Want to Trade Worlds? 4 Tips to Help Create Utopia

Recent research says tomorrow will be smaller, greener, and interactive.

Posted Apr 08, 2020

JJ Jordan / Pexels
Source: JJ Jordan / Pexels

You won't find Utopia on a map. History is filled with versions of "perfect" worlds, usually based on lofty transformations—economic, scientific, natural, religious, or otherwise—but none are real. Utopia is nothing more than a useful fantasy that helps guide our vision and planning for tomorrow, given the realities of today, and no two people share the exact same outlook. Here is a version grounded in smart community strategies and designing for mental health.

Make it Green

Recent research linking green spaces and mental health is compelling because it is anchored in evolved habitat preferences.  The savanna hypothesis argues that our current habitat preferences were shaped by selection pressures in our ancestral past.  Specifically, selection favored preferences, motivations, and decision rules that attract us to resource-rich environments while avoiding environments populated with survival threats and lacking resources. The African savanna, widely believed to be the site in which humans originated, fulfills these requirements.

Support for the savanna hypothesis can be found in studies of landscape preferences. One study asked subjects to rate a series of standardized photographs of trees taken in Kenya. Pictures were taken under similar daylight and weather conditions. Each photo focused on a single tree and varied along four dimensions—canopy shape, canopy density, trunk height, and branching pattern.  Subjects from Australia, Argentina, and the United States all showed similar tastes in the photos depicting trees. The trees that made a moderately dense canopy with trunks that separated in two near the ground—the savanna-like trees—were preferred by participants across the three cultures.

Modern technology, structural designs, and construction materials allow us to comfortably inhabit climates that would have required intense effort just a few generations ago. Still, we carry with us the psychological preferences shaped by generations of ancestors living in a much different world and often customize our environments to resemble that ancient habitat. Most of us prefer physical spaces that offer views of green vistas over windowless basements. Looking at trees might even have a real health benefit: Patients who viewed trees outside the window recovered more quickly from hospital stays. Flowers also appear to have a positive impact on hospital patients. Bringing flowers increases optimism and actually improves the rate of recovery.

Make it Responsive

Many of us are familiar with fictional stories in which inanimate bodies are infused with life. The Velveteen Rabbit, the talking trees in The Lord of the Rings, Pinocchio, and Seth MacFarlane’s "Ted" are just a few examples of things becoming conscious—the mental state of being aware of ourselves.

Could we achieve a similar goal with our cities? Can we inject life into urban landscapes made out of physical materials? We have smart technology that allows us to move massive quantities of data globally in seconds. Our cars talk to us, we map out routes on our phones, tweet ideas, blog our adventures, and post photos. What happens when a city becomes aware of this information and begins to use it to make changes that impact our social lives? Such adjustments can be instantaneous or unfold slowly over time.

Ali Pazani / Pexels
Source: Ali Pazani / Pexels

Based on patterns of behavior, a “smart” or “responsive” city could make adjustments that would motivate playful learning for children after school or offer more social interaction opportunities in places where depression rates are high. A conscious city could realize the times when inhabitants in a specific area are being bombarded with stimuli and engage in adaptive, self-correcting behavior to reduce the unnecessary distractions. The desired outcomes are decreased stress and isolation, and increased workplace efficiency.

Make it Accessible

The importance of mobility is sometimes appreciated only in its absence, especially when the outside world is accessible, but other factors remain in the way. For example, not all urban residents consider healthy commuting part of their regular personal routines. For people who are serious about achieving success in an area of self-improvement (e.g., weight management, memory performance, or relationship skills) one of the determining factors is consistency. It is very difficult to lose weight if you eat impetuously six days of the week. By the same token, “mobility as a routine” does not come easily if you only utilize mobility options once a week or less.

As urban planners work to develop elements that promote physical health, there is also an opening to fortify mental health. We ask designers to consider engineering schemes that inspire exercise during commutes, errands, and socializing. For instance, improving walkable spaces by widening pathways and making them safe areas. Because exercise begets more exercise, it follows that mobility will play a greater role in personal routines over time. This is good because regular physical activity has a positive impact on nearly every aspect of psychological well-being.

Make it Smaller

For the first five million years of hominid history, our ancestors lived in small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. On average, group size was likely maintained around 100-250 individuals. Based on correlations between primate brain size and social networks, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can comfortably maintain relationships with approximately 150 people.  Because neocortex size effectively limits group size, many of our social adaptations are in tune with small cohesive groups with this capacity.

This psychological design poses a problem for tackling modern-day, large-scale global issues like environmental destruction, mass migration, and geo-political conflict. Agriculture and modern city environments were non-existent for 99 percent of human history. Because these human inventions emerged only in the past 10,000 years, we are relying on psychological mechanisms shaped in our ancestral past to help us navigate the social and physical complexities of the world today.

The human brain evolved to manage social groups no bigger than 150 people—and this poses a problem, in that densely populated urban cities often number in the millions. A restorative niche is a physical place where we can “regain our first natures and indulge our biogenic selves” (Little, 2014, pp. 211). Acting out of character—for example, performing like an extrovert when you are biogenically (i.e., naturally) introverted—imposes physiological costs. It is energetically demanding to be agreeable when you are normally disagreeable, or to act like you are open to new experiences and flexible when in reality you are structured and remarkably closed-minded. A restorative niche functions to reduce those costs and gives us the freedom to be ourselves in a comfortable environment that matches our personality. Urban design would benefit from the integration of restorative niches that limit capacity to 150 or less.  

Conclusions

From monuments that inspire awe in everyone, to casinos that disconnect us to the outside world, we have begun to use advances in psychology and neuroscience to inform choices about city design and architecture. Moving ahead, we have an opportunity to improve life satisfaction through programs of architecture and urban design that are informed by personality and behavioral science. Moreover, we have a duty to make sure that effective new theories are used ethically, so that as communities develop they become more democratic, inclusive, happier, and healthier.

©2020 Kevin Bennett PhD. All rights reserved.

References

Bennett, K., Gualtieri, T., & Kazmierczyk, B. (2018). Undoing solitary urban design: A review of risk factors and mental health outcomes associated with living in social isolation. Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, 4:7. https://www.urbandesignmentalhealth.com/journal-4---solitary-urban-design.html

Bennett, K. (2019). The savanna hypothesis and landscape preferences. In Shackelford, T.K., & Weekes‐Shackelford, V.A. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3726-1

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution. 22 (6): 469–493.

Little, B. R. (2014). Me, myself, and us: The science of personality and the art of well-being. New York: PublicAffairs.