Dr Shadi Bagherzadeh Azbari is a researcher at the university hospital Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and works in the fields of psychiatry and neuroscience. Photo: Donya Joshani

“We capture how people are feeling in real time”

The interdisciplinary project “Your Emotional City” aims to understand how urban environments affect our emotions, behaviour and mental health. Using an app, researchers such as Dr Shadi Bagherzadeh Azbari are collecting real-time data on how the German capital city makes its inhabitants feel. In an interview with online editor Ludmilla Ostermann, the neuroscientist, psychologist and researcher at the Neurourbanism Research Group at the university hospital Charité explains how the Urban Mind app works and what the project can do to improve how people experience the city in the future.

Dr Shadi Bagherzadeh Azbari is a researcher at the university hospital Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and works in the fields of psychiatry and neuroscience. Photo: Donya Joshani

Why is it important to study the mental health of city dwellers?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: Our goal is to create maps that show how different urban environments affect emotional well-being. We want to inform policymakers about the impact of urbanisation on mental health and to advocate for urban designs that promote psychological well-being. Understanding these effects is crucial as urban populations will continue to grow. By 2050, about two thirds of the global population will be living in urban environments. Numerous studies have shown that city dwellers have an increased risk of mental illness – 40 per cent higher for depression and 20 per cent for anxiety disorders. Our brains do not seem to be optimally designed for living in cities and densely populated metropolitan areas. But in our daily lives, the city offers freedom, opportunity and incredible potential for individual development. What exactly are the effects of living in the city? Are all city dwellers really affected in the same way? And could it be that cities also have a positive impact on our psychological well-being? If we find the answers to these questions, we can act in time.

Who is working on the ‘Your emotional city’ project and how are you involved?

Shadi Bagherzadeh Azbari: As a clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, my work has always focused on understanding how the brain processes emotions. At the Charité, I’m involved in a project that examines how city dwellers feel and process emotions in urban environments. This interdisciplinary project involves psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists, urban planners, architects, philosophers, sociologists and ethnographers. Through quantifiable research, we aim to gain a deeper understanding of how urban environments influence emotions, behaviour and mental health. To do this, we are collecting data on places of stress and well-being in Berlin through the Urban Mind app used by ordinary citizens in their daily lives.

Your project started in August 2022. Can you share some insights from the data you’ve collected so far?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: We’re working on a paper right now, so I can’t reveal too much. But I can say that our data from Berlin shows that aesthetics in the city – such as beautiful buildings and art – have a significant impact on emotional well-being, alongside the well-documented benefits of green spaces. This is a new and exciting finding for us.

Has this kind of study been done before?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: While there are other studies on the impact of urban living on mental health, our project stands out for a number of reasons. Starting in September, we will be conducting the study internationally with a new version of the app. We’ll start our research in the very densely populated city of Bangalore, India, to see if our Berlin findings can be replicated. Also, our study duration there will be seven days, shorter than the usual 14 days for such assessments, and this will keep participants engaged and give us plenty of data. Also, we’ll be presenting the app in five languages to accommodate a variety of users.

Traditional laboratory settings cannot fully replicate the immediacy and variability of real-life experiences.

Dr Shadi Bagherzadeh Azbari

You mentioned a new version of your app coming out in September. What can participants expect?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: We’ve learned a lot from our pilot phase. The new app design will have a more user-friendly layout, and a progress bar to show participants how far along they are. We’ve also streamlined the questions to make them easier to answer in the moment, which is crucial for assessment methodology.

Why is this participation in the moment so important?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: This method allows us to capture how people feel in real time, and how their urban environment influences those emotions. Traditional laboratory settings cannot fully replicate the immediacy and variability of real-life experiences, so it’s important for our study to make participation easy and engaging. For this purpose, our volunteers will be citizen scientists who will assist us throughout this process.

Citizen scientists will also be asked to participate three times a day.

Bagherzadeh Azbari: The app will notify the volunteers at the right time to check in. Checking in three times a day will give us a richer, more diverse set of data. It helps us understand how emotions fluctuate throughout the day and in different environments, using GPS data to create maps. For example, we want to understand whether people feel happier or less anxious when they are in a park surrounded by nature, such as Körnerpark, compared to a crowded urban area, such as Alexanderplatz. We look at areas where people report more positive or negative emotions and identify the environmental factors involved. We might find that aesthetically pleasing environments correlate with positive emotions, while crowded or isolated areas correlate with anxiety.

How do you ensure the security of the participants’ data?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: Data security is a top priority. We collect basic demographic information and handle it with the utmost care, following the strict confidentiality protocols that the Charité applies. There’s no link between the data and personal details, and only two researchers on the project have access to the data. And, of course, we adhere to strict European data protection standards. We want all participants to feel secure.

How many citizen scientists do you need for your study?

Bagherzadeh Azbari: Our goal is to collect data from 20,000 participants. This will give us a robust dataset to compare different cities with one another and to draw meaningful conclusions. We currently need more volunteers to act as our citizen scientists. We think Berlin has the capacity for this.


Ludmilla Ostermann