Cities that sustain us: Using virtual reality to test the restorative potential of future urban environments

The project is led by Hannes Högni Vilhjálmsson and Pall Jakob Lindal at the School of Computer Science at Reykjavik University. It is now in a second 3-year period of funding from the Icelandic Research Fund, which will extend through 2019. The project builds on doctoral research that Pall Lindal completed at IBF during 2009-2012 in cooperation with Terry Hartig.

As population continues to increase and concentrate in urban areas over the coming decades, the design of cities will be increasingly important for their residents. The project assumes that good urban design supports people’s everyday lives not only by reducing unnecessary hassles and other stressful demands but also by ensuring that they have good opportunities for psychological restoration where they live and work. Stress and restoration are thus seen as fundamental issues in design for urban sustainability. Guided by the restorative environmental design approach (RED), virtual reality (VR) technologies can be used to present high-quality, immersive representations of future urban design alternatives to members of relevant population subgroups, and to register their emotional, cognitive and physiological responses to those design alternatives. This project aims to develop and test the necessary VR capability. It addresses the following key questions: (1) Are psychologically restorative effects measured in a virtual environment indicative of the restorative effects of a corresponding real environment? (2) Can we estimate the restorative impact of specific environmental design measures presented in VR representations of future urban alternatives? (3) Can we use those design measures to densify an existing urban environment that presently has both low density and low restorative potential?

Publications are in preparation.