The Generic City

Boring landscapes impede on our biological need for intrigue. So why are so many buildings so hideous?

Whole Foods East Houston.
The long, blank façade of the Whole Foods Market on East Houston Street is actually spirit-crushing, according to science.

Photo by David Shankbone/Flickr

Adapted from Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life by Colin Ellard. Out now from Bellevue Literary Press.

In 2007, Whole Foods Market built one of its largest stores in New York City’s Bowery District in its storied Lower East Side. The supermarket, forming the centerpiece of a larger development called AvalonBay Communities, and including an expensive set of condominium apartments, occupies an entire city block of East Houston Street. It isn’t surprising that the local resi­dents of the Lower East Side did not take the development lying down. For the majority of people living in this part of New York, many of whom had roots going back for many generations to New York’s immigrant beginnings, the scale of the new store, selling wares that few of them could easily afford, was seen as a symbolic affront to the historical val­ues and traditions of this part of the city.

When I conducted research at the site in 2012, my interest in the building, though perhaps connected to the tumult over gentrification, was more pedestrian—and literally so. On my first visit to the location, undertaken to plan a series of psychogeographic studies, I was mostly interested in how this gigantic megastructure, plopped into a neighborhood more commonly populated with tiny bars and restaurants, bodegas, pocket parks, playgrounds, and many different styles of housing might influ­ence the psychological state of the urban pedestrian. What happens inside the mind of a city dweller who turns out of a tiny, historic res­taurant with a belly full of delicious knish, and then encounters a full city block filled with nothing but empty sidewalk beneath their feet, a long bank of frosted glass on one side, and a steady stream of honking taxicabs on the other?

To discover the answer to this question, I designed a study in which visitors to the nearby BMW Guggenheim Laboratory pop-up museum site were recruited to take a walk through the city with me. On the walk, carefully designed to explore a series of urban contrasts, I led small groups from site to site and in each location, I had them answer questions delivered to them by means of a smartphone application. At the same time, I had the participants in my study wear small bracelets that measured their skin conductance—a simple but reliable window into a person’s level of autonomic arousal—their alertness, readiness to act, or to pay attention or to respond to threat.

For one of the sites in the study, I used a location about midway along the long, blank façade of the Whole Foods Market. For a second com­parison location, I took visitors to a site a few steps away, in front of a small but lively sea of restau­rants and stores with lots of open doors and windows, a happy hubbub of eating and drinking.

Some of the results were predictable. When planted in front of the Whole Foods store, my participants stood awkwardly, casting around for something of interest to latch onto and to talk about. They assessed their emotional state as being on the wrong side of “happy” and their state of arousal was as close to bottoming out as I saw at any of the sites on the walk. The physiological instruments strapped to their arms showed a similar pattern. These people were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe the site using words and phrases, utterances such as bland, monotonous, passionless rose to the top of the charts.

In contrast to this, people standing at the other test site, less than a block away from Whole Foods and still on the same side of Houston Street, felt lively and engaged. Their own assessments of their states of arousal and affect were high and positive. Their physiological arousal levels were high. The words that sprang to their minds were things like mixed, lively, busy, socializing, and eating (and there was lots of this going on at this location!). Even though this site was so crowded with pedes­trian traffic that our experimental participants found it difficult to find a place to stand quietly to reflect on our questions, there was no doubt that they found this location to their liking on many levels. In fact, we had some difficulty reining in the enthusiasm of participants for this latter site. Our experimental proto­col, requiring that participants not talk to one another while recording their responses, quickly went by the wayside. Many expressed a desire to leave the tour and simply join in the fun of the place.

The strong behavioral effects of the simple appearance and design of a city street are well known. Noted urban­ist Jan Gehl has observed that people walk more quickly in front of blank façades; compared with the open, active façade, people are less likely to pause or even turn their heads in such locations. They simply bear down and try to get through the unpleasant monotony of the street until they emerge on the other side, hopefully to find something more interesting. The psychologist Daniel Berlyne made many contributions to the study of human and animal motivation before turning, in his later years, to experimental aesthet­ics. These two fields may seem at odds with each other, but what linked them for Berlyne was his belief that one of the most primal urges, equal in importance to the drive for food or sex, was the need to seek informa­tion. Using a branch of applied mathematics known as information theory, Berlyne argued that much of our behavior is motivated by curiosity alone: the need to slake our incessant thirst for the new. It’s this need that drives us both to explore new places and to look at works of art; it is also our inbuilt urge to collect information that determines, in part, what we like when we do so.

Think of yourself walking a streetscape like that found in front of the Whole Foods in New York. As you take the first step, you see on your right a wall of frosted glass and on your left the busy street. Take another step. There’s nothing new. Step three. Noth­ing changes. For a span of about 200 steps, you could have predicted what you would see next based entirely on what you have just seen. No information has been passed and your nervous system is completely unaroused and uninformed. And you don’t really even need to walk along the Whole Foods façade to see this. Instead, you could stand across the street from the façade, take in the whole thing at once, and see that it consists of a single monolithic slab of built space that is virtually the same everywhere.

These constructions don’t work at a psychological level because we are biologically disposed to want to be in locations where there is some complexity, some interest. And this urge runs much deeper than a simple human aesthetic preference for variety. The urge to know is written into us at a very primitive level.

