Science of Cities

“Urban Mind” App Will Examine How Cities Encourage Our Addictions

Van Alen Institute project to gather data about how the built environment might foster or discourage addictive behaviors.

Researchers are set to study how our built environment drives (or can help with) addiction, in London. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Place affects mood. Walk into a park on a sunny day, and your soul may feel lighter. Spend just a couple of minutes battling a crowd on a slushy sidewalk, and a happy day can turn sour. But scientists have only recently begun to tease out how place and mental health are intertwined — how more trees might help prevent or alleviate depression, for instance. There’s relatively little solid data available on how the physical environment might affect people’s mental health, and particularly not how it might nurture or prevent addictions from forming.

How is your desire and decision to check Facebook, smoke a cigarette or have a drink connected to place? Will a place that is busy and windy encourage addictive behaviors in a way that a place that’s comfortable and sunny might not? (Or vice versa?) For its new “Ecologies of Addiction” project, New York City’s Van Alen Institute is examining how vulnerability to addiction is related to environment. By looking at this less obvious connection between people and their surroundings, says Anne Guiney, Van Alen’s director of research, the institute hopes to shed light on “how we are shaped by urban environments — our minds, our psyche, our well-being.”

In the project’s first phase a neurologist, two landscape architects and an artist are developing a mobile tool to collect data about how place affects people and their impulsivity, a risk factor for addictive behavior. Launching at the end of this month, the project’s pilot will include 200 London volunteers. Each will download the “Urban Mind” app and commit to answering questions seven times a day, at somewhat random intervals, about how they’re feeling, where they are and what sort of place that is.

Andrea Mechelli, the project’s lead researcher, is a neuroscientist at King’s College London and a clinical psychologist: He specializes in psychosis, and many of his patients are prone to addictive behaviors (particularly, he says, marijuana use). But Mechelli and his collaborators — the artist Michael Smythe, and Johanna Gibbons and Neil Davidson, who both work for J & L Gibbons landscape architecture and urban design firm — are not just interested in studying people who have dangerous addictions. London’s known as a city of drinkers, but pretty much everyone these days is addicted, to some degree, to their Internet connection. The volunteers for the pilot will be recruited mainly through the King College’s London website; having a serious problem with an addictive behavior is not a prerequisite to participate.

“We’re on a spectrum,” say Mechelli. “It’s not divided between people who are healthy and will never develop addictive behaviors and people who will be addicts. We all come with some sort of background vulnerability, and our life experiences make us more or less vulnerable.”

The Van Alen Institute aims to leverage design in order to change places — “cities, landscapes and regions” — and, as a result, make people’s lives better. Since David van der Leer, Van Alen’s executive director, came aboard a year and half ago from the Guggenheim, the research organization has explored the theme of “escape.” While previous parts of that larger project have focused on physical escapes, “Ecologies of Addition” will focus on ways we flee mentally (and not positively).

Living in a city, says van der Leer, we sometimes like to pretend that our relationship with our home is always positive. But it can be hard — stressful. And we all have our own survival mechanisms, even if we’re not always aware of them.

“Escape is part of that,” van der Leer says. “Sometimes you want to escape physically. Sometimes you can only escape mentally. We were looking to understand those types of escapes more.”

The Urban Mind app is based on a long-used clinical tool — referred to as “ecological momentary assessment” — where people are asked, at intervals, to answer a series of questions about their state of mind in the course of their day. Information gathered in this way can be more revealing than information reported in diaries or during doctor visits. When Mechelli saw the call for proposals from Van Alen and its partner, Sustainable Society Network at Imperial College London — which called for a multidisciplinary team to look at the relationship between the urban built environment and addictive behaviors — he thought that this clinical tool could, potentially, be leveraged to start understanding that interplay.

He already knew both Smythe and Gibbons, and when he called them up to discuss collaborating on the project he received “two very enthusiastic responses.” They worked together to define the built urban environment, with Gibbons taking the lead.

Participants in the “Ecologies of Addiction” study will answer questions about their London surroundings on the Urban Mind app.

After an initial background assessment, which includes some demographic questions and some gauging personality, the app asks for simple inputs: Who’s with you? What’re you doing? Are you indoors or outdoors? Can you see the sky? If you’re in a public place, is it noisy? The team has focused on making the app’s design clear and simple — to give users graphic cues for each question, so that answering them won’t take much thought. If participants want, though, there are options to collect more qualitative data: photos of the ground beneath your feet and recordings of sound. The app also asks participants how much time they’ve spent online that day and how much alcohol they’ve consumed, as well as questions meant to gauge feelings of impulsivity, which are connected to addictive behaviors.

“We’re not expecting everyone to respond to the same aspect of the environment in the same way,” says Mechelli. “We’re all individuals, and we bring different sets of genes, different experiences, different personalities, and all of this interacts with the external environment to generate response.”

But that’s exactly why collecting data in this way could inform urban planning decisions. Not everyone has the same reaction to external stimuli, and in the past planners have had few resources, outside their own experience, to understand how their designs might foster mental health. Mechelli, the neuroscientist, learned from Gibbons, the landscape architect, that often planning decisions are made based on common sense or assumptions. “But what is common sense for one person is not for others,” Mechelli says. “People bring different assumptions to the table because they have different interests.”

Mechelli and his collaborators aim to make predictions about addictive behavior and physical environments that are specific to individuals — but once they’ve gathered enough data, themes should start to emerge about what sorts of environments tend to foster less dangerous and damaging behaviors. The ultimate goal is to have hard data that can inform policymaking.

“We can use digital technologies to try to understand how the built environment affects us, affects our well-being and our health, and maybe it sounds a bit too optimistic, but I think it must be possible to build better environments,” says Mechelli. “It seems an obvious thing to do, but it’s not really happening. Often urban planning is motivated by other reasons. Why should it not be motivated by people’s well-being and health?”

Even if, on an instinctual level, it’s easy to understand how space can impact mood, sussing out the connections between addictions and physical space gets into one of the darker corners of city living. So often in the city, we focus on the experiences that we have, rather than the places we have them, but, says van der Leer, “If we can learn about how addiction is impacted by the environment, we can make many more claims about how the urban environment plays a bigger role in our lives than we really want to admit.”

The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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Sarah Laskow is a reporter and editor in New York who writes about the environment, energy, cities, food and much more.

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Tags: urban planninghealthcareapps

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