Skip to main content

Cognitive responses to urban environments: behavioral responses in lab and field conditions


Urban design context continually influences cognition and behavior and shapes human responses for pedestrians. Researchers have studied established the role of context well (Sussman and Hollander 2015; Robinson and Pallasmaa 2015; Zeisel et al. 2003; Wells et al. 2007), but less is known about how variations in the built environment impact behavior performance. The book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment (Sussman and Hollander 2015), argues that a set of four architectural principles might explain impacts on human mental states. This study uses those four principles to provide a framework to empirically test the relationship between variations in the built environment and behavior performance using a go–no-go task. The findings suggest that context matters and the paper offers key implications for urban design theory and practice.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. Cognitive architecture is a way of looking at the physical environment from an unconscious human perspective, reflecting the view of humans as evolved mammals, embracing the methods and theories of psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science.

  2. Well-defined edge conditions were those where the edges of pedestrian corridors or pathways had significant physical features that made clear where those edges existed, consistent with the criteria laid out in the work of Lynch (1960).

  3. Any variable visual stimuli (moving cars or people) in the outdoor portion should not have affected results based on the CA score.


  • Albright, T.D. 1984. Direction and orientation selectivity of neurons in visual area MT of the macaque. Journal of Neurophysiology 52 (6): 1522–1598.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Albright, T.D., and G.R. Stoner. 2002. Contextual influences on visual processing. Annual Review of Neuroscience 25 (1): 339–379.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. 1977. A pattern language: Towns, buildings, construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Barton, Kevin R., Deltcho Valtchanov, and Collin Ellard. 2012. Seeing beyond your visual field: the influence of spatial topology and visual field on navigation performance. Environment and Behavior 46 (4): 507–529.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dahl, Christoph D., Nikos K. Logothetis, Heinrich H. Bülthoff, and Christian Wallraven. 2010. The thatcher illusion in humans and monkeys. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277 (1696): 2973–2981.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dzebic, Vedran, Justin S. Purdue, and Collin G. Ellard. 2013. The influence of visual perception on responses towards real-world environments and application towards design. Intelligent Buildings International 5: 29–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ellard, Colin. 2015. Places of the heart: The psychogeography of everyday life. New York: Bellevue Literary Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ewing, Reid, and Keith Bartholomew. 2013. Pedestrian and transit-oriented design. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute and American Planning Association.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gazzaniga, Michael S., Richard B. Ivry, and George R. Mangun. 2009. Cognitive neuroscience: The biology of the mind, 3rd ed. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gehl, Jan. 2010. Cities for people. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hollander, Justin B., Alexandra Purdy, Andrew Wiley, Veronica Foster, Robert J.K. Jacob, Holly A. Taylor, and Tad T. Brunyé. 2019. Seeing the city: Using eye-tracking technology to explore cognitive responses to the built environment. Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability 12 (2): 156–171.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hollander, Justin B., and Veronica Foster. 2016. Brain responses to architecture and planning: A neuro-assessment of the pedestrian experience in Boston, Massachusetts. Architectural Science Review 59 (6): 474–481.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain from Vienna 1900 to the present, 1st ed. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kanwisher, Nancy, Josh McDermott, and Marvin M. Chun. 1997. The fusiform face area: A module in human extra striate cortex specialized for face perception. The Journal of Neuroscience 17 (11): 4302–4311.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kaplan, S., and R. Kaplan. 1982. Cognition and environment: Functioning in an uncertain world. London: Praeger.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaplan, R., S. Kaplan, and R. Ryan. 1998. With people in mind: Design and management of everyday nature. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Looser, Christine E., Jyothi S. Guntupalli, and Thalia Wheatley. 2013. Multivoxel patterns in face-sensitive temporal regions reveal an encoding schema based on detecting life in a face. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8 (7): 799–805.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lynch, Kevin. 1960. The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McKone, Elinor, Kate Crookes, Linda Jeffery, and Daniel Dilks. 2012. A critical review of the development of face recognition: Experience is less important than previously believed. Cognitive Neuropsychology 29 (1–2): 174–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pinker, Stephen. 2003. The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, S., and J. Pallasmaa. 2015. Mind in architecture: Neuroscience, embodiment, and the future of design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Sussman, Ann, and Justin B. Hollander. 2015. Cognitive architecture: Designing for how we respond to the built environment. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Valtchanov, Delto, and Collin G. Ellard. 2015. Cognitive and affective responses to natural scenes: Effects of low level visual properties on preference, cognitive load and eye-movements. Journal of Environmental Psychology 43: 184–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wells, N.M., S.P. Ashdown, E.H. Davies, F.D. Cowett, and Y. Yang. 2007. Environment, design, and obesity opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborative research. Environment and Behavior 39 (1): 6–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zeisel, John, Nina M. Silverstein, Joan Hyde, M. Sue Levkoff, Powell Lawton, and William Holmes. 2003. Environmental correlates to behavioral health outcomes in alzheimer's special care units. The Gerontologist 43 (5): 697–711.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, and was accomplished under Cooperative Agreement Number W911QY-15-2-0001. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, or the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Government purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation hereon.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Justin B. Hollander.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


Appendix A: Indoor stimuli photos

Image #1: CA (Score 20). Source Wikimedia Commons.

figure a

Image #2: Non-CA (Score 3). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure b

Image #3: CA (Score 15). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure c

Image #4: CA (Score 13). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure d

Image #5: Non-CA (Score 6). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure e

Image #6: CA (Score 21). Source Wikimedia Commons.

figure f

Image #7: Non-CA (Score 5). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure g

Image #8: Non-CA (Score 6). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure h

Image #9: Non- CA (Score 7). Source Wikimedia Commons.

figure i

Image #10: CA (Score 12). Source Photo by Nina Callahan, Boston MA, 2015.

figure j

Image #11: Non-CA (Score 7). Source Wikimedia Commons.

figure k

Image #12: CA (Score 11). Source Wikimedia Commons.

figure l

Appendix B: Outdoor walking route in downtown Boston

figure m

Appendix C: CA Scorecard

figure n

Appendix D: External stimuli: Photos of 8 Stops

Cambridge St. & Joy St.

figure o

Cambridge St. & Sudbury St.

figure p

Sudbury St. before Bullfinch St.

figure q

Sudbury St. before Merrimack St.

figure r

Salem St. & Bartlett Place.

figure s

Salem St. & Prince St.

figure t

Salem St & Tileston St.

figure u

Salem St & Charter St.

figure v

Sample images

1 of 10 images that generally do not demonstrate CA principles:

figure w

1 of 10 images that generally do demonstrate CA principles:

figure x

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hollander, J.B., Levering, A.P., Lynch, L. et al. Cognitive responses to urban environments: behavioral responses in lab and field conditions. Urban Des Int 26, 256–271 (2021).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: