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.   


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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