#16: Franziska Schreiber on... sensing the city

What does the “experimental city” mean to you?

To me, the “experimental city” holds great potential for innovating urban planning practices and for speeding up transformative change towards sustainable urban futures. The increasing complexity of urban challenges as well as rising uncertainty and unpredictability have shown the limitation of established practices of urban planning. There is a need for both a new ‘mindset’ in how planning is perceived and carried as well as for more open, flexible and revisable approaches where learning from failure is seen as a quality. The "experimental city" can facilitate such a change.

However, urban experimentation also has a strong sensory dimension and creates arenas for collaborative processes. In recent years, real-world experiments and temporary interventions - often referred to as ‘Tactical Urbanism’ - have become a popular approach in many cities to improve urban environments and public spaces. Temporary interventions provide spaces where new ideas, imaginaries and solutions for sustainable urban futures can be jointly explored and tested. But they also help making abstract sustainable development concepts tangible, both sensually and physically. In a way, real-world experiments are multisensory future spaces that give us a taste of how an alternative tomorrow could sound, smell, feel or look like. This affects us emotionally and is much more powerful than any number.

 

In Sensing the City, you talk about moving beyond the rational – feeling the city in an emotional and sensory way – and say that this is an important way to motivate people to do something. Why do you think we continue to ignore the sensory and the emotional when it comes to urban planning, research and design?

Let’s differentiate here between urban research and planning practice. Within urban research, the sensory question is not really a new topic. It has been addressed in urban studies since the 1960s, yet largely from a unisensory and visual perspective. In recent years, however, we have seen a number scholars advocating for a “multisensory research agenda on cities”, which has given rise to the emerging field of sensory urbanism. Across disciplines such as sociology, ethnography, psychology, neuroscience, architecture and sustainability science, we can see an increasing interest in how people perceive and understand the city through the senses, how urban design affects people’s emotions, behaviour and mental health, and what this means for the design and planning of future cities. This new interest into the multisensory experience of city life has also fostered new alliances. In Germany, for example, the ‘Interdisciplinary Forum Neurourbanism’ has been founded, bringing researchers and practitioners from various fields together to investigate such issues.

However, the “sensual revolution” in urban research has somewhat bypassed urban planning and design practices as well as urban policy. Here, the human experience continues to be reduced to “what can be made visually legible through maps and models” and the intangible aspects are hardly recognized although they could possibly open up new pathways for designing liveable cities and catalysing the urban transition to sustainability.

Why is that the case? The first reason relates to how urban planning and design is being taught. For decades, urban planners have been educated in thinking rationally and visually, which reinforced the conviction that planning and decision-making processes necessitate an “objective process” that is not meant to be influenced by subjective feelings and perception. Although people’s emotional connection with and sensory experience of the urban environment is in principle valued, it is hardly considered or used as a source of data to inform future decision making. The second aspect is closely related to the difficulty of capturing, quantifying and communicating the multisensory and emotional experience of the city. While recent digital tools, such as virtual reality technology, portable devises like wristbands as well as various smartphone apps now help to capture and map people’s emotional reactions to the urban environment, there is still a lack of understanding of how to analyse and make sense of the data generated. Moreover, there are hardly any tools and methods at hand that offer guidance to urban planners and decision-makers on how to take a multisensory approach to urban planning and design.

 

Sense the City links heavily to questions about urban design and mental health. To you, what are the top 4 things we should be doing to create a more sensorially-oriented city that promotes good mental health?

(1) Start exploring cities through the lens of the sensorial-emotional experience and the human psyche by focusing on how cities smell, sound, feel or look like and how this affects you. Then, you will arrive at a future narrative of a different kind where cities are more colourful, healthier, more natural, more varied, more mobile and communal than those of today – and cities that are more oriented towards the wishes, needs and wellbeing of their inhabitants.

(2) Invest in the “social status” of public spaces as gateways to a world of possibilities. This is where encounters, exchanges and ideas are created; this is where community and democracy are lived and negotiated.

(3) Invest in natural green and blue spaces, they are in demand and more important than ever. Here people can relax and recuperate, read, stroll, chat and flirt, make friends and experience nature or simply enjoy doing nothing in an urban environment.

(4) Dare to be sensory. Don’t think that a city that serves the human senses has anything to do with naïve feel-good aesthetics. “Trespassing on our senses will be one of the critical battles in defining how our cities evolve in the future” – as Charles Laundry correctly puts it.

 

What should city governments be doing to better prioritise the sensory/emotional experience of the city?

An important first step for local authorities would be to acknowledge and recognize the sensory-emotional experience as an important resource of information for future planning and design. Only if we understand how people experience the city and how it affects their state of mind and behaviour, will it be possible to truly design healthy, liveable and eventually sustainable cities. Accordingly, higher priority should be given to wellbeing and urban health and closer connections should be made between the sustainable and healthy city agenda.

So far, the sensory and emotional perspective is largely absent from the debate about transformative change in cities or only considered as a nice add-on. But that’s not enough. According to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, the risk of schizophrenia is twice as high among city dwellers as among the rural population, and the probability of suffering from depression about 40 percent higher. At the same time, various trend analyses suggest that healthy living and working environments are becoming the decisive location factor for cities. In the future, both fields need to be brought together more closely. We will only be happy if the cities of the future are sustainable and have a positive impact on people’s mood, behaviour and wellbeing. In order to arrive at more sensory-informed planning and policy making, we desperately need to involve more sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists and experts from other related disciplines in city-making.

 

You talk a lot about the body in the book. To you, do different bodies experience the city differently? If so, how? And how could we integrate this into urban planning?

Everyone perceives the city differently depending on the socio-economic and cultural background as well as the experiences someone has made in the course of life. Different smells, sounds and surfaces evoke individual reactions and emotions; they do not mean the same for everyone. For example, the smell of exhaust fumes may trigger strong negative reactions and bring about memories of stuffy air in the streets for some people, whereas others may find it pleasant and be reminded of the freedom one feels on road trips. It is important for urban planning to acknowledge these differences and to take a nuanced approach. At the same time, there is an increasing body of literature pointing to certain patterns in how people experience urban spaces. Thanks to wristbands that measure skin conductivity or pulse and various smartphone apps, it is now possible to record people’s emotional reactions to their urban environment. The generated data is giving us insights into which squares or streets make peoples’ hearts beat faster and how a neighbourhood full of glass skyscrapers affects their mood.

But integrating the sensory experience of urban life into planning goes beyond just using technological devices. An important way to account for the sensory experience would be to rethink how participatory planning is being carried out. So far, the vast majority of participatory methods are purely cognitive, discussion-based and visual. Urban spaces that are to be redesigned or developed are mainly discussed based on a purely visual representation without taking the multiple dimensions of experience into account that could and should inform decision-making processes. Sensory walks such as a smell walks or sounds walks, for example, have proven to be a useful approach to studying the urban experience and unveiling neglected and often underestimated qualities of the city. In some cases, such walks have been used with community groups at the beginning of a planning process to understand and critically examine the urban environment in its various dimensions. In so-called Cittàslow cities, which are part of the Cittàslow movement (combining the Italian word for “city” with the word “slow”) founded in the 1990s, the planning process always takes place on the site to ensure that the affected space is being explored and experienced with all the senses before taking any decision. Another way of applying a sensory perspective in urban planning is the work with pre-selected sensory stimuli such as rhythms, haptic and scents, as we have done in our project “Sense the City”. This methodological approach helped us to access information about which kind of urban spaces people perceive as positive or negative and why, and allowed us to uncover their wishes, feelings and needs with regards to the design of the future city.