Psychology & the City

In a constant cycle of influencing and being influenced the city impacts upon our mind and our emotional state impacts upon the city with untold effects.

It is astonishing that psychology, the study exploring the dynamics of feeling and emotion, has not been taken sufficiently seriously as an urban discipline, not only by psychology itself but also urban decision makers, since it seeks to understand why we act the way we do.

The city is not a lifeless thing. People have personality, identity and, as they are congregations of people, so do cities.
To see the urban fabric, its dynamics and city life as empty shells devoid of human psychological content is careless. To be blind to its consequences is foolish, as the city is primarily an emotional experience with psychological effects.
Just as the body is the museum of human evolution so the psyche is the mental museum of our primeval psychological past, and we have carried anciently formed elements of it into this new urban age.

There are psychological consequences to our adaptation to ‘homo urbanis’ and the cities that will do best may be those most able to connect the ancient as well as modern parts of ourselves. Seeing the city through a psychological lens can help create programmes to bring out potential and help heal fractures, divides or lack of confidence It is extraordinary that it has not been given fuller attention in urban policy.

The book explores how various psychological disciplines can be used, how to create a more psychologically mature city and how to analyse an urban psyche. See to take the test for your city.

It is the result of two years research by Charles and Chris working with cities globally, such as: Ghent, Antwerp, Adelaide, Minneapolis, Berlin, Lisbon, Milton Keynes, Krakow, Bilbao, Oslo and Plymouth. The book comes at a moment of growing concerns about whether cities make you ill as urban populations expand.

“I wish I had written this book. Its message is overdue. Past approaches have mostly failed to produce the urban living environments we need to thrive”.
Professor Rhiannon Corcoran, Academic Director of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy & Practice, University of Liverpool.

“This wonderful new book reaches deeply into urban history and city futures revealing the psychological underpinning of how cities emerge, adapt, and guide their futures”.
Prof Greg Clark CBE FAcSS; Chairman, The Business of Cities Limited

The Urban Psyche Assessment

The Urban Psyche Assessment investigates the psychological state of the city, its citizens, its social, cultural and physical structures as well as its institutions. It explores the deeper sources of the city’s mood and atmosphere and how to make the most of its potential.

Psychoanalyzing a city brings together a range of tools from different branches of psychology, urbanism, anthropology and cultural development as well as mental health practice to bear on the challenges and reveal the opportunities facing a city. The psychological techniques include: behaviourism, conflict resolution, therapeutic assessment and healing as well as advances in neuroscience. Contact us under if you want to explore this further.

The atmosphere of a city and its overall psychological state largely determine its chances of success or strategic capacities but these are notoriously hard to measure. Our approach can help establish and deliver integrated programmes or specific interventions as solutions to particular problems a city faces, perhaps a city’s lack of confidence or more broadly how a successful vision for a city’s future can be implemented.

You can ask us to analyze with you the results of your online surveys, or with you undertake group meetings and workshops in your city or neighbourhoods or undertake a more comprehensive assessment. This includes:

  • A bespoke, multi-disciplinary team is brought together based on the specific nature and needs of the city, including: city experts, psychologists, leading-edge academic expertise, data analysts and others as required.
  • Innovative online tests and surveys including The City Personality Test, already trialled in 11 cities internationally with successful results.
  • Other surveys, such as stress analysis, on how the city is affecting the emotional state of its inhabitants in specific communities or across different demographics.
  • Interviews with key parties, both suggested by the city and our team.
  • Collective workshops, drawn from a cross section of the city, and not just the ‘usual suspects’.
  • Data analysis, e.g. of physical and mental health data, broken down demographically, geographically and across a timeline for the city.
  • An analysis of the life history and life events of the city that may shape and contribute to its current condition, and may provide a platform or barriers to its future success.
  • The above is balanced with other revealing, interesting and creative techniques like psycho-geography or the use of art, literature and history to reveal underlying or innovative narratives of a city that can help a city become the best it can be.

Cities Today

The city in mind: how urban psychology could radically transform city living

Cities are the most complex human invention and their most important. Without cities, much of the world we know could not exist. Why when over 50% of the planet lives in a city and rising, do we know so little about their emotional impacts or even care about it? It is astonishing that psychology, the discipline that deals most closely with human emotions, is almost absent from urban policy.

The Danish urbanist, Jan Gehl noted acerbically: ‘it is ironic that we know more about the habitat of mountain gorillas than we do about the habitat of people’. We have programmes for Smart Cities, Green Cities, Healthy Cities or Cities of Culture, hi tech or low carbon cities. But people are rarely centre-stage.

Each urban idea or programme inches our knowledge forward, yet cities are too often seen as inanimate clumps of buildings and technology or like machines. This view misses its essential human nature. We should look again.

