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Colorful urban environments promote well-being

Crowded streets, drab grey buildings, and noise pollution are well-documented causes of stress and fatigue. Thus, urban spaces can negatively impact health and emotional well-being. However, a possible antidote may lie in nature, which is known to have calming and restorative effects.

By employing virtual reality (VR) simulations, a team of researchers from the University of Lille in France has found that one way to make cities more hospitable may be to introduce patches of vegetation and colorful patterns.

Since installing plants or covering city buildings in paint to test such approaches is expensive and inconvenient, the scientists used state-of-the-art computer technology to provide a virtual testing ground for this hypothesis. 

“Measuring pleasure and motivation in natural settings is difficult,” explained study senior author Yvonne Delevoye-Turrell, a professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Lille. “Human reactions are sensitive to environmental changes, such as weather or traffic, and measurement biases. Consequently, we used virtual reality as a proof of concept to measure reactions to these interventions in a simulated urban space.” 

By using groundbreaking VR technology, Professor Delevoye-Turrell and her colleagues created an immersive urban environment with either no vegetation or some green vegetation. Moreover, they introduced colorful patterns in one of this virtual environment’s paths. Student volunteers from the University of Lille were asked to wear a VR headset containing an eye tracker and explore this virtual space.

The researchers found that green vegetation caused volunteers to walk slower, and increased their heartrate, features indicating that they have a pleasurable experience. At the same time, the colorful patterns increased their alertness, fascination, and curiosity. Overall, the participants spent less time looking at the ground and more time observing their surroundings, similarly to when people spend time near green spaces in the real world.

Besides offering proof that vegetation and colorful patterns can reduce the stress that more drab urban environments cause, while increasing well-being, this study also shows that virtual reality could be a highly useful tool for urban planners, allowing them to test the impact of various interventions virtually.

In future studies, the scientists aim to make the VR experience even more immersive to reach more accurate results. “Odors and sounds could be the next step for VR to truly test the impact of colors on the pleasure of walking,” concluded Professor Delevoye-Turrell.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Virtual Reality.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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