Tuesday, January 19, 2016

City as Sculptor: Some Thoughts on Environmental Psychology

Victo Ngai, Clockwork City

A few years ago I had an idea for a short story and began scribbling it out on a whim. When the initial draft was completed maybe four months later, the thing was well beyond the novella milemarker, so at that point it seemed to make the most sense to drive it the rest of the way into novel territory. It was self-published last March to as much fanfare as one could reasonably expect. (I still think it's pretty darn good, though.)

The domino-field dimensions of the plot required that a character have a preoccupation with human psychology, so I perused Freud and Lacan to better figure out that character's conceptions of people and how they think and operate. It was obviously a wrong turn; such an extraordinarily left-brained person would be much less interested in mentalistic hermeneutics than in rigorous empirical analysis, so I shelved the psychoanalysts and picked up B.F. Skinner's About Behaviorism and Science and Human Behavior.

To my own surprise, Skinner converted me to radical behaviorism. (In fact we've visited Dr. Skinner and flirted with his ideas before.) It is not a popular school of thought: most people reflexively object to the "no free will" premise and feel that such a perspective robs humanity of its dignity and of the significance of its actions (an aspersion famously cast by Dr. Chomsky). But after Freud and Lacan, who read more like literary criticism than scientific analysis, the material practicality of Skinner's model won me over with its straightforward plausibility (however many of the obscure particulars he glosses over, trusting they are either unimportant or certain to be solved/verified by the anatomists of the future).

A condensed version of radical behaviorism's premises and principles might read like:

1.) People do things in the world (a world governed by the moment-to-moment necessities of physical law).

2.) People have subjective experiences while doing things in the world. (These are essentially self-observed bodily states.)

3.) We can observe one (behavior), but not the other (subjective experience).

4.) Our efforts to understand people, they things they do, and why they do the things they do would be much improved if we eliminate subjective experience and mental states from our analysis and focus exclusively on what can be observed.

What Freud and the psychoanalysts got right is that most of our behavior isn't as "reasonable" as we might believe; that we do things without really being aware of why we do them (or: without really being aware of the contingencies by which we are compelled to do them). Their error was putting the cart before the horse in stating that we do things because of mental states, when the reverse actually makes more sense—the mental states we experience are concomitant with and consequential of what we do. (It is a testament to the Cartesian dualistic bias so deeply ingrained in Western culture that the scientific study of the mechanics of human motives and actions is typically referred to as "psychology"—a word basically meaning "soul study"—instead of the much more to-the-point "behaviorism," despite widespread claims that we fucking love science.)

But radical behaviorism is a challenging perspective; you'd have to be a little touched to make it your all-purpose world-cipher. It's a lot like quantum mechanics, which most of us probably think of an under-the-chassis operation to our everyday frame of reference. Ceasing to believe in free will is like learning that solidity actually means something very different than our "natural" experience of solid objects: you're still going to experience a sense of volition yourself and attribute autonomy to other people as you go about your day-to-day business, for the same reason that you're probably not going to be indexing the tactile dimensions of your makeout session in terms of electrostatic repulsion and Heisenberg. But behaviorism has changed the way I read any narrative in which people are involved. (Actually, I think it has made me more empathetic. "Hate the sin, not the sinner" becomes "hate the reinforcing environment, not the person.")

It is a misconception that behaviorism treats people like machines: human behavior is complex in the true sense of the word, and the true sense of the word is very distinct in meaning from "complicated." Your car is complicated; you are complex. When you take one of the wheels off of your car, the rest of the machine is unaffected:the braking system, the lights, the windshield wipers, the engine, etc. remain unaltered. But if you break your ankle, all of you is affected: your cardiovascular, nervous, and endocrine systems aren't going to be carrying on as they were two seconds before you tripped and sprained your ankle, and the changes in any one of these systems is going to affect the state of the other systems. That's one way of looking at complexity and why complex systems are intrinsically difficult to predict, even in systems that should theoretically behave like clockwork.

Human behavior is no different. Your actions are a multivariate function of your genes, your past, and your environment. Your body is a complex system; your environment is also a complex system; your own activities in a given environment are part of that environment. Human behavior may not be arbitrary or self-determined, but radical behaviorism views it as certainly being more organic than mechanistic.