We interact with cities in our work, our housing or transport and have a constant lived emotional experience in them. The evidence shows this impacts massively and directly on how we develop and feel. Mental health in cities is generally worse than rural areas, and it worsens the bigger a city gets. This does not make cities bad as it is largely connected to concentrations of urban poverty. Place making has to confront this by thinking, planning and acting in a comprehensive way. Plenty of evidence from psychology can help the process of good place making, yet we seem to ignore it.

Our success as a species is closely linked to cities now. So understanding more about how we influence and are influenced by cities is crucial. It can help those who make and manage cities take decisions that increase the best effects and reduce the worst.

‘Place identity’ and ‘place attachment’ theory from environmental psychology demonstrates how and where we live has profound emotional and physical impacts. It influences our sense of self, belonging, purpose and meaning in life (or lack of it). Put alongside this that over the span of human evolution very few people have actually lived in a city. Our mental apparatus did not evolve in cities – so we can understand the urgent need to assess urban psychology.

The ‘peace psychologists’ Herbert Kelman and John Burton, for example, showed how basic psychological needs had to be met before progress on negotiations in disputed territories could be made; it’s not all about land and power. Crucial were: feeling secure; belonging; self-esteem and respect; a right to cultural identity; an ability to participate; and a sense of fairness — sometimes, a simple apology. Precisely the things a city must provide to deal successfully with differences of views, culture or religion.

Even a cursory review shows that here is a virtually untapped, rich seam of ideas and practices in psychology that could, with relatively little effort, be brought to bear on cities providing new perspectives and workable solutions.

It is possible to transfer a number of psychological tools from person to place and in our book, we begin to build a toolkit for ‘psychologically resilient cities’. We wondered too what would happen if a city could take a personality test. So we built one and trialled it with eleven cities internationally. The results have created an entirely different way in to a discussion about place

Mazda Adli, head of the Flieder Klinik in Berlin and author of ‘Stress in the City’ noted that an urban psyche test is a breakthrough and could be married to test peoples’ personal feelings about their neighbourhood and city. Tina Saaby, the city architect of Copenhagen said: ‘Increasingly cities should focus on what really drives human desires and needs and this puts the psychological perspective firmly onto the city making agenda.’ Helena Marujo psychotherapist and lecturer from Lisbon University who helped organize the Lisbon survey said she was surprised the results reflected strongly what she felt the character of Lisboans is and this ‘presents us with a challenge.’

The results of our surveys are laden with practical implications. The challenges for Lisbon’s city makers are clear when it says of itself it is more introverted than extroverted, more self-absorbed than nurturing or more an improviser than a conscientious doer. Also being more an idealistic dreamer than practical, who finds it hard to make decisions for the future is important especially when ‘saudade’, that nostalgia for great things past remains present in the collective psyche. Relevant too is when Berlin says it is more introverted yet remains very spontaneous; and when it comes across as having a strong, at times grumpy, character that likes to talk things through and that with a sense of duty. We begin to understand why its civic forums and campaigning attitudes are so important. When we understand the power of centuries long Castilian dominance over the Basque country we grasp too Bilbao’s strong entrepreneurial spirit as well as its reluctance to be self-critical. And finally Adelaide, the only place where idealistic free settlers came we understand too how others criticize the city for not ‘walking the talk’ and discussing things endlessly.

Why then is psychology not more at the centre of urban thinking? Is it because different schools of psychology disagree on basic issues? It should not present a problem, but instead a palate of ideas to work from. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr noted: “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” Or is it because city makers do not want to reveal their emotional side, think it vague or without economic return? Perhaps. More likely psychology has simply not been brought to bear in a coherent way on cities. As cities are becoming larger, more complex and resources scarce, now is a good time to start.

Apart from fulfilling basic psychological needs, we might ask a more radical question of our cities. Can we conceive of place-making and management as grounded in a broader understanding of human psychology, which will enable us to flourish psychologically, develop more fully, and achieve more of our potential and that of the city?

Patricia Greenfield used software to analyse two million books published over 100 years in the US, showing how the use of language has shifted from the communal to the individual. Interestingly, the rise in this shift correlates exactly to the rise in urban living in that nation.

A sense of entitled individualism has grown with consumer culture, which although it has benefits, can be a barrier to successful city living, focusing on the singular ‘I’ and ‘me’ not the collective ‘us’ and ‘we’ that is a defining feature of what makes us human. James Hillman the American psychologist and urbanist suggested that a collective engagement and care for the urban environment – an informed and conscious citizenship – is what will enable people to find meaning and thrive.

