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Aug. 9, 2021

MSU researchers join global consortium creating smarter, healthier cities

Making cities more sustainable and inclusive is the aim of an interdisciplinary team from Michigan State University that will oversee research projects within eMotional Cities, a global consortium backed by $5.8 million from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme.


The MSU team includes Zeenat Kotval-Karamchandani, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the School of Planning, Design and Construction; Zenia Kotval, professor and program director of Urban and Regional Planning in the School of Planning, Design and Construction; Dar Meshi, assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations; and Tyson Burghardt, associate professor in the Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology.  


“Varying characteristics of urban spaces trigger mixed mental and neurological responses, such as feeling stressed by overwhelming traffic patterns or calmed by strategic placement of trees or water,” Kotval-Karamchandani said. “We are trying to see what kinds of spaces generate positive mental responses so we can help create and design happier, healthier cities.”


Ultimately, eMotional Cities — a 48-month long project that includes 11 fellow research partners across the world — will shed light on how to improve physical and mental population health. The MSU team will lead projects using novel spatial analysis and neuroimaging, combining disciplines across social science, communication sciences and human medicine. The design is to create a holistic view of urban spaces and the neurological impacts on those within those spaces.


Current state-of-the-art research will be expanded to develop innovative models using environmental, behavioral, physiological and neurobiological data. 


eMotional Cities will include a series of outdoor activities in which adult volunteers interact in an urban environment as if it was a regular workday. Outdoor experiments will take place in Copenhagen, Lisbon, London and Lansing/East Lansing. 


“I'm fascinated by the brain's reward system, as well as aspects of the urban environment, like architecture. With my project, we're using neuroimaging methods to investigate the reward system's response to specific urban stimuli, such as images of buildings,” Meshi said.


Meshi explained that if his team can understand how the brain responds to these stimuli, they can provide scientifically supported guidance on designing healthier urban spaces.


"True multimodal neurophysiologic recording like this is very exciting,” Burghardt said. “We can mesh findings on electrical activity, movements, functional MRI and correlate it all with responses to the built environment."


Kotval-Karamchandani will lead urban planning efforts that lay a foundational framework for urban environments and their impacts on the health and geospatial analyses components of the project. Meshi and Burghardt will conduct controlled experiments to integrate neurophysiology (high-density and wireless electroencephalography – EEG) and neuroimaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging - fMRI) to understand how the brain responds to the urban environment.  Kotval is responsible for bringing this team together and is the liaison with all consortium partners given her international connections and work on urban planning spanning U.S. and European cities.


MSU will receive $1 million of the total project budget. The eMOTIONAL Cities consortium is led by the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning of the University of Lisbon  and co-coordinated by Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Lisboa. Fellow partners include The Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge; Starlab Barcelona Sl; NeuroGears Ltd.; Danmarks Tekniske Universitet; Tallinna Tehnikaulikool; EarthPulse; Sociedade Portuguesa de Inovação; and University of Tartu.


The Rio Declaration of 1992 stated that humans were at the center of sustainable development, and our effort is to find and present characteristics of urban spaces that impact health. 


“It is a privilege to be the only North American partner in this international consortium that focuses on developing a deeper understanding of the biological and psychological impacts of the urban- built environment on brain circuits, human behaviour and physical and mental health,” Kotval said.  “We hope that our eMotional Cities research raises awareness for the need to implement our findings to build smarter and more sustainable cities for the future.”

By: Caroline Brooks

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