Neuroscience as indicator of unequal cities

One could easily be forgiven for thinking that the only link between neuroscience and the urban landscape is that many research centres are set in cities. However, as this article on equitable cities and environmental neuroscience shows, there are actually multiple ways in which the growing understanding of the brain, how it interacts with the body (and vice versa), and urban design overlap.

From the various opportunities for social interaction to noise levels and access to green spaces, the characteristics of the urban environment have important implications for neural mechanisms and brain functioning, thus influencing our physical state. […]

While space psychology studies the impact of the surrounding on behaviour, thoughts and feelings, environmental neuroscience studies how the environment impacts biological processes, the brain and the nervous system. [Emphasis mine.]

Whether it’s ​brain imaging techniques, eye tracking machines, or statistical models, this emerging practice quantifies the interactions between the individual and the urban environment.

neurourbanism spans neuroscience, architecture, urban planning, and sociology and aims to “understand the mental health challenges of city living”.

As with a growing list of disciplines, the more we know, the more we realize how things are interconnected, interdependent, interacting. So even when fields like environmental neuroscience don’t specifically study inequality, as soon as one pays close enough attention and connects results with other fields of study, one can see that disenfranchised parts of cities have negative effects on its residents’ health, and use the results to work on issues of inequality.

Studies have shown that access to green spaces can help bridge income-related health inequalities; therefore, while tackling income inequality is not within the attributes of architects and urban designers, the profession can address the issue through the provision of more green areas in low-income communities.

It’s become a very tired trope to say that our world is complex, but as much as we might tire of that statement, it doesn’t become any less true. One result of complexity is that different domains of investigations become connected, at the very least because the systems they study are themselves connected. These connection between domains are precious opportunities for changes in perspective and better understanding of what is studied.

As architecture and urban planning are becoming collective and transdisciplinary endeavours and as the design process is being informed by increasingly more diverse fields of knowledge, environmental neuroscience provides yet another professional expertise on which to anchor design decisions and urban policies.