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2017 Vanier Scholar explores urban design for citizen wellbeing

Monday, July 31, 2017

Robin leaning on railing overlooking courtyard in concrete buildingThe research of PhD candidate Robin Mazumder will have important insights and implications for 21st century urban planning – especially for mitigating the negative effects of tall buildings on the wellbeing of citizens. His dissertation project, titled The Downside of Building Up: An Exploration Into the Stress Impact of Exposure to Skyscrapers in Urban Centres, has recently received a prestigious boost of confidence from a federally funded Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

The scholarship, which is valued at $50,000 annually for three years, is awarded for academic excellence, research potential, and leadership ability. The Vaniers are distributed equally by the three granting agencies: Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Mazumder, who holds a SSHRC-funded Vanier, joins three current Vanier Scholars based in the Department of Psychology.  

"I'm very honoured and humbled to receive this award and to be in the company of the extraordinary members of the Vanier Scholar community. This award also signals that my research is seen as beneficial to Canadian society, and that means a lot to me", says Mazumder, whose supervisor is psychology professor Colin Ellard, an expert on the effects of natural and built spaces on movement, wayfinding, emotion and physiology.

Mazumder’s interest in how urban design supports or threatens mental health is focused primarily on psychological and physiological effects of being surrounded by skyscrapers. “We are living in a rapidly urbanizing world. While cities can have many benefits, there are also risks,” he writes in his project summary.

“If we know that people are stressed by being in the presence of skyscrapers or dense urban centres, then it’s a question of public health,” he said in an interview earlier this year (Do skyscrapers stress you out?). “It’s not that being in the presence of a skyscraper for five minutes is going to cause you to keel over, but it’s a question of chronic exposure.”

Mazumder says that previous studies have demonstrated a correlation between city living and stress but have not fully elucidated a causal mechanism. “I propose that elements of urban design can have an impact on experience of stress in cities. As such, the aim of my research is to examine how being in the presence of tall buildings influences stress and behaviour.” His dissertation’s applied research includes testing subjects in immersive virtual environments and in real-world settings.

“The Vanier scholarships are the most prestigious awards the tri-agencies (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR) offer to graduate students,” says Linda Warley, Associate Dean, Graduate Studies “Holding a Vanier, as Robin does now, speaks to both a graduate student’s past achievements and to their enormous potential as researchers and leaders.”

Mazumder’s research stands to strengthen our understanding on how urban design impacts stress and will help politicians and planners build cities that support the health and wellbeing of their growing populations.

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