Using eye tracking to see how people experience high-rises

18 Nov 2021 13:10 | Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries

During the next decade, cities will become more crowded – and taller. The Netherlands aims to build an additional 1 million homes in 10 years, the majority of them in cities, alongside existing buildings. How can such a city, dominated by high-rises, remain attractive for people to live in? Researchers at The Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) are making it possible, for the first time, to measure how people experience the environment in which they live – also unconsciously. To do so, they are using tools including eye tracking and artificial intelligence (AI) to obtain greater insight into this process.

AUAS researchers are trying for the first time to get to grips with how people experience, both consciously and unconsciously, cities with high building density, small dwellings and taller residential high-rises. International research has revealed that such densely built cities, with lots of high-rises, can be detrimental to the health problems of their residents.

In the project Sensing Streetscapes, professors Frank Suurenbroek and Gideon Spanjar (Dutch profile) are working on this issue, together with professor Nanda Piersma and a team of researchers.

The streetscape influences us

Architecture and urban space influence our moods and our health in ways we are often not aware of, says professor of Spatial Urban Transformation Frank Suurenbroek. “We are constantly scanning our environment; this is an automatic process, comparable to walking. We process this information and adjust our behaviour accordingly.”

The fact that high-rise buildings can exert a negative influence through this partly unconscious process represents a challenge for local authorities, urban planners and architects. Because the Netherlands is going to grow vertically in the years ahead, residential environments will arise the like of which we have not seen here before, particularly in the cities.

Design solutions

To ensure that people feel comfortable in an environment with lots of buildings and homes, recourse is increasingly being taken to the tried-and-tested ‘design solutions’ of classic urban planning: lots of variety at eye level (the ‘human scale’); facades with ‘warm’ materials such as brick; greenery; and avoiding masses of concrete or large car parks on the ground floor level, as well as long blocks of housing.


But the question is, do these solutions still work in new environments? To measure how people experience a ‘densified city’ with high-rises, and how they respond to solutions in the streetscape, the researchers used eye tracking. This is a method used in ‘neuro-architecture’; a relatively new field which brings together insights from neuroscience, environmental psychology and spatial design. The eye tracker tracks what the viewer is looking at 30 times a second, as well as for how long and in what sequence. The resulting data can be used to ascertain what has caught someone’s attention, and what the person has avoided looking at.

The researchers have used this method in a laboratory setting and in field tests. By collating the results from the various test subjects, eye movement patterns can be represented visually.

Human activity

These tests indicate that this type of ground floor, with lots of variation, works well. The researchers also noticed that people scan their environment for human activity; balconies, doorways, entrances to bicycle storage and cars. The materials buildings are made from also play a role.

New AI tool with examples from the EU and US

For local authorities and designers, is can also be desirable to find globally applicable examples of successful street spaces with high-rise buildings. For this reason, together with students from the Data Science minor the researchers also developed an AI tool, which analyses more than 1 million urban locations in Europe and North America. The result is a digital map that works on the basis of open data (OpenStreetMaps). Users can select various criteria such as high-rise, density, greenery and facilities, allowing them to find unknown places and make comparisons, from Oslo to Stockholm or Vancouver.

Touching the future

“One important step is that we get a better handle on how the street space contributes, positively or negatively, to a pleasant living environment,” Suurenbroek says. “New buildings will stand for 30 or 40 years, and therefore have a huge impact on residents’ lives. Building something is the most concrete way of touching the future.”

International collaboration

AUAS researchers work alongside their peers from international institutions within this project.

Streetscapes is advised by an international advisory board with representatives from esteemed universities such as Harvard, RMIT (Melbourne) Tufts University (Boston), the University of Venice and the Uiversity of Waterloo.

The research project Sensing Streetscapes has been nominated for the RAAK-award 2021 : the award for the best applied research in the Netherlands, which will be presented on 25 November.