Sometimes a quick walk through nature helps relieve the stress of city life. But what exactly is nature? Why does it help? And how might cities be designed to give people a better experience in the first place? Those are questions being asked by faculty in the Division of the Social Sciences who are looking closely at the design of the built environment and the effect it has on the health of humans and society.

Emily Talen and Marc Berman

Emily Talen and Marc Berman

Emily Talen is Professor of Urbanism in the Division and Director of the Urbanism Lab at UChicago. Her research is devoted to urban design and urbanism, especially the relationship between the built environment and social equity. Studying the making and unmaking of neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Talen (who worked as a professional planner in California and Ohio before entering academia) looks for ways to improve the form and pattern of American cities and neighborhoods so they can be more inclusive and supportive. In a book currently underway, Talen explores the ideal of the neighborhood, comparing a wide range of perspectives on what makes a neighborhood, and the relationship between idealized neighborhood plans and reality. An earlier book, City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, looked at urban codes over the ages — showing that while many contemporary codes stifle communities, encouraging sprawl and even blight, revised codes can produce a more positive outcome.

Marc Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and is involved in the Cognition and Integrative Neuroscience programs. His research centers on understanding the relationship between individual psychological and neural processing, and environmental factors. Berman’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab uses brain imaging, behavioral experimentation, computational neuroscience and statistical models to quantify the person, the environment and their interactions. Recent studies from the lab have determined that the density of trees in a neighborhood has positive effects on individual health comparable to being younger and wealthier, and have identified elemental features of natural and man-made environments that influence individual preferences, and also memory, attention, and mood.

Dialogo sat down with Talen and Berman to find out more about their research interests and how they overlap.

DIALOGO: What big questions motivate your research?

TALEN: I spent my senior year in college in Paris. I was homesick, so I ended up just walking every inch of the city. As a sociology major, I was interested in cities from a built environment perspective and appreciating public space, great architecture, and great urbanism. Paris is different because it's so planned. There has been forethought put into the way its public spaces, its streets, the frontage quality, everything about the city somebody's thought about it. That contrasts with the suburban sprawl that I grew up in, where it's much more driven by the bottom line of buying and selling, and much less attention given to public space mostly. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on what we can do to intervene and actually make things happen. In Paris, there was intervention, and you got Paris. I mean, we have so little of that in the US. In Chicago, sure, you can point to some good public spaces, but the design of the city is just not that thought out. There's a lot to study there. Why did that happen? Where does it work? Where does it not work? What's the fall-out of not being good city planners? Why does that happen and what's the effect? It's been a rich source of things to tap for a research agenda.

BERMAN: I’m interested in how the physical environment affects brain and behavior. A lot of people have this misconception that because humans have so much control over the environment, that we're sort of immune to it — but the environment plays a huge role in our behavior, and we're not even aware of it. We started to do some studies where we had people walk in nature versus more urban environments, and we found that people could improve their memory and attention by about 20% if they just went for a short walk in nature, versus a walk in a more urban environment. Much of our research is trying to figure out why. And also to touch on what Emily was saying, that at least in the US/North America, we haven’t done that good of a job in terms of designing cities for human psychological functioning. It's good for moving goods and for housing people efficiently and things like that. But is it good for having a populace be the most productive they could be, or to have the highest wellbeing? I think we're lacking in that area. As a lab, we are working to incorporate some of these elements of nature that we think are good for human psychological functioning, for human brain functioning, and retrofit those elements into cities.

Urban studies across the social sciences

Faculty across the Division of the Social Sciences teach new and innovative courses addressing the life and organization of urban social worlds. Here is a selection of courses being offered in Spring 2018.

SOCI 20104. Urban Structure and Process

Instructor: Forrest Stuart (Assistant Professor of Sociology) 

This course reviews competing theories of urban development, especially their ability to explain the changing nature of cities under the impact of advanced industrialism. Analysis includes a consideration of emerging metropolitan regions, the microstructure of local neighborhoods, and the limitations of the past American experience as a way of developing urban policy both in this country and elsewhere.

