The connection between urbanism and emotions

Vladan Klement


This paper will offer a closer insight into the background of human behavior. The main aim is to present researches and experiments on the influence of urbanism (architecture) on human behavior and related emotions. These data will be given to the context of Prinz's emotional moral theory and it will be explained, why we should take these informations in consideration.

When it comes to a city's impact on feelings of its inhabitants, the folk wisdom is about to say that people feel better in a good looking cities than in a bad looking cities. This is the end of discussion. My aim is to extend this inquiry and prove that we have to take city planning and designing (I will refer to this with a term urbanism) seriously and set it like a important philosophical source of informations when one is about to deal with moral philosophy.

The reader is invited to uncover the present but not very think-through nature of city impact on human emotions, behaving and moral standings.

When we find the triggers which are making us feel in some way, we can distantly find the core of human behavior. To examine the major triggers is my long-way job, but the impact of urbanism is becoming more and more important, because as I argued in my previous article the scheme of inhabiting the planet is rapidly changing towards the moment, when 3/4 of people will be living in a cities (by the term city I mean the difference between a city and a town in English). For me even more interesting point is that this field of moral philosophy is almost not-touched.


Can urbanism influence pro-social behaving?


Maybe the most important assumption concerning urbanism sounds as following:

The surface of a city and how the city is planned are conditioning our social emotions and thus the pro-social or antisocial behavior.

This assumption is based in the idea of people primarily behaving according to their emotions. Because I am working with the Jesse Prinz's moral theory, according to which are moral standings necessarily connected and constituted by emotions, this assumption can has a big income in the terms of informations about the source of not-reflected trigger.

To examine whether the surface of a city is really influencing and shaping the moral decision-making is to go through existing researches. As I mentioned, there are not plenty of researches on this topic. I will outline few of them which has something to say.

The first research I would mention is the one called Editable urbanism. Two organizations (Happy city and Futurewise) set up a few experiments which should prove if the built environment is influencing how we feel and behave.

In the begging of these experiments, the authors have claimed their aim to answer those two following questions:

1) How does the design of building facades and public space influence the emotions and actions of passers by? Can design alter feeling of comfort and safety? Can it nudge people towards more altruistic behavior?

2) If people were free to redesign the facades of buildings, without the constraints of money and time, what would they change? Would they intuitively know the design qualities that lead to happier environments?[1]

The first experiment was about to show how does the active facade (a high concentration of small businesses, opportunities for pedestrians and a high level of visual interest) or inactive facade (a block of blank warehouse wall) influence the behavior of pedestrians.

They observed pedestrians in both locations and counted how many pedestrians will stop for more than 20 seconds. The experimentalists are claiming that the results fulfill their expectations - in the active facade area 15,9% of pedestrians stopped for more than 20 seconds, in the inactive facade area only 3,8% of pedestrians stopped. The numbers are not so persuasive, but still in the active facade area it was four times more pedestrians than in an inactive area.

Another interest of the experimentalists was how are the facades influencing the pedestrians' feeling of safety. This attribute was not so convincing, because in both active and inactive facade areas the respondents answer the question about how they feel safe in this location on a scale of 0 to 10 in average score 8,3.

What was different were the answers for a questions mentioning a trust to strangers. In an active facade area, the average score was 5,1 out of 10, in an inactive facade area it was 4,8. The experimentalist thinks it is a "significant" difference.

To sum it up, pedestrians were feeling the same level of safety in both areas, but in the area with active facade their trust to strangers were a bit bigger.

Those two experiments did not take a persuasive shot. The third and the last one is the most important from the point of view of moral philosophy. In this experiment, it was the pro-social behavior what was tested.

Volunteers went to the same active and inactive facade areas and acted like lost tourists. The experimentalists were measuring how many people stopped and talked with them, how many of them let the "lost tourists" use their phone and how many of them offered to the lost tourists to lead them to their destination.

In an active facade area 9,9% of passers by stopped, 7% let them used their phone and 4,2% offered them to be their guide.

On the another hand, in an inactive facade area 2,3% of passers by stopped, 1% let them used their phone and 1% offered them to be their guide.

When you look closer on these numbers, the difference is pretty obvious.

In the "good looking area", people were five times (!) more like stop when someone needs their help, seven times (!) more like letting them to use their phone and four times more like to offer them to be their guide and lead them to their final destination.

