Ellard’s enthusiasm to cover it all, ideas that could provide a full meal are whisked away before they can be savoured. The difficult history between scientific overconfidence, expert knowledge, environmental determinism and costly urban planning failures could use more emphasis. Race and privilege get almost no time, although it seems clear that you will need a smartphone and the money for its imminent successors to join this digital party. Indeed, the Googles and Yahoos—whose mercantile motives Ellard candidly acknowledges—are after those with disposable income first; others must wait. Against these big players, the place of citizen science gets only brief mention in the conclusion, despite recent examples of young hacktivists harnessing ubiquitous geodata to highlight socio-spatial inequities and to create visually compelling demands for change. But these same millennials who are writing the code for our digital future bat not an eyelash when the humblest of crossword apps asks to track their location and contacts as a condition of installation. What will be the effect of this generational indifference to our waning right to inhabit space privately, or the right to be forgotten online? Are disruptive technologies such as Uber and Airbnb actually freeing us from monopolies on mobility and shelter, or cynically double-billing by selling us service and then selling our data? It is clear that this story is still unfolding, but Places of the Heart offers a compelling take on the fraught and fruitful relationship between your city and your smartphone. They can play well together. Just remember to look up.