This is Your Brain on Urban Design

This article was written by Sarah-Joyce Battersby first appeared in the Toronto Star

Psychology on the Street, running at Urbanspace Gallery until Nov. 14, looks at how cityscapes influence the brain.

Neuroscientist Colin Ellard knew he wanted to study animal habitats; it was choosing an animal that was tricky. After years observing Mongolian gerbils, he finally found the perfect creature.

“It’s us!” he said of his final realization.

For the past ten years, Ellard has studied how our brains and bodies react when we roam the streets of some of the world’s biggest cities, including New York, Mumbai and Berlin.

This fall he has taken the lab on the road again, running Psychology on the Street at the Urbanspace Gallery at Richmond St. and Spadina Ave.

Part exhibition, part experiment, Ellard shares what he learned inside the gallery while carrying out more research on the streets surrounding it.

In past experiments, he monitored sweat glands with special wristbands to measure stress levels. In Toronto, he has added special headbands that measure brain waves.

With the experiment ongoing, he hesitated to reveal too much of his hypotheses. But some stops on his research walking tour are more obvious than others.

 The warm fuzzies felt in green spaces, for example, are consistent across every city Ellard has studied.

“Even modest exposure, something like a parkette, has... so profound an effect on people’s psychology that it’s a matter of public health. There’s good evidence now that there’s a relationship between even simple things like the numbers of trees that you plant on the boulevard of a street and the health of people that live in that neighbourhood.”