Magazine — 03.02.21
Five Senses: One Downtown
Words SOPHIA BURNS
In 2020, people around the world spent more time in their homes than ever before. With that has come a renewed awareness of the effects of our surroundings. An uncomfortable chair, boring wall, and cluttered desk become exponentially more bothersome when we spent most of our waking hours with them. A newfound appreciation for houseplants and other mood-boosting mainstays has marked at-home transformations for many. In cities, vacancies abound; suddenly, life has grimly turned inside out. While it will not stay that way, the necessity for comfort, safety, and pleasure has been highlighted to people across experiences. Our tolerance for discomfort has weakened. Cities–the larger-than-life containers and facilitators of everyday life–also have the potential to be reimagined to better suit the sensory experiences that put our bodies and minds at greater ease.
The concept of human wellbeing and safety are not new to urban planning; the mounting danger and disease in industrial cities spurred the first attempts at planning cities like London and New York. Miasma, the 19th century concept of foul air, was believed to cause outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever that tore through Victorian cities. Improved ventilation, underground sewage systems, and draining resulted from the fear of diseased air. While miasma is long disproven, our cities are indelibly shaped by outbreaks, fears, and traumas of the past.
Our health is intimately intertwined with our environments. Often, environmental problems are left to brew beneath our consciousness until human health begins to suffer. Even then, it is a matter of whose health is affected: in the United States, the majority-Black city of Flint, Michigan has not had clean drinking water since 2014. And if environmental health suffers in modern cities, the accompanying epidemics of mental health crisis are raging silently beneath. Alongside the pandemic have come more frank, more widespread conversations about mental wellbeing and the unique impacts of a global event on each and every person living it.
Most of our senses, beyond the visual, are neglected in city planning. Imagine a dark alley: not only is it dark, but it might also be smelly, cold, and echoey. If a space feels too large or too claustrophobic, we might also feel afraid there. Most people do not want to linger in a dark alley for these reasons; if someone is a woman, LGBTQ+, a person of color, or an immigrant, emotional layers are added to the experience of this place. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, author of The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, emphasizes that the environment exists through our experiences. Importantly, we experience ourselves in these environments. All of our senses are activated when we determine how “good” or “bad” a space is, and our bodies thereby give us cues as to whether it is a good idea to stay somewhere.
While they might seem innate, sensory cues vary from person to person. If some encounter themselves as confident and safe while others experience a timid, suspicious version of themselves, it should serve as a signal for change.
When our brains set out to determine a threat, the visual field is the first to be surveyed. In the first two seconds of an encounter, our brains search for human-scale objects. If there is nothing that is at a scale that our eyes can take in all at once, our eyes will continue to search more frantically, creating more potential for an anxious response. For streets, this means that lower building heights and multi-use spaces allow our brains to calm down, take in the information before us, and proceed feeling informed about where we are. Senses, after all, exist for us to take in information, and our cities can be designed to tell us more.
The first step toward a multi-sensory, more perceptible city is the acceptance of risk and the proliferation of choice. This is a relatively low-tech solution, as it mostly demands that we stop putting so much effort into making urban spaces sterile, uniform, and perfect. In any global city’s downtown, there is a barrage of bright white and gray lobbies, gleaming floors, and private security staff. Central cities have not always been this way (Times Square was unrecognizably dirty forty years ago), and they do not have to prioritize global commerce.
As more businesses realize that rent is an unnecessary expense, the office and retail checkerboard downtown could become obsolete. In their place, increased space for pop-up experiences from shopping to entertainment could appear. This model has proven popular in deindustrialized areas, like Philadelphia’s piers which have become home to art exhibitions and an urban rendition of the seaside boardwalk. Downtowns can become more inclusive by creating more space for residents to make and congregate: think public kitchens, danger-friendly playgrounds, and mainstages. Post-pandemic, we will assign even greater value to these opportunities to encounter ourselves in heterogeneous masses. In order to make them happen safely and equitably, planners must know that urban wellbeing begins with the senses.
Sophia Burns is a writer and community educator based in Philadelphia, USA. She writes about the intersections of race, class, and geography, as well as multiracial identity. Having grown up in a working-class suburb, she is interested in uplifting in-between places via the narratives of those who live there. She has been working in youth social justice education since 2015. A language lover, she speaks Spanish and Portuguese, she is currently training to teach yin yoga and enjoys being by the water.
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