In recent research conducted by University of Waterloo cogni­tive neuroscientist James Danckert in collaboration with his stu­dent Colleen Merrifield, participants were brought to the laboratory, hooked up to equipment that measured their heart rates, and asked to watch some videos. The videos were care­fully calibrated to elicit emotional states of one kind or another. One video, designed to elicit boredom, showed two men hanging laundry on a clothesline. The men simply passed clothespins back and forth to one another and hung clothes. Not surprisingly, the participants self-reported being bored (or sometimes confused) by the laun­dry video. What was more interesting was that the video elicited rising heart rates. Participants also contributed sal­iva samples that were later analyzed for the presence of cortisol, an important stress hormone whose levels in the body mark activity in a brain system known as the HPA or hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis. Remarkably, after a brief three-minute exposure to a boring video, participants showed increasing levels of salivary cortisol. Chronically high cortisol levels have been associated with a range of human stress-related ailments, including stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

The discovery that even brief boring episodes can increase levels of debilitating stress fits well with other recent suggestions that there may actually be a relationship between boredom and mortality rates. In a large, long-term study conducted in the United Kingdom and begun in the 1970s, participants were asked to complete a series of questionnaires, some of which asked about their state of boredom with their lives and their work. In follow-up work completed in 2010, it was shown that those participants who had reported higher levels of boredom in the earlier assays were significantly more likely to have died before the second study.

Boredom does not simply force us to undergo unpleasant states of fidgeting or increased levels of bodily stress hormones. It can also lead us to engage in risky behavior. Surveys among those who suffer from addictions, including both substance and gambling addictions, suggest that levels of boredom are generally higher in such groups and that epi­sodes of boredom are one of the most common predictors of relapse or of risky behavior such as unsafe needle use or sexual practices.

The findings of Merrifield and Danckert suggest that even exposure to a boring experience is sufficient to change the brain and body’s chemistry in such a way as to generate stress. This finding alone lends some neuroscientific weight to the argument that designers of the built environment have reason to attend to factors that might contribute to boredom and that the influence of environmental complexity might actually affect the organization and function of our brains. It might seem extreme to suggest that a brief encounter with a boring building might engender serious hazards to one’s health, but what about the cumulative effects of immersion, day after day, in the same oppressively dull surroundings?

This question has long interested psychologists, especially follow­ing Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb’s original discovery that rats who lived in enriched environments were markedly superior intellectual beings than laboratory rats living in more Spartan sur­roundings. Hebb’s enriched rats could solve more complicated maze problems in shorter times than their less-fortunate lab mates. Later work carried out by the University of California–Berkeley’s Mark Rosenzweig showed that such enriched rats were not only superior performers, but that they also had a thicker neocortex with more richly developed synaptic connec­tions between brain cells. Indeed, this finding was the cornerstone of the modern view in neuroscience that the brain, far from being a fully formed and immutable organ by adulthood, could show dramatic physical responses to environmental changes all through the life span.A better benchmark for the effects of environmental deprivation on human behavior and brain function may come from studies devoted to pinpointing the causes of human disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Here, comprehensive studies of the home environment of children have shown that the lack of availability of enrichment in the physical environment of the home, in the form of affordances for play and stimulating wall panels and artwork, is one of the strongest predictors of the symptoms of ADHD. This finding fits intriguingly well with the results of the Merrifield and Danckert study because the psychophysiological signature of boredom that they identified has also been seen in children diagnosed with ADHD. At this point, we simply don’t know the extent to which such effects might be produced by daily exposure to poorly designed urban environments. But based on well-understood principles of neuroplasticity and on what is known of the effects of deprivation and enrichment, there is every reason to believe that these sterile, homogeneous environments are exerting a measurable effect on our behavior, and likely our brains as well. Given this, the prudent design of city streets and buildings, taking optimal levels of factors such as visual complex­ity into account, goes beyond the simple idea of promoting walkabil­ity and active and vibrant downtown neighborhoods. It is a matter of public health—mental health in particular.

So why do such environments happen? Why would anyone think it a good idea to build a large building that was featureless at ground level? Considerations such as economics and a reluctance to include design features that may run counter to the functions of a building (we might not want the bank that we hope is looking after our assets to portray itself as part of a whimsical and lively street market rather than as a quiet, brooding, and impenetrable fortress) provide some straightforward reasons why our urban streets might not always hit the sweet spot of complexity. Another reason has to do with a radical shift in architectural design first identified in Robert Venturi in which entire building envelopes became signs. Think of the building façade of a corporate chain establishment such as a McDonald’s restaurant. In such cases, we can easily recognize the building’s brand from a distance and at high speed (important when driving a car). Many a weary or culture-shocked traveler (myself included!) has experienced a palpable sense of relief at the sight of such a landmark-cum-building in unfamiliar territory.

The genericization of urban settings also relates to our increasing reliance on digital technologies and information to medi­ate our relationship with the built environment. Such technologies produce connectedness without proximity and can emphasize the virtual at the expense of the real. To understand what this might have to do with a boring downtown streetscape, one only has to spend a few minutes standing on any urban street corner. The focus of human attention has shifted palpably downward into the upturned faces of our phones and while this new behavior may seem to be nothing more than a simple change in posture and gaze, it is one that has changed the manner in which we use city streets. And it is also symptom­atic of more profound change: We may no longer care nearly as much about what our surroundings look like because we are no longer there as we used to be.

Of course, one might argue that some degree of boredom is healthy. When the external world fails to engage our attention, we can turn inward and focus on inner, mental landscapes. Boredom, it has sometimes been argued, leads us toward creativity as we use our native wit and intelligence to hack bor­ing environments to create interest. But streetscapes and buildings designed to generic functional requirements cuts against the grain of our ancient, inbuilt need for novelty and sensation.

Adapted from Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life © 2015 by Colin Ellard. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: