1. Environmental
August 22, 2017

Why do people respond better to some places than others?

By David Moynihan

Has a building, place or a public place made you feel excited, interested, melancholic or stressed? Do some people find a location stimulating, while others find it boring or even alarming?

Over the spring and early summer 2017, Social Life ran a research project called The Feeling of Place, to explore these themes in an area near Elephant & Castle, close to our office in South London. We wanted to develop a more nuanced understanding of why people respond well to some places and not to others, to challenge the common binary “bad-good” assessments of places. 

At a time when London is changing so rapidly it is important to understand why people respond well to some places and not to others. Many Londoners report that their city is becoming unfamiliar to them. We need to understand more about why people sometimes feel positive about some new buildings and street layouts, and hostile to others. Often places that seem ordinary and unremarkable for some are cherished dearly by others.

We collaborated with the Urban Realities Laboratory at University of Waterloo, headed up by Professor Colin Ellard. As specialists on urban environments and neurology, Ellard and his team capture, through wearable sensors, people’s physical reactions to different urban environments. We drew on these methods and combined them with our own – using walks, ethnographic studies, and street interviews – to build up a picture of how people felt emotionally about locations in our study area.

Gathering data from over 100 people (including residents, visitors and workers) mainly through a series of walks, linking five connector points in an area behind Walworth Road and Elephant & Castle, we were able to build up an understanding of how their response to each place. The locations included a community garden, an area of social housing, a passageway with new businesses, a busy high street and at the base of a relatively new tower block at Elephant and Castle roundabout.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the community garden (Pullens Community Garden) was regarded most positively by those taking part, whilst Elephant & Castle roundabout was viewed most negatively. The other locations received mixed responses: Walworth Road, the local high street considered one of the most welcoming and interesting of all the locations visited, being particularly well appreciated by people familiar with the area.

Our report can be downloaded here. But we have highlighted our six main takeaways below:

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Be aware of what is already there: Most of us forget to stop up and look at what is around us. Participants told us how taking part made them notice new details and experience an area in a new way. So when you go for a walk next time, be aware of what is there that perhaps you haven’t noticed – lean on all your senses to help you understand what is it that makes you happy in a place – maybe you will learn something new about your neighbourhood!

History and social life is important for belonging: The hidden history and everyday rituals is what makes a place different from others. In our research, many commented on memories from the area as factors which made them feel they belong.

The value of nature: The research found that people reacted positively to places with nature, feeling happier and more relaxed in these locations. Research has demonstrated that urban nature, such as regular trees on streets improve people’s general health and wellbeing (see some more detailed research we did on this here).

The human scale: Our research showed that people felt less content in larger scaled locations, such as at the Elephant and Castle roundabout. However, the existence of street level activity (planters, market stalls) helped to counter some of these negative feelings. Having something to engage with on street level opens up places and can help make places with tall buildings feel more welcoming.

Complexity vs. confusion: Finding the right balance between encouraging ‘complexity’ without it becoming ‘confusing’ is important. Walworth Road and Elephant & Castle were both rated above average in complexity.

But while most participants enjoyed the complexity of Walworth Road and Pullen’s Community Garden, the majority of people wanted to avoid the location near Strata Tower on the Elephant & Castle roundabout.  As one participant noted: “This is one the most difficult places to navigate places in London. I find I can spend a long time trying to get from one side of the roundabout to the other – it’s infuriating.”

Living with change: Many commented on the enormous changes taking place in the area. Tall towers are being built in close proximity to the Newington Estate and other lower density areas. For some the new towers were associated with a fear of losing their sense of community, and of people being displaced. They linked this to wider changes in London.

Others saw the urban changes as an inevitable part of living in a metropolis. In the words of one Newington Estate resident: “Elephant and Castle is going under big change. But all the social housing is going, that’s a bad thing. The regeneration is only for people with money.”

Social Life is a social enterprise, created by the Young Foundation in 2012, to become a specialist centre of research and innovation about the social life of communities. All our work is about the relationship between people and places.   

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