GEOG 24200. Urban Design Studio

Instructor: Emily Talen (Professor of Urbanism) 

Based on prior course work in either neighborhood or pedestrian-scale urbanism, students in this course will have the chance to formulate a proposal for intervention to address an issue previously uncovered. The proposal could be in the form of a written policy, two-dimensional plan, or three-dimensional design, depending on student interest. Example topics include policy proposals to address issues of gentrification and displacement, proposals to increase the spatial equity and accessibility of public space, three-dimensional visioning of future infill on vacant land, or development of a new kind of urban code to encourage pedestrian life.

GEOG 27150. Urban Design with Nature: Assessing the Social and Natural Realms in the Calumet Region

Instructors: Sabina Shaikh (Director, Program on the Global Environment) and Emily Talen (Professor of Urbanism)

This course will use the Calumet region as a laboratory for evaluating the social, environmental, and economic effects of alternative forms of human settlement. Students will be introduced to the basics of geographic information systems (GIS) and use GIS to map the Calumet region’s “place types” – human habitats that vary along an urban-to-rural transect, as well as the ecosystem services provided by the types. They will then evaluate these place types using a range of social, economic and environmental criteria. In this way, students will evaluate the region’s potential to simultaneously realize economic potential, protect environmental health, and provide social connectivity.

HIST 47503. Colloquium: Chicago in United States Urban History

Instructor: Kathleen Conzen (Thomas E. Donnelley Professor Emerita of American History)

This graduate colloquium will use Chicago as a lens through which to examine the history and historiography of the American urban experience from the early nineteenth century to the present.

SOCI 50109. Seminar: Urban Ecology and Political Economy

Instructor: Robert Vargas (Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Sociology)

What should the social scientific study of cities look like? What purpose should it serve? And for whom? This course focuses on these questions and encourages students to formulate their own answers to them by providing a historical overview of the development and evolution of urban sociology. In many ways, the debates in urban sociology today reflect similar debates faced by scholars since the subfield's inception. The course chronologically follows the development of urban sociology from the debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in the late 19th century to the contemporary debates between the Chicago school of urban sociology and Marxist political economists. Along the way, students will be introduced to a variety of urban research topics such as housing, culture, neighborhoods, mass incarceration, and urban development while learning the ethnographic, statistical, and historical methodologies deployed to investigate them.

TALEN: To me, a baseline question is how much attention is paid to the public realm, as opposed to the private realm. You go to some cities and think to yourself, "They're really focused on the private world." As an example, I usually pick on Phoenix because that's where I was for some years. That built environment is reflective of people having their own internal worlds. You drive down the street, it's nothing but walls separating different housing pods. How much of the public ground was cared for? That means everything from how the building meets the street to actual public spaces to the width of the sidewalk. How are people moving around in the city? Is it efficient for them to do, and do they have to rely on a car, which is bad for the environment? Even electric cars, self-driving cars, aren't that great either because there's a lot that goes into fabricating and manufacturing of an electric vehicle. I want people to just walk. To what degree are cities good for human beings to go out and use their two legs? In some ways, it's just that simple.

BERMAN: That's a big problem. Think about how much in this country, too, we have problems with obesity and lack of exercise. It's difficult to take time out to exercise, but if walking is a part of your daily routine, you will get some exercise there. I mean, that's kind of what recent Nobel laureate Richard Thaler says, "If you want somebody to do something, make it easy." We make it really hard in our current society to exercise and do other healthy behaviors. I mean, we're not meant to just sit in a car and go places. We're meant to move around -- there's all this research about how exercise is good for cognition and mental health, not just good for physical health. That's a huge element to this. Also, by having these huge roads many of the natural elements that you could have if you had a more walkable kind of space are destroyed.

To pick up on that idea of what's natural, how do you define natural when you're looking at these questions?

BERMAN: In the first study where we had people walk in an arboretum versus in a busy urban environment, we made the distinction ourselves. We’ve done studies where we show people pictures of nature versus pictures of built spaces. They're not as strong as actual walking, but they are similar and suggest that there's something about the visual aesthetic of nature that might be contributing to these cognitive benefits. Could it be the fractalness of nature, the amount of curved edges, the color palette? People have lots of different conceptions about nature versus urban. To someone who is an avid hiker, for example, a city park might not seem that natural. To somebody who is a very urban person, it might seem quite natural. The kind of nature that we've been researching thus far has been nearby nature in cities.

