One of these street scenes may be bad for your mood. Can you tell which one?

How urban design can affect your well-being.
Participants use an app to record reactions to their surroundings. (Ellard Lab)

I've lived most of my life in Toronto, and I like to think I know the city pretty well. But a tour I took recently showed me that I haven't really been paying attention to my environment, and the impact the buildings around me have on my mood.

Psychology on the Street is a combination art exhibit and walking tour designed by cognitive neuroscientist, Colin Ellard, of the University of Waterloo. Ellard's research measures people's response to different types of buildings and urban settings.

On a recent tour, Ellard handed me a Muse headband, which monitored my brain signals and eye blinks (which measure cognitive effort). I also used a smartphone app to record my reactions to what I was seeing.

Looking upward at a tall building made of concrete and glass.
Colin Ellard shows Nora how certain building facades can affect the mood of passersby.

Our first stop was across the street from this building. I've passed it before, but I must admit, I hadn't really noticed it. That's probably because its facade is, well, boring. Colin describes it as "low entropy" meaning it "has repeating elements that don't change very much."

"When we think about architecture, we think about the wonderful things that are going on inside… but for the person on the street, that's not what it's all about. It's the skin," he continues, "and one wonders about the effects of chronic exposure to these really boring facades."

A small park in springtime with trees and pathways in the middle of Toronto's downtown.
Colin Ellard talks to Nora about the importance of green spaces.

Just a short walk away is Clarence Square, one of Toronto's oldest green spaces. Although it's small, Colin says it's still "restorative" to walk through it. In a later conversation, Colin stresses the importance of getting even a little exposure to nature. "Is there a way that you can pass, even for 30 seconds, through a grove of trees?"

A small side street in Toronto, with condo towers, parked cars, and many green trees and shrubbery.
Colin Ellard talks to Nora about how facades, street "geometry" and vegetation affect mood.

The final stop on our tour is a residential street. The buildings have a similar lack of variation as the facades at our first stop. But Colin points out how much the lush landscape architecture does to improve our sense of well-being.

For Colin, Psychology on the Street serves multiple purposes, including raising awareness about using a different, data-based approach to urban design, and using the crowdsourced data to develop a toolkit for urban projects in the future. But there's also a role for individuals to look at the effect of buildings on their own well-being.

"If you've got a regular route that you take every day from your home to your workplace… leave a little bit earlier and spend some time just pausing. 'How does it make me feel?' 'Do I like what I'm seeing?'" he suggests. "Developing that kind of awareness of your relationship with your surroundings and how they affect you is really the first step."