Skinner's treatment of his subject is skewed towards the contingencies of reinforcement within a social environment; he analyzes how humans and their personal algorithms (if such a metaphor holds) are altered through their transactions with other humans and human institutions. But he spends comparatively little time examining the physical settings in which these processes occur, even though nothing any human being ever does occurs independently of his or her environment.

I have lately been fascinated by anthropized environments and their implications. By building and living in cities we are conducting an ongoing experiment in cultural mutation. (It must be reemphasized that cultural changes outstripped genetic changes as the driver at the wheel of the human evolution bus long ago.)

Kowloon Walled City

Not long ago I drifted into some books by a cadre of mid-twentieth-century researchers who sought to understand the areas of overlap between what people do and where they do it, and developed a school of thought called ecological (or environmental) psychology. A principal figure of the group was one Roger Barker (who I'm just finding out was a subject of a This American Life segment about the egregious failure of his research to capture the public's imagination), whose 1968 book Ecological Psychology: Concepts and Methods for Studying the Environment of Human Behavior proposes a conceptual model for the behavior/environment interlock:
(1) A behavior setting consists of one or more standing patterns of behavior. Many units of behavior have been identified: reflex, action, molar unit, and group activity are examples. A standing pattern of behavior is another behavior unit. It is a bounded pattern in the behavior of men, en masse. Examples in Midwest are a basketball game, a worship service, a piano lesson. ... A standing pattern of behavior is a discrete behavior entity with univocal temporal-spatial coordinates; a basketball game, a worship service, or a piano lesson has, in each case, a precise and delimited position in time and space. Furthermore, a standing pattern of behavior is not a characteristic of the particular individuals involved; it is an extra-individual behavior phenomenon; it has unique characteristics that persist when the participants change.

(2) It consists of standing patterns of behavior-and-milieu. The behavior patterns of a behavior setting are attached to particular constellations of nonbehavioral phenomena. Both man-made parts of a town (buildings, streets, and baseball diamonds) and natural features (hills and lakes) can comprise the milieu, or soma, of a behavior setting. Often the milieu is an intricate complex of times, places, and things. The milieu of the setting 4-H Club Meeting is a constellation of a particular room in a particular residence at a particular time with particular objects distributed in a particular pattern. The milieu of a behavior setting exists independently of the standing pattern of behavior and independently of anyone's perception of the setting. Between sessions, and when no one is thinking about it, i.e., when the behavior setting 4-H Club Meeting is nonexistent, its constitution, minute book, roll of members, meeting place, gavel, printed programs, etc., are in existence.

(3) The milieu is circumjacent to the behavior. Circumjacent means surrounding (enclosing, environing, encompassing); it describes an essential attribute of the milieu of a behavior setting. The milieu of a setting is circumjacent to the standing pattern of behavior. The temporal and physical boundaries of the milieu surround the behavior pattern without a break, as in the case of a store that opens at 8:00 A.M. and closes at 6:00 P.M.

(4) The milieu is synomorphic to the behavior. Synomorphic means similar in structure; it describes an essential feature of the relationship between the behavior and the milieu of a behavior setting. The synomorphy of the boundary of the behavior and of the boundary of the milieu is striking and fundamental: the boundary of a football field is the boundary of the game; the beginning and end of the school music period mark the limits of the pattern of music behavior. But the synomorphy of behavior and milieu extends, also, to the fine, interior structure of a behavior setting. ...

(5) The behavior-milieu parts are called synomorphs. The physical sciences have avoided phenomena with behavior as a component, and the behavioral sciences have avoided phenomena with physical things and conditions as essential elements. So we have sciences of behavior-free objects and events (ponds, glaciers, and lightning flashes), and we have sciences of phenomena without geophysical loci and attributes (organizations, social classes, roles). We lack a science of things and occurrences that have both physical and behavioral attributes. Behavior settings are such phenomena; they consist of behavior-and-circumjacent-synomorphic-milieu entities. We call these parts of a behavior setting behavior-milieu synomorphs, or, more briefly, synomorphs.
On the face of it, it's obvious. What are you doing on Friday night? It depends: are you out or are you at home? Are you alone or with people? What time on Friday night? What we do is a function of where we do, and of what we've previously done there under previous circumstances (or in congruent situations).