TALEN: Do you worry about defining cities as unnatural? If the urban is unnatural, we might somehow forgive poorly designed urbanism because, well, it's not natural.

BERMAN: This is a good point. And people do see naturalness in buildings. We're doing a study now where we're showing only buildings to people, and they are seeing nature in some of these buildings. A Gaudí building in Barcelona is rated as more natural than a very 1960s cubic kind of architecture, which is rated as very unnatural. Our algorithms can predict whether something will be perceived as natural or not because it mimics patterns in nature, even though there's nothing "natural" about it. It's an entirely built structure. Look in this room here. This room has a lot of patterns in it that mimic nature, so you can construct environments that look like nature, even if they aren't nature. That's not exactly what we're advocating for, although I think we should be thinking about that as well.

Do definitions of nature play into the way neighborhoods and cities have been managed?

By Lynn Betts / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain,

By Lynn Betts / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain,

TALEN: This is how we've gotten into trouble. In some ways, suburban sprawl is a quest to be near nature, right, but it ended up backfiring, with people having a sense that they're closer to nature when really they were undermining nature. That's set up a tension and confusion about how we should be designing cities and the place of nature in cities while we're trying to be compact and have a lot of proximity between what people need in their daily lives and where they live. How do you bring nature into that in a way that doesn't then spread everyone out and end up being bad for nature? That's an interesting urban design question. In some ways, Paris has been good at bringing in nature in a way that is not destructive, and still being very compact and dense. They've sort of formalized nature, nature exists in very manicured small settings. When we bring nature in here, it's all these big parks, or it's suburban sprawl. We don't know how to have the best of both worlds.

BERMAN: I think another area to touch on, too, is the physical space and the pattern of behavior. Suburbs might have more "green space" but people's behavior is less natural, right? You're going into your car, you're zipping around. In cities, if you're walking to places and if your social interactions mimic the environments that humans have lived in for a longer period of time, that in some sense is more natural than living in the suburbs, even though there might be more green space there. That's another layer to add onto the physical environment —interactions with that environment and the patterns of the human behavior.

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data for Cook County (O’Hare airport excluded) with 7 landcover variables plotted; Dark green = Tree Canopy, Light Green = Grass/Shrub, Pink = Bare Soil, Blue = Water, Red = Buildings, Orange = Roads, and Gray = Other paved surfaces. Within a county, there is notable variation in the balance of urban and natural elements.

TALEN: Have you heard of the transect? It's a way of thinking about cities along a transect, a line, where you cut a line from rural to urban, and at every spot along that line you try to form cohesive environments depending where you are on the line. If you're on the rural end, you don't get those urban level services. As you move in and you don't have as much nature, you have lots of services. Some people have been trying to think about zoning our cities that way. Zoning is a total mess, total disaster, it makes no sense. If we zoned our cities to be those immersive kind of coherent environments along the transect, we'd have better cities.

Does looking at how things have historically been organized in cities like Chicago help explain how things got this way? Does it suggest how we can get out of it?

TALEN: I'm focusing right now on retail, working with a post-doc and looking at small, independent, mom-and-pop shops. Where they are in the city, and where they're dying. There's an existential crisis in retail -- first it was the big boxes, now it's e-commerce. So what does that mean for our street life? If it's not going to be retail, then what’s it going to be? The big boxes are not so good at activating street life. Streets are the most public land that we have in the city, by far. Do we want our cities to be composed of streets that are just conduits for cars? So we've been mapping out every block in the city of Chicago, looking at where are the mom-and-pop stores and what kinds of environments are they located in. And now I'm sending students out with a survey to ask these retailers how they are doing. Are they connected to the neighborhood? What is the future from their perspective?

There's been a lot of hand wringing about bad decisions that were made — basically, everything between 1930 and 1990 was a total disaster for urbanism. The focus on urban renewal, tearing things down, putting in big highways. Really, really bad mistakes were made, globally. There's a lot of attention paid to not repeating those mistakes. That's why I brought up autonomous vehicles. The circles I run in, which is all about walkable urbanism, are very leery about that because it's the next technological fix, and it sounds so much like the discussions that were going on in the 1950s: "Oh, look at these big highways. Everybody will be able to just drive everywhere." You've seen these utopian “Jetsons” kind of worlds that were envisioned, and it's the same thing going on now.

