News Release

Inclusion 2.0: How to bring a scientific approach to urban design?

Reports and Proceedings

Estonian Research Council

Citizen Well-Being Diagnostics in the City of Narva, Estonia

image: Sensors on the citizen to measure her stress level in different places view more 

Credit: FinEst Centre for Smart Cities

The quality of public space and urban environment has become an increasingly important issue, especially in the light of the green transition. On one hand, it’s great that people want to have a say in shaping the environment in which they live. On the other hand, the increased focus on participatory processes has brought attention to significant shortcomings, which research can play a key role in addressing.

Stakeholder involvement in urban planning is full of challenges. How and at what stage to involve key groups interested in planning? How to generate constructive debate and find common ground at an early stage? Prioritizing conflicting interests and achieving a satisfactory outcome for all parties is difficult. It is also important how to communicate the solution and ensure that all parties understand it in the same way. Planning is an art of negotiation, balancing different interests and needs.​

​The current practice of inclusion in urban planning is largely based on the collection of subjective judgements from city dwellers. In other words, surveys are used to find out how people like the (proposed) urban space. Planners, however, are struggling with satisfaction surveys, because unfortunately most of them declare that they are very satisfied with their living environment. “It’s like living in North Korea,” was how one expert summed it up at a recent planning conference. Apparent contentment with everything, however, does not help planners. More data and research are needed to bring about positive change. This is where researchers can provide valuable assistance.

People perceive urban space differently

Together with the FinEst Centre for Smart Cities team and the City of Narva, we have developed an innovative tool to help bridge the gap between planners and city residents. The Citizen Well-Being Diagnostics Service considers the psychological and physiological characteristics of the test subjects as well as the spatial parameters of the urban environment. The pilot project, in which we tested the tool, involved 68 volunteer Narva residents from four different age groups. We took the test subjects to six residential neighborhoods in Narva and to two public space locations (Peetri square and Joaoru beach area).

Using biosensors, we monitored the volunteers’ stress levels at different measurement points. The results were combined with a psychological study in which we mapped the subjects’ emotions, place attachment and recovery potential at the measurement site. The latter shows the extent to which a person can relax, or recharge their batteries, at a location. The outdoor part of the pilot study looked not only at noise levels, but also at the proportion of tall vegetation, the amount of asphalt, the ease of use of pedestrian space and the presence of various points of interest.

The Narva pilot study is the first attempt of its kind to find a link between the human body’s reactions and the quality of urban space. Based on the results, we can say that the methodology developed does indeed provide additional information on people’s perception of well-being in space. The measured brain signals and cardiovascular physiological responses suggest that people have different physiological perceptions of urban space. This is an important finding, which confirms that in addition to perception studies, physiological well-being should also be considered when making spatial decisions.

Balance is the key to quality

The results of the psychological survey were also found to be very weakly correlated with spatial and physiological indicators. This confirms that people do not respond objectively to questionnaires for various reasons. People may knowingly or unintentionally give inaccurate answers that do not reflect their true well-being. However, the psychological questionnaire is an important part of the well-being score methodology, as it helps to make sense of the results of the other parts of the survey. For example, the questionnaire was important to find out how much the subjects themselves rated their negative and positive emotions at the measurement point.​

In addition, the results of the project allow us to conclude that no one element is more important than another in urban space. Quality is determined by the balance between the different elements. A modern urban space must offer users diversity and take account of all needs.

For example, greenery and landscaping are important in cities, but the link between these alone and physiological outcomes is weak. Residents thrive in an urban space where no one element dominates over others and where everything is adequate for its function.​

The Citizen Well-Being Diagnostics provides urban planners with site-specific recommendations on the spatial parameters to be considered. Based on the recommendations, the expert can assess whether the proportion of some elements should be increased or decreased. A point of equilibrium, where needs are met and opportunities for realizing desires are created, can be considered a starting point for well-being, both in urban space and in personal life.

​Measuring well-being in a science-based way is a further way of taking public involvement in spatial decision-making to a new level. Especially in today’s world of saturated opinion. The tool, developed in partnership between the FinEst Centre for Smart Cities and the City of Narva, allows for the objective well-being of city residents to be considered. Relying on science-based data helps to make planning processes more transparent, thereby creating an urban environment where people feel good.

Citizen Well-Being Diagnostics is now ready for other cities, offering the opportunity to engage citizens in crucial decision-making and planning processes to create modern and appealing cities where people can thrive and enjoy a high quality of life.

See more about the solution and contacts at

FinEst Centre for Smart Cities, located at Tallinn University of Technology, has finalized six pilot projects where Estonian and Finnish cities developed and tested innovative smart city solutions.

New round of Smart City Challenge 2023 was announced in June where FinEst Centre continues to tackle complex urban challenges. Cities can send- their challenge and FinEst Centre finds the team of researchers and developers, finance and manage the pilot projects. Read more about Smart City Challenge 2023 and join to shape a better future for our cities by contributing to the development of smart city solutions to real urban challenges:

The pilot projects are 100% financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research.

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