Current Issue #488

Exploring the Urban Mind: How does our thinking shape the places we live in?

Exploring the Urban Mind: How does our thinking shape the places we live in?

While strong links between thoughts and actions is beginning to be understood on an individual level and to some extent within families, teams and workplaces, what might it mean on a collective scale for neighbourhoods, places and cities?

It is understood that the connections and pathways between brain cells are unique to each of us and generated through one’s perceptions and experiences as well as the making of meaning, and contribute to forming our individual identity.

So, while much about the human brain, mind and consciousness remains a mystery, on an individual level we theorise that our mind and consciousness are emergent properties of the brain, arising somehow from the connections and interactions between the various component parts, the 100 billion brain cells (neurones) and the bridges (synapses) that link them via chemical messengers (neurotransmitters).

This gets even more interesting when we scale up to an urban level – to a neighbourhood, a city or a place. It follows, at least metaphorically, that our collective conscience; our urban mind, emerges from the connections and interactions between individuals, and informs everything; how we treat each other, how we interact and collaborate, how we govern, what we eat, grow and produce, how we live, what we tolerate and protect, what we design, build, destroy, mine and manufacture, what we celebrate and the things we grieve.

It’s the ecology of our urban mind; the various elements and characteristics such as our values, mindsets, creativity and culture, ideas and thinking as well as the quality of the connectedness we have with each other and the places we live, that generates the systems, structures, policies and processes that influence all else; the quality of our air, water and food, the design of our built and urban environments, our public spaces, green infrastructure – even how we interact and treat each other.

We find ourselves here, 13.8 billion years after the birth of our universe (or thereabouts), having evolved the necessary intellect to better understand our beginnings, to ponder our purpose and predict various aspects of our future. Yet, arguably, we haven’t evolved the moral maturity or shared ethical compass to sustain ourselves in this wondrous place. We have created complex and disruptive times for ourselves. Conflict, inequality, poverty, disease, climate change, civil unrest and the subsequent mass movement of people are ubiquitous global issues.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health issues caused by city living will be a major burden in urbanised countries by 2030. In a world where everything is connected and one’s disadvantage impacts directly on another, this will influence all of us.

These phenomena have evolved from our decisions, actions and behaviours, informed by our mindsets, culture, thinking, values, perceptions, beliefs and motivations as well as our connectedness, or arguably our lack of connectedness, to each other and the places we live.

So, what might the science of the human mind and brain tell us about the urban mind; mindsets, confidence, gratitude, mindfulness, purpose, kindness and generosity?  What does a curious, collaborative, capable, confident, purposeful and kind city look and feel like and how might we rewire urban ‘neural’ pathways; the urban mind, for a better future?

These are important questions for many cities globally but especially for Adelaide and South Australia as we rewire the economy from old school car manufacturing to sustainable future industries that make our world a better place. If our troublesome past and the science of the mind and brain tell us anything it’s that ‘how’ we get there matters. Compassion, honesty and substance take mighty courage in this complex world but surely, we now have evidence enough that the alternative is senseless.

This is the first in a series of short essays about the urban mind.

Trish Hansen is a strategic consultant and the Founder of Urban Mind:

Trish Hansen will be presenting at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Symposium, Mapping the Emotional Cityscape: Spaces, Performances and Emotion in Urban Life on Monday, September 18 at the University of Adelaide.

More info on the event can be found at

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