There's not a lot of nature in those images of the Jetsons future.

TALEN: Right. No, no. There's no nature there. I show some of these films in my classes, and the students are just amazed at the thinking that was going on. Futuristic city thinking, but we actually constructed a lot of the nightmare that didn't pan out. That's why relying too much on technology makes me nervous. How do you think, Marc? Do you agree?

BERMAN: It's an interesting question about these autonomous vehicles, and if they just perpetuate this driving culture, that's not desirable. I guess the technology is going to come whether we like it or not. We're using some of the technology to quantify the benefits of cities. We’re developing apps like the ReTUNE app so if you want to get from point A to point B, it will give you the most restorative walk or route that has the most green space, the least amount of traffic, and is the quietest, and safest. I think walk-ability is a huge thing, and it also needs to be something that has to be equitable. Naomi Davis, who has a non-profit in Chicago called Blacks in Green, talks about one square mile, about having African American neighborhoods where you can get everything in one square mile (i.e., workplaces, shopping, entertainment, etc.), which is really not true in current times. All these things are highly related to each other and might foster better social interactions, which could have lots of other types of positive downstream consequences.

Another theme that Emily and I talk about is this movement to slow things down. We come up against this with mobile technology and phones. We’re each interested in how interacting with nature gives people a chance to be kind of contemplative and reflective, which is something that people don't do a lot now because they distract themselves with music, social networking and other things. One of the reasons why we think interacting with nature might be beneficial is that it kind of forces people to be alone with their thoughts, and that's why when we did the studies we kept cell phones in the lab. We made them go out on their own to force them to interact with the environment. And we found amazing effects. The weird part about the mobile technology is that it's an addictive technology. Usually, things that are addictive are not really good for you.

Can nature be addictive?

BERMAN: I suppose it could. It's hard for me to conjure up a lot of negatives. Whenever I talk to people about this and say, "we need to interact with nature more," nobody ever argues with me about it. They may argue with me about why it works, but nobody argues with me that it does.

One misconception about nature is that it's all about mood or pleasantness or something. It's more than that. Something else is going on there. Certainly, people tend to get into better moods when in nature, but that doesn't seem to be the driving factor for these kinds of attention and concentration benefits that we see. One reason could be that our brains evolved in these more natural types of environments. When we did our study in Ann Arbor, we had people walk at different times of the year. Some people walked in June, when it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit. People loved the walk, and showed these really healthy memory attention benefits. We also had people walk in January, 25 degrees Fahrenheit. People said, "Marc, I was freezing my butt off out there. Why did you make me go out there?" But they showed the same memory and attention benefits as the people that walked in June. You didn't even have to enjoy the nature interaction to get the cognitive benefit.

Now, the trick is figuring out what is it about this environment that's producing these benefits? Also, what is it about how our brain’s are organized and how they function that we're seeing this kind of synchrony between the brain’s processing of natural environments?

Is there room to collaborate on all of these questions? What would that look like?

TALEN: Urban planning is, by definition, very interdisciplinary. There are different wings of urban planning, and certainly the exciting part of urban planning is where it intersects with another discipline like psychology, like architecture, like sociology. “Innovation at the margins of disciplines” --  I think it's true with urban planning. The trick is to not get too disparate with all these different fields and lose sight of the end game, which is that we want better designed cities. How do we take all that interdisciplinary thinking and corral it back into what is sort of a more narrow focus, which is, can't we just have cities that look like Paris? Why can't we?

BERMAN: We want to know how to design the environment for better human psychological health. That can mean a lot of different things. In talking with Emily, she's brought variables to mind that we haven't really thought about, like having people map out where all the mom-and-pop shops are — we can incorporate that into our models where we have green space over the whole city, and we have health variables of people all over the city, crime in the whole city. We can start adding all these different variables in and see what's predicting crime, what's predicting disease, school performance, things like that. To me, it's exciting that with big data we may actually be able to quantify some of these things. To say, well, when you have this many mom-and-pop stores, a reduction in car traffic, and you have 12 more trees per city block, you can reduce cardiovascular disease by 3% and crime by 5%. I think we're moving in that direction. There's a lot of people on campus that are very interested in these issues. It's an exciting time.