Cities can now measure tranquility, on a scale of 1-10

Relaxing in Liberty Park in Lower Manhattan, New York City, in June 2016. Image: Getty.

When you think about somewhere that is tranquil, what do you imagine? Whether it’s a wide open meadow, a deserted beach, or a river as it lazily flows along on a warm summer’s afternoon, research shows tranquillity is mainly found in natural outdoor environments.

These tend to be places where man-made noise is at a low level, but where natural sounds – such as bird song – can be relatively high. Such studies have also shown a link between these types of environments and levels of relaxation, stress reduction and even longevity and pain relief.

It’s clear then that tranquil spaces are good for your health – and yet the world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. There are more trucks, cars, and motorcycles on the roads than ever before resulting in higher levels of noise, pollution and litter. If you live in a busy city, finding tranquillity in your daily life can be a challenge.

Maximum tranquillity

To find out what actually makes somewhere tranquil, we developed the Tranquillity Rating Prediction Tool. The tool measures two factors, the level of man-made noise – usually traffic – as well as the percentage of natural and contextual features in view. This includes things like if a place has a water feature, and lots of greenery, or if a place gives you a view of a religious or historic building – all of which our research shows help to boost the tranquillity of a place.

Based on these factors, the tool can predict the tranquillity of a place on a scale of 0-10. This is based on laboratory studies where people were asked to rate video clips of a range of environments for tranquillity levels. These clips included diverse settings, from a busy market place to natural coastal locations far from any development. Using this method we can not only identify existing (and sometimes overlooked) tranquil spaces, but also offer advice on how urban areas can be made more tranquil.

The High Line park in Manhattan, New York, is a good example of a tranquil space that is part of a wider urban environment. Image: InSapphoWeTrust/creative commons.

Our research shows that green spaces on side roads, which are often hidden from view, tend to have high levels of tranquillity due to the screening effects of buildings from the noise of busy streets. Pedestrianised squares in towns and cities were also shown to be acceptably tranquil because of the distance from traffic – some of these squares also featured grass and trees.

Similarly, well-maintained side streets – especially with avenues of trees – or heritage buildings can also score highly due to good visual attributes combined with low traffic noise. Close proximity to water was also shown to be good for tranquillity because it is naturally nice to look at and is relaxing to listen to.

Creating tranquil spaces

To boost the tranquillity of an area, the first step is to reduce man-made noise. Obviously on a city scale this could be done by things like rerouting traffic, lorry bans and low-noise road surfacing, as well as noise barriers. But in terms of your own surroundings, anything you can do to reduce unnatural noise the better. Higher and longer fences and walls next to the road can help here. As can creating a small quiet area with perhaps a natural-sounding water feature close by.

Increasing the percentage of natural features through “greening” can also help to boost the tranquillity of an area. Introducing more trees, shrubs, or trellising to “hide” building facades, makes people feel less stressed and calmer in their surroundings – so go wild with the greenery.

Back Bay in Boston, US, is a great example of the benefits of ‘greening’ residential areas. Image: author provided.

Having “natural” sounds can also help to make a place feel more tranquil. This could be done by installing a water feature or pond. This which will not only help in terms of relaxation but it will also encourage water fowl and birds.

What all this shows is that creating a refuge from the din of city life doesn’t have to be a huge task. And it is often neglected green spaces that can be re-imagined as havens of tranquillity.

The ConversationSo next time you’re feeling stressed out, try and find a tranquil space, or even better make one of your own – that way your can get your little bit of calm anytime you want.

Greg Watts is professor of environmental acoustics at the University of Bradford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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