City Design Can Affect Romance

<p>People crossing the intersection in front of the Georgia Tech bookstore</p>

People crossing the intersection in front of the Georgia Tech bookstore

Clio Andris and her team use maps to study how relationships are situated in cities: whether people live near each other, whether it is easy for them to see each other, and what kinds of activities and amenities they can easily access.

She recently realized city layouts (where the buildings are, how public transportation works, even where sidewalks are placed) affect romantic couples.

Andris’s study, “Romantic Relationships and the Built Environment,” has been published in the Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability. The study was co-authored by Seolha Lee (MCRP '21).

Urban planners strive to design cities that support community needs. Andris took an unconventional approach to discovering these needs by examining the behavior of couples, rather than individuals.

“We've always wanted to look at how people behave in the built environment and the way they behave with other people may be different than the way they behave by themselves.”

Another traditional approach to urban planning looks at community-level social life, but Andris said this level of analysis doesn’t catch the perspective of individuals engaging in joint activities.

Andris surveyed 124 individuals who are in relationships, specifically seeking information about where couples spend time together, the characteristics of those places, and how areas support romantic relationships.

Restaurants were the top feature respondents liked, with recreation and outdoor spaces following, Andris said. Through the survey, Andris could distinguish types of outdoor activities that were more popular for couples.

“We thought it was interesting that the nearby mountain was really popular because people wanted to go hiking together,” Andris said. A nearby golf course and a skiing mountain were much less popular despite being easier to access.

The study indicated respondents who did not live together value walking paths and streetlights for safer travel between homes. Mapping geographic relationship links can guide planners towards new paths, lights, or transit, said Andris.

“Changes in the built environment can affect the quality of personal relationships.”

“Built environment” refers not only to buildings, but also to other constructed features like sidewalks and roads, Andris said. “A forest or glacier would not be the built environment, even though it is still the environment.”

An environment that is more conducive to personal relationships can support the well-being of its occupants.

“It's nice to be able to see people that you like, and it's nice to have activities to do with somebody so you can leave the house,” said Andris. “So having a social life where you have events with people and activities can help increase your well-being and decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.”

The city can do more to support relationships. Something like a sidewalk is not just a physical health or transportation thing, it’s also an interpersonal thing, Andris said.

“Just getting to leave your house and go for a walk with your significant other seems to be a really big important thing and [planners] have only focused on that in terms of health before.”

Andris believes that the personal relationship is an overlooked but promising unit of analysis for designing the built environment.

“Romantic ties have their own voice and needs,” Andris said. “By examining relationships as a vantage point for serving the needs of locals and visitors, planners can play an active role in the success of romance and happy, healthy couples in their areas.”

Urban planners are thinking about how to build for romance, Andris said. “The idea of a ‘great date night’ used to mean a night on the town (although today it may evoke something cozy at home due to the pandemic). But are towns built for this?

“We find that certain Points of Interest (POIs) in the city are especially exciting for couples. We found that restaurants and the outdoors were especially well-suited for dates and spending time together. We saw that recreational activities are also more popular than we thought. Other aspects of our cities are still important, like museums, libraries and nightclubs, but these weren't mentioned as often for couples.”

“The big picture is that urban planners can support romance by building the facilities/amenities that couples enjoy.”

Andris is the director of the Friendly Cities Lab at Georgia Tech. The lab’s goal is data-driven love for community, and the study focus is interpersonal relationships in geographic space, Andris said.

Following from her research of how the built environment can impact relationships, Andris will be a guest editor along with University of Zurich's Ross Purves for a special issue of Computational Urban Science later this year. The issue will show how individuals, social networks, and community members interact with places.

Clio Andris & Seolha Lee (2021) Romantic relationships and the built environment: a case study of a U.S. college town, Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, DOI: 10.1080/17549175.2021.2005117