Background: Cities are becoming the socio-economic hubs for most of the world’s population. Understanding how our surroundings can mentally affect everyday life has become crucial to integrate environmental sustainability into urban development. The present review aims to explore the empirical studies investigating neural mechanisms underlying cognitive and emotional processes elicited by the exposure to different urban built and natural spaces. It also tries to identify new research questions and to leverage neurourbanism as a framework to achieve healthier and sustainable cities.
Methods: By following the PRISMA framework, we conducted a structured search on PubMed, ProQuest, Web of Science, and Scopus databases. Only articles related to how urban environment–built or natural–affects brain activity through objective measurement (with either imaging or electrophysiological techniques) were considered. Further inclusion criteria were studies on human adult populations, peer-reviewed, and in English language.
Results: Sixty-two articles met the inclusion criteria. They were qualitatively assessed and analyzed to determine the main findings and emerging concepts. Overall, the results suggest that urban built exposure (when compared to natural spaces) elicit activations in brain regions or networks strongly related to perceptual, attentional, and (spatial) cognitive demands. The city’s-built environment also triggers neural circuits linked to stress and negative affect. Convergence of these findings was observed across neuroscience techniques, and for both laboratory and real-life settings. Additionally, evidence also showed associations between neural social stress processing with urban upbringing or current city living–suggesting a mechanistic link to certain mood and anxiety disorders. Finally, environmental diversity was found to be critical for positive affect and individual well-being.
Conclusion: Contemporary human-environment interactions and planetary challenges imply greater understanding of the neurological underpinnings on how the urban space affects cognition and emotion. This review provides scientific evidence that could be applied for policy making on improved urban mental health. Several studies showed that high-quality green or blue spaces, and bio-diverse urban areas, are important allies for positive neural, cognitive, and emotional processes. Nonetheless, the spatial perception in social contexts (e.g., city overcrowding) deserves further attention by urban planners and scientists. The implications of these observations for some theories in environmental psychology and research are discussed. Future work should take advantage of technological advancements to better characterize behavior, brain physiology, and environmental factors and apply them to the remaining complexity of contemporary cities.