Rethinking Cities: Embracing Neurourbanism for Future Cities

It is expected that by the year 2050, nearly 70% of the global population will live in cities. This creates an urgent need to explore how urban environments will have to adjust to keep pace with that level of population density growth, while promoting a healthy physical and psychological lifestyle. This Insight aims to explore and invite discussion on how urban planning law can contribute to the development of cities that offer a more fulfilling urban experience for their residents.

1.What is Neurourbanism?

Neurourbanism is an emerging interdisciplinary field that aims to study and understand the relationship between the architecture of an urban environment (such as cities and public spaces) and the neurological processes and mental well-being of individuals who are exposed to that environment. The study of neurourbanism – which is linked to the fields of neuroscience, psychology, architecture, and urban planning – has led to the discussion about how urban spaces can be designed and built for the benefit of their residents, with a view to promoting a healthier physical and psychological lifestyle, improving cognitive functions, and enhancing social interaction.

In sum, neurourbanism explores how and to what extent the design and functioning of the “modern city” landscape affect our brain and influence our emotions, behaviour, and overall well-being.

2. Purpose of this Insight

It is expected that by the year 2050, nearly 70% of the global population will live in cities. This creates an urgent need to explore how urban environments will have to adjust to keep pace with that level of population density growth, while promoting a healthy physical and psychological lifestyle. This Insight aims to explore and invite discussion on how law can contribute to the development ofcities that offer a more fulfilling urban experience for their residents, from an urban planning law perspective.

3. Negative elements generally associated with cities

Urban living is typically associated with factors that may have adverse effects on people’s physical and mental health, such as: (i) pollution (urban spaces tend to have higher levels of air and noise pollution); (ii) stress (people who live in urban environments tend to be exposed to a busy and rushed lifestyle, aggravated by a high population density and overcrowding); and (iii) isolation (despite the large number of people living in cities, they often lack a sense of community which contributes to a feeling of social isolation and disconnection from others).

4. Urban planning law: an efficient way to start promoting neurourbanism

From a comparison standpoint, we note that cities around the world have been implementing neurourbanism principles, creating more appealing urban spaces that aim to improve the overall quality of life of their residents, for example:

– San Francisco (USA), where an Urban Design General Plan has been developed to respond to issues relating to city pattern, conservation, major new development, and neighbourhood environment, through the adoption of policies such as:

– the protection of major views in the city, with particular attention to open space and water views, through the limitation of buildings and other obstructions and the establishment of new viewpoints at key locations;

– the preservation of rural areas that have not been developed by man, confining the construction of parking lots and service buildings to areas that are already developed;

– the promotion of building forms that will respect and improve the integrity of open spaces and other public areas, limiting the height of buildings and forbidding their blockage of significant views of public open spaces;

– the protection of residential areas from the noise, pollution and physical danger of excessive traffic.

Copenhagen (Denmark), where the following strategies have been implemented, among others:

– a “green planning tool” to calculate the “green factor” for each project site, which quantifies the scope and quality of the urban nature found there. For this purpose, numeric values were set varying from 0 to 2 (0 being the lowest value and 2 the highest value), with the categories of low (0-0.4), medium (0.5-0.9) or high (1-2.0). The scope of urban nature refers to the total area of grass surfaces, permeable surfaces, water surfaces, flower beds, hedges, trees, bushes, green roofs and green façades on the project site. This tool hels the city of Copenhagen to systemically incorporate more urban nature into public construction projects and local development plans;

– “Tree Policy 2016-2025”, which aims to increase the total number of trees in Copenhagen and provide good growing conditions for both existing and new trees, as well as the range of species. This tree policy is based on the principles that all existing trees must be preserved (particularly those identified as valuable trees), more trees must be planted, good growing conditions must be encouraged for both new and existing trees, and the diversity of tree species must be guaranteed.

Melbourne (Australia), where the Plan Melbourne strategy that sets out the government’s vision for the city to 2050 was implemented. The Plan Melbourne introduced urban planning strategies and initiatives such as:

– the “20-minute neighbourhood”, i.e., a neighbourhood enabling people to meet most of their daily needs within a 20-minute return walk from home, while promoting a sense of community. To establish the features of this neighbourhood as policy, the state government developed criteria to demonstrate hallmarks of a 20-minute neighbourhood;

– the “Future Homes” programme, i.e., ready-made architectural designs to help citizens build better apartments, adaptable to different neighbourhoods and sites, which aims to set the direction for housing for the decades to come.

On the other side, currently, Portuguese urban planning legislation generally overlooks the principles of neurourbanism, or is focused on specific environmental aspects rather than a holistic overview of neurourbanism’s concerns, leaving an open legislative gap waiting to be filled. The fact is that urban planning law may have a significant role to play in the mitigation of the urban environment’s adverse effects, to the extent that it can be used as a tool to encourage communities and real estate developers to shift their business plans towards buildings centred on creating a more pleasant urban environment in line with the principles promoted by neurourbanism.
To be effective, it is pivotal to start implementing these principles from a public law perspective, both at the State level and at the local level.

As both housing and urban law are being reviewed by the national government, and with local governments also reviewing municipal plans, public intervention in cities should not be separated from the need to mitigate urban environment’s adverse effects through the adoption and promotion of neurourbanism principles, such as the interaction of public spaces with nature, creation of open spaces, and greater mobility and connectivity.

Moreover, urban planning law should promote conscious building design and construction. This could be achieved by reviewing the urban parameters set forth in the applicable planning instruments, notably building density and height, but also through measures that incentivise a biophilic design (i.e., the incorporation of nature elements into the built environment, such as natural lighting, water features, and green features).

Urban planning law has proven to be a useful mechanism to change and shape developers’ options, yielding some of the best results in the creation of financial incentives / construction credits, or the acceleration of the licensing process whenever a project is aligned with the objectives of neurourbanism.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, neurourbanism is a promising interdisciplinary field that aims to promote healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles in urban environments, by studying the relationship between the architecture of an urban environment and the neurological processes of individuals who live in that environment. Urban planning law can play a crucial role in developing solutions that mitigate the adverse effects of cities, such as interaction with nature, mobility and connectivity, and conscious building design and construction.
Despite some progress being made towards implementing sustainable urban infrastructure in European cities, there remains a gap in the legislation when it comes to incorporating neurourbanism principles. Therefore, there is a need for legislative guidance that promotes these principles in urban planning. By adopting them, we can create cities that prioritise health, well-being, and social interactions. It is pivotal that national and local governments become aware of neurourbanism principles and convert them into law, using them to guide their intervention in the public space and to grant proper incentives that allow real estate developers to focus on finding solutions that promote a healthier urban environment for the increasingly growing population of cities.

Os Insights aqui publicados reproduzem o trabalho desenvolvido para este efeito pelo respetivo autor, pelo que mantêm a língua original em que foram redigidos. A responsabilidade pelas opiniões expressas no artigo são exclusiva do seu autor pelo que a sua publicação não constitui uma aprovação por parte do WhatNext.Law ou das entidades afiliadas. Consulte os nossos Termos de Utilização para mais informação.

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