A group of 10 people wielding smart phones stands facing a winding alleyway in Vancouver's West End. On either side of the lane, gardens overflow onto the pavement. Several cats amble across the path.

After a minute of standing in silence, the group is asked to answer a series of questions on the smart phones. Once they've had enough time, they're led to another location in silence and the process starts again.

The group is part of a study carried out this week by a team of cognitive neuroscience researchers from the University of Waterloo and Happy City, coinciding with the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Conference.

"We really want to start to do some research that informs how we build our cities," said Robin Mazumder, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo who was guiding the tour.

"People are becoming increasingly urbanized and moving to cities, and we have to start building cities and design them in ways that promote wellness and happiness."

The questionnaire includes questions like, how is your mood? Are you attracted to this place? Would you want to come back here? It also has more hypothetical questions like, if your wallet was lost here, would you expect a stranger to return it? 

Urban happiness

Study participants respond to a questionnaire on smart phones at one of the stops on a Vancouver walking tour designed to measure how different public spaces affect mood. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

According to Mazumder, on an intuitive level, it would come as no surprise that a green park will make people feel happier than a noisy grey street, but for policy-makers to begin taking human happiness and mental health into account when urban designs are created, they need scientific data.

'Impact on the health'

"We know how the environment impacts physical health but looking at happiness and mental health are some things that haven't been examined too closely," said Mazumder.

"What we're hoping to do is say, 'Look, if you do these simple design interventions, whether it's adding more green space or zoning spaces so there's more open level facades on the street, that actually has an impact on the health of the citizens and the people that live in the city.'"

Most of the 100 participants who took the walking tour were attending the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference and already had an interest in urban design.

Spencer Andres was on the walking tour Tuesday morning.

"I'm a city planner, so I'm interested in places and public space and how we interact with the streets and the city," he said. "It's just very fascinating research to me, and I'm hoping it's going to provide us with more information to build better places for people."

Mazumder said the team plans to release a public report of its findings in the new year and eventually publish the results in a scientific journal.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker