Why do people respond better to some places than others?

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre. Image: Getty.

Has a building, place or a public place made you feel excited, interested, melancholic or stressed? Do some people find a location stimulating, while others find it boring or even alarming?

Over the spring and early summer 2017, Social Life ran a research project called The Feeling of Place, to explore these themes in an area near Elephant & Castle, close to our office in South London. We wanted to develop a more nuanced understanding of why people respond well to some places and not to others, to challenge the common binary “bad-good” assessments of places. 

At a time when London is changing so rapidly it is important to understand why people respond well to some places and not to others. Many Londoners report that their city is becoming unfamiliar to them. We need to understand more about why people sometimes feel positive about some new buildings and street layouts, and hostile to others. Often places that seem ordinary and unremarkable for some are cherished dearly by others.

We collaborated with the Urban Realities Laboratory at University of Waterloo, headed up by Professor Colin Ellard. As specialists on urban environments and neurology, Ellard and his team capture, through wearable sensors, people’s physical reactions to different urban environments. We drew on these methods and combined them with our own – using walks, ethnographic studies, and street interviews – to build up a picture of how people felt emotionally about locations in our study area.

Gathering data from over 100 people (including residents, visitors and workers) mainly through a series of walks, linking five connector points in an area behind Walworth Road and Elephant & Castle, we were able to build up an understanding of how their response to each place. The locations included a community garden, an area of social housing, a passageway with new businesses, a busy high street and at the base of a relatively new tower block at Elephant and Castle roundabout.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the community garden (Pullens Community Garden) was regarded most positively by those taking part, whilst Elephant & Castle roundabout was viewed most negatively. The other locations received mixed responses: Walworth Road, the local high street considered one of the most welcoming and interesting of all the locations visited, being particularly well appreciated by people familiar with the area.

Our report can be downloaded here. But we have highlighted our six main takeaways below:

Be aware of what is already there: Most of us forget to stop up and look at what is around us. Participants told us how taking part made them notice new details and experience an area in a new way. So when you go for a walk next time, be aware of what is there that perhaps you haven’t noticed – lean on all your senses to help you understand what is it that makes you happy in a place – maybe you will learn something new about your neighbourhood!

History and social life is important for belonging: The hidden history and everyday rituals is what makes a place different from others. In our research, many commented on memories from the area as factors which made them feel they belong.

The value of nature: The research found that people reacted positively to places with nature, feeling happier and more relaxed in these locations. Research has demonstrated that urban nature, such as regular trees on streets improve people’s general health and wellbeing (see some more detailed research we did on this here).

The human scale: Our research showed that people felt less content in larger scaled locations, such as at the Elephant and Castle roundabout. However, the existence of street level activity (planters, market stalls) helped to counter some of these negative feelings. Having something to engage with on street level opens up places and can help make places with tall buildings feel more welcoming.

Complexity vs. confusion: Finding the right balance between encouraging ‘complexity’ without it becoming ‘confusing’ is important. Walworth Road and Elephant & Castle were both rated above average in complexity.

But while most participants enjoyed the complexity of Walworth Road and Pullen’s Community Garden, the majority of people wanted to avoid the location near Strata Tower on the Elephant & Castle roundabout.  As one participant noted: “This is one the most difficult places to navigate places in London. I find I can spend a long time trying to get from one side of the roundabout to the other – it’s infuriating.”

Living with change: Many commented on the enormous changes taking place in the area. Tall towers are being built in close proximity to the Newington Estate and other lower density areas. For some the new towers were associated with a fear of losing their sense of community, and of people being displaced. They linked this to wider changes in London.

Others saw the urban changes as an inevitable part of living in a metropolis. In the words of one Newington Estate resident: “Elephant and Castle is going under big change. But all the social housing is going, that’s a bad thing. The regeneration is only for people with money.”

Social Life is a social enterprise, created by the Young Foundation in 2012, to become a specialist centre of research and innovation about the social life of communities. All our work is about the relationship between people and places.   


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.