A 1975 piece by Paul V. Gump (called "Environmental Psychology and the Behavior Setting, "and hosted by the good people at the Environmental Design Research Association) elaborates on the synomorph and its practicality:
Roger Barker and his colleagues have employed a conception of the environment which respects both the milieu aspect of the surround and includes the program side as well. The milieu (the natural or man-made, non-behavioral, surround) and program (standing pattern of behavior) are shown to exhibit similarity in shape, to reveal synomorphy. Bounded parts of the external world showing this union of milieu and program are labelled synomorphs. The ecological units termed synomorphs come in a variety of sizes, or, more exactly, degrees of inclusiveness. A food line and a dining area are small synomorphs nested in a larger one called school cafeteria; the cafeteria itself is included in a cluster of synomorphs which constitute an elementary school. When synomorphs show a modest degree of measured inclusiveness, they are termed behavior settings. Examples of behavior settings for a small town might include: Beauty Parlor, Mr. Jones Algebra Class, Duplicate Bridge Meetings, Worship Service at the Methodist Church, and the City Clerk's Office. Although the actual labels may indicate milieu (office) or program (worship service), it is understood that a bounded milieu-with-program entity is always the referent. At the ecological level, a description of communities or institutions is possible by use of behavior settings; for example, presently available are systematic behavior setting descriptions of large and small high schools and of an English and American small town. Use of synomorphs less inclusive than behavior settings have been used to describe elementary school classrooms.

One reason for directing scientific attention to the synomorph environment is that the external world seems to be organized in a synomorph cluster fashion. For centuries, human beings have been in the business of creating and maintaining environments for human beings. Little of human life is spent in direct contact with the natural world uncomplicated by milieu-and-program arrangements. Rather, humans carry out life in a set of synomorphs whose milieu and operations are sustained by humans. These humans are components of synomorphs as well as simple inhabitants. If human behavior, at a certain level, is habitat-maker, then this fact must be included in conceptions of the environment. Environmental conceptualization would be more straightforward if we could consider milieu to be environment and all inhabitant action and experience to be response to the environment. Unfortunately, that is not the way it is. Students become inhabitants of classrooms with a teaching-learning action structure, shoppers enter a surround of a store with buying-selling regimes; in short, people carry out life in milieus-with-programs——not just in milieus.
Some months ago, when I was still getting settled in Philadelphia, I took a day drip to my alma mater in the suburbs to have lunch and a chat with one of my professors. (I was hoping he would convince me to go to grad school—but seeing as how I don't seem to be any closer to compiling any application materials or a portfolio than I was in September, his case must not have been terribly persuasive.) I had not seen the man since attending my class's graduation rites in 2007, and this was my first time visiting the campus since 2008. For the most part, very little has changed: it is still very much the same place, at least surficially. It was uncanny—the somatic familiarity of the environment, and its tidal effects on me. At every turn I felt some instinctual pull. I wonder what Ben is up to? —Right, he graduated the same year you did, he's not here anymore. Maybe I'll swing by Nickie and Amanda's room and say hello? —No, Nickie and Amanda no longer live there, and the people in that room aren't anyone you know. Time to go to the library? —No, even though you parked yourself in there almost every day for like two years, you have no reason to do that now. Wait, don't I have a class to get to? —You're a twit, Pat. (Wait. I haven't called myself "Pat" in years...)

All of the above: the beginnings of impulses that were furloughed on short order. I returned to an environment with which I had a great deal of prior history, and had not revisited in several years; the old standing patterns synomorphic to that environment pressed for reinstatement (but did not succeed: the circumstance were similar, but not similar enough). I feel like I even spoke to my professor with the same conversational poise I did during those mornings I lurched into his office with an acid hangover to try my luck at getting an extension.

It's the same when I stay with my folks in Jersey for any length of time. It's always like I never went anywhere. Whatever my sleep schedule was before I arrive, soon I'm back to going to bed at five in the morning and waking up at quarter to one, like I was during the months I stayed with them between my departure from the Quaker farm and the time it took Hannah and I to iron out a few unanticipated wrinkles in the plan to cohabitate in Maryland (long story). I'll start eating fast food again, buy those horrid little four-minute microwavable Thai noodle cartons from the supermarket, play video games, visit Dunkin' Donuts at two in the morning and smoke cigarettes in the parking lot—habits I certainly didn't indulge in when I was living in Maryland or St Thomas, and still don't now in Philadelphia. When I come "home," I fit right back into the standing patterns of the place.

It is my history in that environment that informs what I do in that environment now. But what I do and what I've done are determined (or limned, or informed) by the physical characteristics and contents of that environment. If the old college campus were in an urban setting instead of the sparser side of the Philadelphia suburbs, it would be a different place—obviously—and what I did there would have been different, I would have developed differently, I would not be the same person. I would have been subject to a totally different cultural climate, certainly, but the structure, the composition of the environs themselves would have left their moldings as well.

What Barker and his ilk imply is that our standing patterns of behavior are not merely the product of our activities in a given milieu, but that the physical milieu itself seeds those patterns—or at least clamps and wires them as they're sprouting and growing. Nothing exists but in relation. All of your environment has some holistic influence on what you do—and in that category we must also include how you feel and what you think. 

Not long ago I mentioned that the two happiest periods of my life were my college years and my residency at the Quaker center. At the time I felt the point of correlation was that each were community-oriented social settings; but now it occurs to me that both places were also well-designed and sedulously maintained physical environments, abounding with verdure and scrupulously curated aesthetic features. (Meanwhile, the places where I remember not being happy evinced arbitrary and piecemeal development and expansion.)

Philadelphia (Scott Hudson)

The city of Philadelphia was designed by architects, planners, and artisans working across the centuries, all revising and negating each other, most of them probably having a little less or more of a faint idea of how these spaces would control people, how they were altering the code of the program the city continuously installs in its residents every moment of their lives in this place.

When all of the spaces we inhabit are constructed, from top to bottom, by humans for humans, it does warrant consideration as to how the places we build for ourselves are programming us on a holistic level. At no moment are our moods, thoughts, and actions not mediated by the environment we are in. Even environmental features that we do not come into direct contact with—trees along the street, graffiti on the walls, litter on the sidewalks, street lamps, etc.—can influence our state of mind (which is really just a colloquial way of saying "affect our bodies") in ways that aren't necessarily insignificant, especially when time and repetition make that influence accumulative as we continuously develop and calibrate the standing patterns that are synomorphic with a particular milieu.

I was fascinated to read a 2005 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health titled: "Urban built environment and depression: a multilevel analysis." The authors sought to find associations between "poor quality" urban environments and depression, and the results are less than shocking. (Note: as far as I'm concerned, any talk about mental health is really about physical health as viewed through a holistic lens. If features of the environment contribute to depression or other "mental disorders," that means that they are physically deleterious, though the vectors may be as multifarious and indefinite as the outward bodily symptoms of persons affected, and though their harm may be either direct or indirect.)

The paper's authors explain: 
Recent studies have shown that neighbourhood social disorganisation is associated with depressive symptoms and that living in socioeconomically deprived areas is associated with depression, with higher levels of child problem behaviour, with a higher incidence of non-psychotic disorders. A randomised controlled trial that moved families from high poverty neighbourhoods to non-poor neighbourhoods showed that both parents and children who moved reported fewer psychological distress symptoms than did control families who did not move.

