The rhythm of an individual’s walk may be affected by their surroundings, a new study suggests.
This means a well-designed urban environment can be as beneficial for concentration and attention as natural surroundings, researchers found. Scientists at the University of Bristol discovered that the walking patterns of people who felt at ease in urban settings were as regular as those of people who felt relaxed walking in nature.
According to the study, reported in the PLoS One journal, stepping patterns become slower and more variable if someone is uncomfortable with their environment.
Rather than relaxation being a quality exclusive to natural surroundings, as if often suggested, the key factor of an environment is how comfortable people feel, which in turn defines how beneficial it is for wellbeing, the findings indicate.
Lead study author Daria Burtan, of Bristol University’s School of Psychological Science, said: “Measuring the changes of a person’s walking patterns through an environment allows us to understand their experienced comfort on a moment-to-moment basis.”
“This is an important step toward being able to objectively quantify the impact of particular architectural designs on people’s wellbeing.”
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Burtan added: “As our cognitive faculties begin to decline in older age, the stepping patterns we make with our feet become slower and more variable, relative to when we are younger in the prime of our health.
She went on, “We found that the same thing happened when people walked toward images of urban and nature scenes they didn’t feel comfortable with – their stepping patterns became slower and more varied, relative to when they were looking at scenes they found comfortable and which they liked."
Cities that are well-designed, safe and attractive allow similar levels of comfort and relaxation to more rural or natural environments, the study suggests, in what may be a landmark finding for town planners and developers.
“Not only does this suggest that environments in which we feel comfortable and safe place fewer processing demands on our brains," says Burtan, "it demonstrates how measuring the real-time dynamics of our gait provides us with a powerful new tool for informing on the cognitive impacts of architecture and urban design.”
Researchers are now seeking to understand which psychological factors contribute to sensory discomfort.
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