How measuring brainwaves could improve cities

Where now? Image: Google, public domain.

Here’s a deceptively difficult question to answer: “Why do we go where we go?”

Until now, the tools we use to measure the way people move about have been purely quantitative – in effect, limited to counting footsteps. That’s led to an unquestioned assumption among those who make maps that the quickest route to our destination is usually the best: we have no idea whether a route makes people happy or sad, or whether the shortest route may actually be the most disconcerting, noisy or frightening.

In the past few years, though, this has begun to change. Last year, Yahoo! and the University of Torino, Italy, carried out a study in which they developed “happy”, “beautiful”, and “quiet” routes by collecting responses to an online photo survey. Tellingly, participants who tried out the routes didn’t seem bothered about whether the routes took slightly longer to complete. There are apps which get you lost on purpose, too, like Dérive – an “exploration of urban space in a random unplanned way”. Even so, we’re reliant on survey answers and anecdotal evidence for information about how routes and spaces affect people.

But thanks to the work of Panos Mavros, a PhD student at UCL, we might be edging closer to changing that. The data that he’s collecting from neuroscience could tell us how to create better routes, and even how to design better cities.

Mavros studied as an architect, but now spends a lot of his time dealing with electrodes. When I visited his office at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) the first thing he did was get out a black cap laced with wires and small plastic rings, and make me try it on.

Image: author’s own.

His PhD project, he says, began with a simple question:  “Why do people walk on particular streets – why are there more people on Tottenham Court Road than Gower Street, say, even though both routes go to Tottenham Court Road station?”  

His attempts to answer that question led him to electroencephalography (EEG): technology like that wiry cap, which allows scientists to collect information from the brain - how confused or agitated it is, for example - while participants undertake particular tasks.

Until now, various factors have kept this kind of experimentation in the lab: previous models were attached by wires to a big metal box (“you couldn’t really carry it around with you”). On top of that, it’s much harder to analyse data collected in a sense-overloading place like Tottenham Court Road than it would be in a controlled lab.

But scientists are gradually realising that data collected in a clinical environment may not actually be that useful. As Mavros puts it: “Studies found that when you’re moving around in space, it does have an effect on you – it activates different neural pathways. So scientists realised that we need more integrated experimental designs, even if that increases the complexity of analysis.”

Mavros presenting his research on Sky News. Image: Sky.

Even with these limitations, the EEG method offers scientists far more information than asking participants questions would, since it offers a continuous measure of a participant’s responses during a walk: the resulting data looks like a line graph, as opposed to a couple of data points. It’s also a better measure since we sometimes respond to environments in ways we may not even be aware of ourselves, the equivalent of subliminal stimuli or messages: “There are things we’re not conscious of, because we’re thinking so fast, but they still affect our choices.”  Seeing a particular object, for example, may unconsciously make you take a different route.

To put the technology into practice, Mavros has been organising pilot investigations in which 12-20 participants go out onto city streets wearing the black caps and walk around. Ever the scientist, his observations on the project stretch to noting passerby’s reactions to the caps themselves: “Consistently, within 20 minutes you’d get two or three stares. In Reading people were quite discreet, but in London we were out on a Friday night and everyone was in the pub, shouting and pointing– it was quite intense.”

For one of the projects, Mavros worked with Microsoft, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and Future Cities Catapult to analyse the experience of visually impaired people in the city. Certain city designs are far easier for visually impaired people to navigate: by measuring participants’ neural reactions the researchers hope to discover how design could improve to make navigation easier for the blind or partially sighted.

In the next stage of his PhD, Mavros will analyse the brain signals collected during these experiments. In the project involving the visually impaired, however, some findings didn’t require any data analysis at all. “We came to one junction,” he says, “and the participant nearly walked out into oncoming traffic – there were three different crosswalks at the junction, and only one had an auditory signal. So the participant heard it, and started walking.”

Portable EEG technology is still relatively new, and could be used in a multitude of ways within urban theory. Mavros says that his data, once analysed, could be used to build up calm, beautiful or quiet routes based on streets the particpants found quieter or more attractive, in the vein of the Yahoo! study. The data could also be used by urban planners and designers: “If we have evidence that we measured a certain design factor, which required X amount of cognitive effort from participants, then we could say how important this factor was in a particular design.”

There is a danger to this approach, however. “We’re wary of saying a certain type of environment is ‘good for you’,” says Mavros. “Participants’ reactions could be a matter of personal taste, where they grew up, or even cultural influences.

“You might prefer one piece of architecture over another – but that doesn’t mean someone else would.”


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.