A new survey of individual behavior and the built environment will be administered by researchers in London.
Flickr user Fabrice Florin via a Creative Commons license. A new survey of individual behavior and the built environment will be administered by researchers in London.

Sure, spaces shape their inhabitants—but to what extent? A new research initiative from the Van Alen Institute in New York and the Sustainable Society Network+ in London seeks to answer that question by exploring how the built environment perpetuates individuals’ vulnerability to impulsive behavior. Among them: drug use, alcohol consumption, Internet-use habits, and shopping. Ecologies of Addition, which was presented to the public on Jan. 29 and joins the institute’s multi-year series Elsewhere: Escape and the Urban Landscape, is led by researchers from King’s College London and guided by an advisory group representing the fields of neuroscience, public health, urban planning, substance-abuse treatment, and technology. They aim to build a digital app that can be used to relate behavior and location in cities worldwide.

To do that, the researchers are starting in London. Using an ecological momentary assessment app, the team has proposed sending notifications to 50 participants in the city at five, random times throughout the day for seven days, asking them a predefined set of questions about their surrounding physical environment—including light levels, crowds, and whether they’re situated indoors or outdoors—while subsequently assessing their current level of impulsiveness through an interactive game. Their responses, the researchers hope, will reveal the underlying effects of the physical environment on behavior.

Elsewhere has been an incredible opportunity for us to explore many, many different aspects of the idea of escape and how those are tied to the landscape, to the city,” says Anne Guiney, director of research at the Van Alen Institute. “By looking at addiction, which you could say is an extreme version or a strong stance to take on the idea of escape, this is allowing us to push into thinking about relationships between urban form and health and well-being in a way that we haven’t been able to delve as deeply.”

The team expects to produce a customized app as an outcome of the project that can help expand this approach to data-collection beyond London. Information collected will be represented graphically on a downloadable interactive map that shows how geographic location and urban environments' physical nature impact impulsiveness generally and on an individual basis, highlighting those predisposed to addictive behaviors and their triggers. Guiney hopes that the data-gathering app can be used at later stages to explore specific chemical or behavioral addictions and other place-based issues.

Previous projects in Van Alen's Elsewhere series have explored how place affects behavior. Last spring, the institute teamed up with Columbia University's Cloud Lab to track survey participants' brain activity as they walked through Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood in New York. The resulting 3D map showed the stretches of block in which participants were more relaxed versus more aware, helping build a better understanding of how people navigate cities on foot to inform design and planning.

The Ecologies of Addiction team will publicly present its findings in May 2015 in London and in June 2015 in New York.

Image courtesy Flickr user Fabrice Florin via a Creative Commons license.