Notes from Bilbao: why is it necessary to incorporate psychology in urban planning?

Idoia Postigo, General Director of Bilbao Metropoli-30, writes for IPPO Cities on the emotional life of the city and calls for a more holistic urban planning.

Idoia Postigo

Living in an urban environment is one of the defining characteristics which unites many of the planet’s inhabitants at the present time. The city represents the daily environment in which an increasing proportion of people live each year.

However, of the estimated 107 billion people who have existed in the history of mankind, only a few have lived in the city, with the urban still a relative novelty in human history. Our psyche is still in the stone age and our evolutionary past and reptilian brain are not urban. We live with the mind of a people in the body of a city.

The city is therefore as Corraliza and Aragones argued in 1993, a spatial structure that has radically modified the way of life of the human species.

The emotional city

A city is a physical entity, but also an emotional one. In fact, there are two terms to refer to the urban. On the one hand, the urbs, which is the material set of buildings and streets, and on the other, the civitas, which is the behaviour and attitude of the people who inhabit the physical space. Despite this duality, we have forgotten that the city – the urban – is also an emotional and subjective experience.

Physical designs cannot sustain urban existence alone. While these are necessary resources, they are not sufficient to create an enriching urban civil society. The challenge for cities is how to materially build this civil society, and how to design an infrastructure that allows for a complex, diverse, flexible, and emotionally healthy city.

Urban life: attraction and repulsion

Urban life is an ambivalent state, in which, as the American sociologist Richard Sennett points out, it is the same aspects that attract and repel us at the same time.

The first thing that frightens us comes from the fact that cities are spaces where strangers live and coexist in close proximity. However, coexistence with what is different is what turns cities into sources of opportunities.

Expanding the family circle to a broader group generates social infrastructure, the “weak ties” or links proposed by the sociologist Mark Granovetter in the 70s, which imply connections with people who are not part of our intimate circle of relationships, who are more likely to think like us. These people are the bridges to other communities and other ideas, and help us question our preconceptions. This is challenging, but also enriching in equal measure.

On the other hand, cities allow us anonymity and freedom compared to rural environments.  However, at the same time, the individualism of the city makes it difficult to maintain a collective sense of responsibility and citizenship, particularly as human beings need, without a doubt, to live in a community. Homo sapiens are social animals and living limited to the communal or family environment ends up harming us.

Therefore, the experience of being in a city is to live within its complexities, not to try to escape from them. Therefore, it is necessary to know, first of all, the influence of the urban environment on our emotional and mental health.

The psychology of Bilbao

For this reason, Bilbao Metropoli-30, the public-private partnership responsible for a common strategic vision of the city, prepared, in collaboration with the area’s four universities and the Professional Association of Psychology, a survey on the emotional state of Metropolitan Bilbao after the pandemic.

This survey shows that the majority of participants (97.2%) consider that there is not a single emotional state in Bilbao, regardless of age group or income level.

On the other hand, one of the most significant results of the study shows a match between the individual emotional state of people residing in the metropolis and its collective emotional state. Stress reaches first place in that metropolitan emotionality, followed by fatigue-exhaustion and anxiety-uncertainty, which are also equally positioned in the highest areas.

In conclusion, this study aims to offer a first step to incorporate the potential emotional impact of urban environments as part of their competitiveness. It seeks to analyze the interrelation between the physical, the sensory, and the emotional, recovering the approach to the city as a human product.

Towards a new urban planning

It is necessary to better understand the vital experience and emotional life of the city and to analyze how the physical, the sensory and emotional, and the human interrelate.

Urban planning must therefore enable a more holistic approach. Psychology can contribute to evaluating the impacts of the place on people and, without a doubt, can provide tools to improve the creation and design of public spaces.

For this, we can always remember the words of Le Corbusier, who advocated that, when in doubt, “it is the life that is always right, and the architect who is wrong”.

Idoia Postigo is the General-Director of Bilbao-Metropoli 30.