My associate and I passed the train station at high noon, traversed the quaint town square, passed Disneyland Town Hall and headed down Main Street, U.S.A. We found our spot near the candy-striped awning of the ice cream parlour. The street was full of people of all ages and races, pushing strollers, walking hand in hand and window-shopping among the arcades and eateries. Not a car in sight. It was a perfect, sunny Southern California afternoon.
“Go on,” urged my associate as he sat back on a bench and munched on a sugar-coated churro. Easy for him to say. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak (whose work I wrote about in the January 2013 issue of enRoute) has made a career of social tests. But it takes a special kind of courage to hug complete strangers. I took a deep breath, stepped up to a gaggle of twentysomethings and opened my arms. Amazingly, they responded with a full-on group hug. So I tried more hugs with more strangers. Then Zak joined in. It was a total hug fest. Nobody found our moves creepy in the least. They seemed to trust us in a way that people in most parts of most cities would never do.
Which is exactly why we had come here. We were chasing an idea about streets that has beguiled and confounded urban designers for centuries. The idea is this: Some streets are so pleasant that they don’t just make us feel wonderful; they also change the way we think and behave, making us cheerier, friendlier and even kinder to other people when we are there.
Most of us have experienced a street of such transformative power at some point in our travels. Some of us cross oceans and continents just to return to the Champs-Élysées or Las Ramblas or Camden High Street or even the boardwalk on Venice Beach. We know intuitively that a stroll down a great street feeds our soul, even if we don’t understand how or why. What is it about such places that touches our hearts? What makes one street joyful and another miserable? Architects and designers have tried to distil the alchemic formula of wonderful city spaces for centuries. Now the art is emerging as something of a science.
A young architect named Jan Gehl got the street science ball rolling back in 1962. When Gehl’s native Copenhagen closed the Strøget, a thoroughfare that winds through its medieval core, to automobile traffic that year, some people were outraged. Danes, they proclaimed, would never just hang out in public like, say, Italians. Businesses predicted that the street would be deserted. So Gehl parked himself on the Strøget for an entire year, studying people like a biologist might study wildebeest on the Serengeti.
“I sat down every Tuesday and Saturday, in the sun and the rain and the slush, to see what was going on in the winter and summer, the day and the night, the workday and the weekend. I watched what children were doing, what old people were doing and just who was coming there anyway,” Gehl told me in Copenhagen nearly half a century later. As it turned out, the Strøget changed before his eyes. People poured into the space that had been vacated by cars. They came in the summer, but they also came in the darkest days of winter.
What brought them out? Gehl watched, scribbled down every movement to find out. When the city added new benches, Gehl counted the people who came and sat down. Those benches told a story. A bench facing the passing crowds got 10 times as much use as a bench that faced a flower bed. More people gathered on the edges of construction sites than in front of department store display windows. As soon as the construction crews went home, the audience dispersed. Gehl’s conclusion seems obvious, and yet it was revolutionary at a time when modernists were trying to turn cities into efficient machines: What attracted people most of all was other people. How, then, can a street be designed to lure us in, slow us down?
For one thing, architecture matters. I learned that in Manhattan, where my friend Colin Ellard and I tested the emotional effect of public spaces in the gritty Lower East Side as part of a pop-up museum project called the BMW Guggenheim Lab. Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, is wild for gadgets. We organized walking tours, and Colin equipped participants with special wrist cuffs to chart their state of arousal. He also gave them smartphones to record how happy or sad they felt.
The results were striking: Even small infusions of nature, such as trees and shrubs, cheered people. But the shape of buildings mattered too. Along busy East Houston Street, people reported feeling much happier on the sidewalk of a messy, cluttered block of small shops and bars than they did outside the sleek glass facade of a popular new health supermarket. As it turns out, those busy, cluttered blocks don’t just cheer people up. They cause us to move more slowly, turning empty spaces into human places.
Which brings me back to that laboratory of street science, Disneyland. It’s no accident that each visit begins and ends with a walk along Main Street, U.S.A., that parade of cartoon-cute shops and arcades. From its beginnings in 1952, Walt Disney intended the street as an antidote to the alienating blur of big city sprawl. Every detail is designed to draw guests deeper into a state of nostalgic ease.
The first salve is the almost shocking absence of cars. You can set the kids free here without fear. What you may not notice is that the street’s architecture plays a visual trick on you. The top two storeys of each storefront have been shrunk to 5/8 size, giving the buildings the comfortable, unthreatening aura of toys. This is just the beginning.
Disney and his designers showed an uncanny understanding of the way that architecture affects emotions, the neuroimmunologist Esther Sternberg told me. “They figured out in the 1950s and ’60s, long before we understood neuroscience, exactly how to use design to get people from a place of anxiety and fear to a place of hope and happiness.”
On the one hand, Main Street, U.S.A.’s landmarks – the quaint train station, the mansard-roofed Town Hall, the distant Sleeping Beauty Castle – instantly orient you to the landscape, reducing the anxiety we all feel when we arrive in a strange environment. At the same time, those elements serve as emotional triggers. When you walk the street, your hippocampus (the tiny, sea horse-shaped organ that serves as your brain’s librarian) processes Disney’s visual clues, then immediately retrieves other memories that fit the scene. Whether it is the striped awnings, the faux plaster detailing on each facade or even the scent of cooking fudge wafting out over the sidewalk, these references are set to trigger memories. (And these memories are just as likely to have been drawn from the fictional past shown in Disney movies as from your own experiences.)
All these unconscious signals don’t just alter the way we feel; they change the way we act. “The human brain is constantly tuning itself to the environment it is in,” Zak explained as we wandered toward Sleeping Beauty Castle. In other words, a place that offers happy, safe, convivial signals – even as metaphor – may actually prime our brains for more trusting encounters. This makes sense: Lab research has already found, for example, that architectural angles light up the brain’s fear centres much like the sight of a knife, releasing stress hormones that make us less likely to trust others. (This effect can be witnessed on the street outside Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where giant prisms of steel, aluminum and glass slice threateningly toward the sidewalk, managing the amazing feat of emptying people from a once-busy stretch of Bloor Street.) The brain seems to process esthetics and geometry as a kind of instructive metaphor.
Still, you might say that it should be no surprise that people are inclined toward altruism in Disneyland because everyone shows up planning to be happy and trusting at the Happiest Place on Earth. And you would be right. Some people strap on their mouse ears even before they enter the gates, as though they are joining in a performance.
Of course, we are all free to behave as we wish as we wander across the stage of any city. We can choose to be kind and open-hearted no matter where we travel. But when you develop the habit of noticing the effect that every street has on your mind and your behaviour, you start to experience streets differently. You sense their layers, their wondrous complexity and the invisible emotional systems that exist in the spaces between buildings. You slow down. And in slowing down, you become part of the fabric of joy.