Traditional urban design matters – new evidence demonstrates


For this post, I want to report on exciting new research I recently published with my colleagues that shows how people experience traditional urban places differently than modern neighborhoods.  This is a topic I have been interested in for a long time, framed largely by my recently co-edited book Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm

Deep down, our experience of places is largely pre-set – guided by evolutionary biology and governed by rules around shapes, forms, colors, and proportions that we are largely unaware of consciously.  Over several years, I have been working with Peter Lowitt and Neil Angus of the Devens Enterprise Commission and my longtime collaborator, Ann Sussman, to understand how the new urbanist or traditionally-styled Emerson Green development in Devens, Massachusetts was impacting visitors, residents, and workers.  In using a newly available eye-tracking emulation tool, 3M’s Visual Attention Software, we compared the Emerson Green neighborhood with conventional, modern-styled housing developments in the surrounding communities. 

We found that people can be expected to subliminally focus more on the traditional urban forms, hence putting them at ease and helping them to connect emotionally with these places.  Focusing one’s eyes on an object, in this case a house, has been shown to also engage memories and will make Emerson Green more likely to be a place that people remember.  This research suggests that we can use these kinds of tools to predict how effective new building and urban designs might be, to assess their impacts on people before they are even built!

You can read the whole article in the journal Architectural Sciences Review, let me know if you have trouble accessing it.

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