This week Panuku hosted New Zealand’s inaugural Coding for Smart Communities Workshop with Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand As the smart city movement gains traction around the world, we must remember who we are building cities for.
I often wonder whether people would think it odd if I interrupted their day to ask why they chose a particular spot to sit, or stand in a place. Personally, I like to choose a spot that has an outlook, and somewhere that feels protected and secure. My favourite spaces have both living green and flowing water. Most of all, I’m drawn to places where I can sit and watch people.
The activity of watching what people do in a place, and learning why they do it, always brings me back to the work of William Whyte and Frank Kent, and their documentary “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”. I would thoroughly recommend taking the time to watch the film – it’s a wonderful insight in to urban anthropology.
My fascination with how people use space, and why they are drawn to particular places over others, makes me consider what life might have been like had I trained as an anthropologist, rather than in a design profession. Or maybe a social neuroscientist (yep that’s a job!). I think design professionals are already aware of aspects of these studies, but we could learn more, and we could use that information to improve the human condition in urban environments. I am a firm believer that the quality of the human experience is directly related to the quality of the environment. So can the built environment in our smart cities be human smart, not just tech smart? To answer this question, we need to understand how our brains respond to the environment.
Consider your state of mind when sitting on a beach, and think about why you’re there. Fingertips exploring sand discover a small shell. Turned over, rolled around, squeezed and released, returned to the sand. Stare out to the horizon, where sea meets sky, salt spray in the air, sun setting.
Or sitting next to a stream, toes tangled in turbulent water, fresh and cool. Blue sky filtered by green canopy, shafts of light sparkle and dance. Smooth rocks resting gently are explored to find the perfect shape. These are experiences we travel significant distances for, often far away from our cities and suburbs, to escape the hurried and harrowed lifestyles we often lead. What do you think your brain is doing when you’re in this type of environment?
The phenomenon of seeking out nature can be partly explained by the “blue mind” and the “green mind” – the notion that our brain (and indeed our spirit) likes to be near water and nature. In fact, water makes us happier, more connected and better at what we do, according to Wallace J Nicholls, author of “Blue Mind”.
Nicholls used the term “blue mind” to describe the mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peace, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.
The “green mind” is our physiological response to living green nature. According to the triune brain hypothesis (the notion of the human brain being part reptilian, part old mammal and part new mammal), this is the primitive reptilian brain’s message that plants are indispensable to our survival and our living environment. The simple act of touching plants brings about a calming reaction – there are research studies to prove it!
So we recognise unconsciously that living green means survival. In an increasingly urbanised planet, with the need for greater density to house more humans, we are losing a precious resource that effectively helps us to survive and keeps us happy – nature.
Our friend Mr Nicholls refers to a prescription for “two waves, a beach walk, and some flowing river” as a way to improve our well-being. The question, then, is how do we fill this prescription for improving well-being if we’re living in the middle of a city, and we have to share that city with millions of other people?
I think the answer lies in both place connection and social connection. When the places we inhabit give us the ability to exercise our blue mind and our green mind, and also provide the opportunity for social connection, we start to see positive benefits in both the mental and physical health of our population, demonstrated by numerous empirical studies.
The explosion of the use of social networking tools clearly illustrates the human desire for social belonging. However, the FaceBooks, Instagrams and Tinders of the WWWs don’t satisfy our biologically hard-wired need for interacting with others. This is our social brain, and it generates quite base level responses - we experience reward during mutual social interactions, and experience sensations similar to physical pain when socially rejected. So in an increasingly urbanised world where we may crave alone-ness and moments of silence, we are also highly social beings and thrive on social contact.
The success of Auckland’s regeneration is a testament to the incredible effort that goes into getting both the small things and the big things right.
Designing and building cities for people can provide us with opportunities for positive social interaction, good health, a general sense of happiness, and a sense of wonder and discovery. This is where applying the “smart-cities” term to Auckland can be really smart. Not just tech smart, but human smart.
Cam Perkins is new to New Zealand, joining the Panuku team as a Principal Landscape Architect for Public Realm in June 2017. Cam’s personal and professional focus is facilitating positive change in the public realm, regenerating places that will leave a positive legacy for future generations. He has extensive experience leading and coordinating multidisciplinary design teams on complex public realm, integrated tourism and strategic renewal projects throughout Australia, the Pacific, the Middle East, Northern Africa and the UK. Cam’s previous work leaves a legacy of highly successful projects including the UAE’s Sir Bani Yas Island (awarded World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination); Australia’s largest 6-star GreenStar project, Aura, and; Queensland’s largest waterfront urban renewal project, Northshore Hamilton. Cam is a recovering Australian.