To our knowledge, only one other study has explored the association between characteristics of the urban built environment and mental health. Weich et al found that persons living in neighbourhoods characterised by a poor quality physical environment were more likely to report symptoms consistent with depression after accounting for individual characteristics. Building on this work we were interested in the association between qualities of the urban neighbourhood built environment and the likelihood of depression. In particular we were interested in assessing characteristics both of the internal (characteristics of indoor environments) and the external (outside features of buildings and streets) physical built environment and their potential relation to depression. Given a concern with the relation between the urban environment and mental health, it is plausible that there are different relations between characteristics of the internal and external environment, to which persons may be exposed for different lengths of time and in different ways, and the likelihood of depression.
The characteristics the authors consider can be viewed here. I suspect the reason for the study's focus on rather obvious things like (non)functional plumbing, structural dilapidation, and sanitation (and its citation of a 2002 study of the salubrious effects of urban green spaces) might be owed to the fact that we still understand so little about how the less obvious (and perhaps more difficult to parse or define) elements of a constructed environment are shaping us without us really noticing. The paper's authors are quietly insistent on this point:
Although we found more consistent associations between characteristics of the internal environment and depression than between characteristics of the external environment and depression, work in this area is limited and further research needs to clarify which characteristics of the built environment may be associated with specific morbidities including mental health.
The team's conclusions (in bullet-gist form):
• Although the part cities play in shaping individual mental health has long been a subject of interest, there is little empiric work on the features of the urban built environment that may be associated with mental disorders.

• This study examined the associations between characteristics of the urban internal and external built environment and the likelihood of past six month and lifetime depression.

Persons living in neighbourhoods characterised by poorer features of the built environment were 29%–58% more likely to report past six month depression and 36%–64% more likely to report lifetime depression than respondents living in neighbourhoods characterised by better features of the built environment.
A 2007 study ("The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings") similarly sought a correlation between an urban milieu characterized by tower blocks and depression, and it is interesting for the inconclusiveness of its conclusions. Pay attention to the first paragraph here:
Irrefutable conclusions about the consequences of living in high rises cannot be drawn, because true experiments are virtually impossible in housing research and because outcomes are determined by multiple factors. Nevertheless, progress nevertheless [sic] can be made through careful studies that use good research methods, and by aggregating studies either qualitatively, as in this review, or qualitatively through meta-analyses, and by more and better theory construction and testing. Unfortunately, research on this topic appears to have slowed considerably.

Given these caveats, the best conclusions that one may hazard are the following. Many, but by no means all, residents are  more satisfied by low-rise than by high-rise housing. High rises are more satisfactory for residents when they are more expensive, located in better neighborhoods, and residents chose to live in them. Children are better off in low-rise housing; high rises either restrict their outdoor activity or leave them relatively unsupervised outdoors, which may be why children who live in high rises have, on average, more behavior problems. Residents of high-rises probably have fewer friendships in the buildings, and certainly help each other less. Crime and fear of crime are probably greater in high-rise buildings. A small proportion of suicides may be attributable to living in high rises.
A 2015 piece in CityMetric ("We should think more about the link between urban design and mental health") claims that efforts to design urban spaces with a focus on fostering good mental health (again with the Cartesian furcation) face entrenched impediments. The author submits three reasons for this. The first is that the stigma of mental health prevents effective political mobilization. Secondly:
[T]he failure to recognise mental health as a priority is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Currently urban planners, designers and developers focus more on physical health than mental health. They showcase their designs, win prizes, and talk at conferences——and in doing so, create an impression that physical health is the health area of most opportunity in their field.

Even if this is not the case, the zeitgeist is inspiring urban design innovation around physical health. Without a similar movement for mental health, we inevitably hear much less about mental health in urban design plans, policies and projects, delivering less inspiration and motivation around mental health, despite the need and opportunity
And third (and I think most important):
[M]ental health disorders sound complex——so we need to clearly understand and articulate how to improve mental health through urban design. Mental disorders have a wide range of contributing factors, like genetics, early experiences, family relationships, and social settings.

But physical health disorders are often just as complicated, and we don’t shy away from them. Perhaps it is simply easier for urban planners, designers and developers to access clear practical recommendations that help translate physical health research into practical urban design actions. That happens less for mental health.
M.C. Escher, Double Planetoid

I was curious to know how how an actual career urban planner might feel about all of this, and as luck would have it, Katie's brother Donnie is such a specimen. I bombarded him with questions, principally: Do planners tend to think of the spaces they design simply as settings, or also as boot programs for the people living in/passing through them? How interested are urban planners in attaining a more systematic understanding of constructed environments qua behavioral activators/psychological germinators?

Part of his answer was:
I would say that many city planners are interested in this topic and do bear it in mind when undertaking their work. However, I would point out that city planners are far from the only voice in this arena——nor are they usually the most influential one. Real estate developers, politicians, bureaucrats, big institutions (think Penn, Temple), and other types of people/groups think less about this issue but sometimes have greater say in how the built environment evolves.
Interesting to think about: we're trawling up facts (or educated guesses) about the ways in which urban environmental features leave their prints on our psyches, but the application of what we're learning is stymied by the market and by regulatory systems doing what they're designed to do. So urban planning is art, science, and intention refracted through a few layers of administrative interest-balancing and free market anarchy prisms.

Some other questions I had for Donnie were about prescriptions and methods.

Question one: The "Urban built environment and depression" study concludes with the suggestion that "urban planners and public health professionals [collaborate] to better assess the relations between urban characteristics and mental health and to identify potential avenues for improving the health of urban populations." How often are urban planners consulting with "public health professionals?"

I would say the two fields are largely disconnected. I don't think many planners consult with actual public health officials when conceiving of their projects and policies. Same time, I don't think many public health officials think about the built environment when undertaking their work either. But some people, I think mostly in academia at this point, seem to be exploring the connection. As far as planners are concerned, if they think about public health, they most likely think about things like access to green space or recreation centers. Or access to health clinics. I heard a story on the local NPR recently about a local official pointing out that there has been huge growth in the number of fitness centers in the city, but that a mostly black and low income neighborhood has zero. 

I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere out there there was a study about the impact of blight on mental health. But, when planners try strategies for fighting blight, I don't think they frame their primary motivation around improving "public health." Probably more of a byproduct. 
Question two: then again, how much do these professionals really know? The aforementioned studies conduct their analysis via wide-view, low-resolution scopes and offer uncertain answers because the researchers seem somewhat unsure of what questions are worth the time to ask, what should be measured, what is capable of being measured, how to sift the influence of Socioeconomic Factor α from any study of Built Environment Factor β, and so on. ("How do cement surfaces make people feel as opposed to asphalt surfaces? Are people in decayed urban neighborhoods depressed because the general squalor gets to them or because they're broke and cold? Do walkable urban green spaces increase senior longevity because they encourage exercise or is some other factor at work?") Do we even possess enough empirically verified information regarding environmental somatics to develop a true method?

From a more aesthetic perspective, architects and landscape architects think a lot about how people interact with a space and how a space makes them feel, as a sculptor might do. Think about the new Dilworth Park by City Hall versus the old one. But, again, I don't think the connection to improving "public health" is explicit. And ... it isn't usually driven by facts or numbers. I think it's more intuition and experience of the designer.
B.F. Skinner characterizes intuition as "behaving as the effect of unanalyzed contingencies." It's knowing in the absence of knowing what you know to the extent that the "rules" you apply can be articulated. While I would be one of the last people to impugn the intuition of the artist/designer, we're looking at a world where, by 2050, we can expect 60% of the human population to be living in urban environments. I'm not sure intuition alone can be counted on to design city spaces that won't install malware packets or glitchy software in their occupants.

Some video game.

Of course, in some areas, environmental psychology has cultivated some very definite ideas about how types, textures, and characteristics of space affect behavior. Here the Wikipedia entry for environmental psychology (which stands in some need of a style edit) is instructive and unsurprising:
Environmental psychology is oriented towards influencing the work of design professionals (architects, engineers, interior designers, urban planners, etc.) and thereby improving the human environment. ...

Environmental psychology has conquered the whole architectural genre which is concerned with retail stores and any other commercial venues that have the power to manipulate the mood and behavior of customers (e.g. stadiums, casinos, malls, and now airports). From Philip Kotler's landmark paper on Atmospherics and Alan Hirsch's "Effects of Ambient Odors on Slot-Machine Usage in a Las Vegas Casino", through the creation and management of the Gruen transfer, retail relies heavily on psychology, original research, focus groups, and direct observation. One of William Whyte's students, Paco Underhill, makes a living as a "shopping anthropologist". Most of this advanced research remains a trade secret and proprietary.
Comforting. At least we know the arbiters and placemakers of our world have their priorities straight and our best interests at heart.

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