Urban Psychology – are you in tune with your city?

In June 2019 there was an Urban Psychology Summit in London.  It was an exploratory event hosted by the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool and organised by Chris Murray and Charles Landry.

Chris Murray quotes Jan Gehl  ‘we know more about what makes a good habitat for mountain gorillas than we do about living in our own cities’.

The psychological relationship has many facets – what cities help people thrive? What factors in cities promote mental health?

There are also the ‘unseen’ forces that shape how people in cities are collectively better at one thing than another.  Is this a result of history or culture or psychology?

Cities also have a psychology of their own. Some cities seem more extraverted, others introverted.

Some are confident, others not. Some cities get on with things and get things done. Others are more reflective and may have great ideas but find it harder to deliver.

At the Summit Ron Martin,  Professor of Economic Geography at Cambridge Universityspoke about how people within a city can share personality traits that persist over time. These traits can shape what is possible within a culture and they may into economic behaviour. There is a relationship to skills, attitudes, etc. These can then map into economic outcomes.

The ‘big 5’ personality traits explored by Martin and his colleagues include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.

His presentation mapped UK cities high on ‘openness’ and high on ‘neuroticism’ and found that they almost mirrored each other. Highly open cities are low on neuroticism.  Open cities are also likely to be more successful economically. Cities high in neuroticism are less successful and are also less associated with entrepreneurial behaviour.

Of course, success reinforces itself.  Entrepreneurial people move to cities that are open and entrepreneurial.

Way back in 2003 we did a Myers Briggs profile of Adelaide as one lens to examine the strengths and capabilities of the city. For many it would be no surprise that Adelaide came out as an introverted and intuitive city. I think it was marginally more ‘judging’ than ’perceiving’ and possibly ‘feeling’ than ‘thinking’ but that particular dimension I’m not as sure about.

Of course Myers Briggs has been criticised and may not be the way to study a city’s personality traits but it can offer insight. Our conclusion at the time was that Adelaide was better at organising creative experiences than being creative itself. It also provided an explanation of the ambivalence we might have toward social and cultural experiences – needing time to recuperate and reflect, not just party.

If we start to understand the psychology of our cities we realise we can’t just overlay techniques or invest in certain activities or programs if they don’t fit our dominant personality traits.

We need to go with the grain of our city psychology and build on our strengths.

It also means we need to be more sophisticated at understanding who we are and how we are perceived. We need self-knowledge, we can’t just try and be like other places. We can only be ourselves.

Just as with people it must be possible to work therapeutically with cities and their people. Is it possible to increase a city’s optimism or confidence? Can cities become more open and less neurotic? And how do these traits translate into everyday behaviours and choices?

Psychology might explain why people choose to leave cities.  It might not just be for economic opportunity but also for psychological fit. In some cities you feel more yourself, more at home, than in others.

It’s very early days for this field of study but it seems like there is a good body of data and research in the UK that will yield insights.

Ron Martin’s presentation

The City Personality Test





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