“How we imagine our cities, how we envision their goals and values and enhance their beauty defines the self of each person in that city, for the city is the solid exhibition of the communal soul. This means that you find yourself by entering the crowd …. to improve yourself you improve your city.”

Ultimately, the most successful cities will be those that can build psychological resilience, to adapt, to deal with adversity and complexity, to bounce back and continue to function competently, and to provide the conditions where inhabitants can achieve their larger aims. This means being honest. We hope to spark a debate, by setting out some big ideas and challenges, as well as pragmatic steps that will help this to happen.

A psychologically resilient urban age

In the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, large-scale urbanisation has happened with the relentless transformation of urban life increasing demands on our senses, attention and time. Highly adaptable as we are it stretches this ability to the limit.

Cities have risen meteorically to dominate our lives so the sequel to Bronowski’s Ascent of Man would be an urban edition. Over 55% of the global population is now urban, rising to 70% by 2050.

Turning this statistic on its head, a big question emerges. Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, but cities for only 6-8,000 at most. It is not the place where we, or our psychological apparatus, evolved, since of the estimated 107 billion of us that have ever existed, hardly anyone has visited, never mind lived in a city. We are an urban species living within an archaic mind.

Just as the body is the museum of human evolution so the psyche is the mental museum of our primeval psychological past. We carry unwittingly anciently formed elements of this into our new urban age. Adapting towards becoming Homo Urbanis has psychological consequences and as we shift, the cities that do best may well be those able to help the ancient and modern parts of ourselves come together. Psychology holds many answers that will help, yet it is extraordinary that urban policy has not given it fuller attention.

Studies increasingly show a link between city living and poorer mental health and they often point to concentrations of urban poverty. Yet cities are not innately bad for us: they ask us to live in diverse conditions, respect others views, cope with clamour and change. So they are capable of building positive mental health and psychological resilience.

The ‘Dunbar Number’ is an example from evolutionary psychology. Dunbar’s research suggests we are hard-wired to relate closely to around 150 people - about the size of hunter-gatherer tribes and the average village population in England until the 18th Century. So we may be living with ‘the mind of a village in the body of a city’ and this reinforces the importance of neighbourhoods that help us relate, build trust and community.

Environmental psychology shows us that seeing greenery — even photographs of it — can calm people and lower blood pressure. Hospital wards that look out onto greenery have faster recovery times, and being near water has similar results. Green space impacts positively on our psyche and makes people more prosocial : more agreeable, displaying empathy, trust and generosity. How we navigate streets and urban spaces reveals patterns that may have an instinctive basis, developed in pre-urban environments that still drives our moment-to-moment choices.

We think of time as a constant, but in terms of human perception it is relative. It feels linear, clock driven and speeded up in cities. Historically the human mind, more embedded in nature, experienced time in more organic, circular or cyclical ways. Then time was not just something that happened to us, it happened to communities and the world around us. It was immersive and people felt there was an endless supply. Linear time feels finite, it moves inexorably towards an end, it feels more personal and less communal. Unsurprisingly this, more urban, perception of time is linked to shifts in views on mortality and fears of it. It engenders uncertainty if not anxiety.

This is exacerbated by cognitive overload. The sheer sensory bombardment, abundance, noise and colour of city living enabled by digitization is part of its attraction, but also its problem. Our sense of self is built partly on an internal narrative which begins at an extremely early age, it continues throughout life and requires space and peace to develop, something recognised in schools’ Quiet Zones.

Quality of life and the power of place are increasingly recognised as city success factors, and happiness indices are one attempt to measure this, mostly at national level. Yet even if they investigate cities, is happiness the right measure at all? The term has a ring of self-centred entitlement to it, rather than a deeper fulfilment rooted in meaning and purpose.

Roy Baumeister’s research found: “Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness… happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided”.

This reminds us that we need more radical models to investigate the psychological condition of city life with an evidence based grasp of what those deeper-seated needs actually are. The purpose should be to help cities better meet the basic requirements of human wellbeing.

In developing a serious ‘urban psychology’ we can also pursue a more profound aim: to create the urban conditions which avoid misery, or people feeling ‘this place is not for us’, and that let happiness emerge as a consequence of increased wellbeing, defined as: contentment; welfare; and dignity, rooted in a positive relationship to place and community.

The lessons from our lived primitive experience are that we need rhythm, cycle, as well as places and events to step out of time, to lose or find ourselves, to connect and to be anonymous, and quiet space to reflect on who we are and might become. This helps build aspiration, purpose and a sense of meaning.

Psychology has a clear and distinct role to play in helping us understand more about how to create and inhabit cities that satisfy fundamental human needs. In doing so, we can begin to make places with a purpose: to help people live better, emotionally and physically healthier lives, and feel that this place ‘is also for us’.