To not being so descriptive, I will try to explain it in another words.

Imagine you are coming to visit some unknown city. You are lost (because from some reason you do not have a map or GPS) and you need to ask the locals for help. If you are aware of the results of this experiment, you know that you can actually multiple your chance for meeting someone who is willing to stop five times just by trying to stop them near active facades. If you need to call someone and you need to borrow someone's phone, just do not try it in inactive areas.

The results of these three experiments are following:

1) Social trust is impacted positively by active street environments and building details

2) Active facades and street edges have a strongly positive effect on pro-social behavior.[2]

In the beginning of telling you the story of these experiments, I have quoted two questions. The upper two results are the answer for the first question, the answer for the second one is as following:

Given time and permission to participate in imaginative design processes, people intuitively envision environments that are active and pro-social:

During the urban lab, participants displayed confidence in picking up pens or crayons to communicate their design ideas. They also produced a striking array of suggestions, from the whimsical to the pragmatic. Without coaching, participants produced just the sorts of active environments that correlate strongly with social trust and pro-social behavior.[3]

As you can see the experiments answer the question of experimentalists exactly in the way they predicted. Their side of the battle for impact of urbanism on moral behavior defend (at least for a while) its sense.

Jesse Prinz is used to argue that our moral behavior is deeply connected with our moral values, which are shaped and constituted by emotions. In another words, if you have the ability to shape someone's emotions, you are like to be able to change his/her moral values and therefore moral behavior.

Let's continue with another study, which can be taken as a part of our discussion.

The team of Melanie Rudd was exploring how is the awe changing one's time perception. They found out, that awe (in our case the awe felt on some nice street or park) is making people feel like they have more time available, are less impatient and are also more willing to volunteer their time to help other people.[4]

As we can see, again, being surrounded by places which are causing the feel of awe are shaping our time perception. With more time available, there is a big correlation with happiness. More you are happy, more you are like to help others and volunteer your time for others.

As before, there can be a result telling us to build better looking cities to promote pro-social behaving.

Now I owe to the readers one very important information. Jesse Prinz is taking himself as a moral relativist. It means that there is all the time the primal contra-argument: "Is pro-social behaving something we really endorse?"

This paper is not about to argue for the need of pro-social behaving, I just have to clearly declare that in my opinion more of pro-social behaving means better working society, which is the willing aim.

The last study I want to mention is the one describing the influence of globalization on the appearance of the cities. The study made by Sharon Zukin can be quoted in following sentence:

"When the same idea, though, is applied in many cities of the world, it results in an all too visible homogenization"[5]

To repeat it, when the city is homogenous (not causing awe and inactive) it entails big impact on one's social behavior and thus moral behaving.

From the experiments above we can deduce the fact telling us the story of how the city environment can shape our emotions and therefore our social behaving.

Not being so full of courage, after proposing these facts I am to claim following:

1) By the designing and projecting buildings (parks, streets, etc.) you are influencing people's emotions.

2) Some of those emotions can play a major role in moral decision-making.

3) Therefore, it is not one-directed way: you are not just influencing the city, at the same time the city is influencing you more-like you do not even know about it.

4) When it comes to morals, it is all the time better to know the sources of your stands than not knowing them.

5) Therefore I propose to investigate more how does the daily routine of this phenomenon work.

The city is a huge phenomenon, which is studied mostly by architects. But the opinion about leaving the city to architects is false.  When you build a new street, it is not just the matter of architecture - you are influencing the passers by. If you can influence someone's social (and moral) behavior, it should be studied more precisely by psychologists and I argue that by moral philosophy. From this point of view, the philosophy of urbanism is the part of moral philosophy. To study the city is (or definitely will be in the future) to study the moral background of people living in them.

[1]     Editable Urbanism. Available on WWW: , page 1.

[2]     Editable Urbanism. Available on WWW: , page 6.

[3]     Editable Urbanism. Available on WWW: , page 6.

[4]     Rudd, Melanie. Vohs D. Kathleen. Aaker, Jennifer. Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. In: Psychological Science. XX (X) 1-7, 2012, p. 1.

[5]     Zukin, Sharon. Destination culture: How globalization makes all cities look the same? In: Inaugural working paper series, Trinity College, Vol. 1, No. 1,  spring 2009, p. 3

Published 15.8.2016

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