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The transformative power of color in the urban environment


Colorful homes in Guanajuato, Mexico (Photo credit: Bex Shapiro)



When you think about the busiest places in your neighborhood, town, or city, what colors do you see? Is it colorful, cheerful, and representative of the individuality of your community, or does it look like an exercise in finding out how many grays, browns, and beiges there are in the known universe? Even as I’m writing this, all I see out of my window is a sea of off-white stone, blonde or red brick, and muted colors.


Color is everywhere in nature, art, food, etc., and it plays an essential role in our experience and pleasure of those things. So why is it so hard to find that quantity, quality, and variety of color in our built environments? Color can be a powerful tool for physical and emotional transformation, and it’s time we start tapping into that power to make our lives that much brighter.




While the early history of color psychology is dotted with unscientific studies and unsubstantiated claims, the field has come a long way in forming its current legitimacy. Researchers and experts in the field have made important discoveries and observations about the effect that color has on our moods, emotions, and actions.


Colors on the body

Colors can have surprising and powerful effects on our behavior and have played an important role in our survival as a species. Our brains are wired to notice contrast —helping our ancestors identify food or notice potential dangers or threats. As we developed more attuned sensors for color, our world changed. Different colors have different effects —some positive, some negative.


For example, the color red affects the human body in a variety of different ways. Clara Vetter points out in her Neurofied article, The Effects of Color on Behavior, that “in our brain, the majority of cells responsible for color vision are geared to respond to the color red.” This means that red gets more of our attention and that we can respond to red cues faster —the reason why we have chosen the color red for stop signs and other important messages. Haile Van Braam, Cognitive Psychologist, has found that seeing the color red can enhance our metabolism, increase our respiration rate, and even raise our blood pressure.

Red isn’t the only color that produces physiological effects. The temperature of a room that is painted in a warm color (red, orange, yellow) will feel hotter than a room painted in a cool color (blue, green, purple). Orange has been found to increase appetite while blue can trigger a loss of appetite because there are no naturally occurring bright-blue foods. Green can slow the metabolism, reduce respiration, lower one’s blood pressure, and, in certain wavelengths, even help minimize migraine symptoms. Blue light has been shown to trigger biological functions that control our circadian rhythms.


Colors on the mind

Colors can also be just as influential psychologically. In his book, Drunk Tank Pink, Psychologist and Marketing Author, Adam Alter, writes of a fascinating story about a shade of bubblegum pink that positively changed a correction center, public transit vehicles, and even people’s generosity. In the late 1970s, Professor Alexander Schauss conducted an experiment designed to test the physiological effects of color on the body. He found that after staring at a piece of cardboard painted pink, all of the 38 male participants’ strength had been measurably depleted. The results caught the imagination of two officers at the U.S. Naval Correctional Center in Seattle, Washington —Chief Warrant Officer Gene Baker and Captain Ron Miller who painted one of their holding cells in bright pink. According to Alter, over the course of the seven-month trial, Baker and Miller “watched as newly arrived inmates entered the pink cell angry and agitated and emerged calmer fifteen minutes later.” The officers also reported not a single violent incident during the time that the cell was painted pink. The color is now known as Baker-Miller Pink and has been used in a variety of scenarios. 


Alter’s stories of transformation don’t end there. In response to the success of Baker-Miller Pink, "public housing estates changed the color of their interiors pink and reported a sharp decline in violent behavior, and bus companies quashed vandalism by installing bright pink seats. When United Way charity workers wore pink uniforms, donors reportedly gave up to two or three times as much as they usually did.”


Color is a complex and subjective world that is formed by the societies and places in which we grow up, and, although the emotions and ideas that we prescribe to them vary from culture to culture, there are some universal emotional effects of color. According to Environmental Psychologist, Sally Augustin, people are more comfortable in spaces with color than those without. An under-stimulating environment that lacks contrast can be stressful, cause sensory deprivation or heightened emotional responses.





According to the United Nations, it is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban environments. As designers, artists, and creatives, we can harness the power of color to make those places happier, healthier, and more welcoming for all who experience them. There have been some really inspiring and impactful real-world projects, initiatives, and studies that show the positive impact of color on the places and spaces where we spend so much of our time.

Correction cell painted Baker-Miller Pink (Photo credit: Bayan Okayeva)


Happy Streets tour in Vancouver, Canada (Photo credit: Happy City)

Happy Streets

Happy Streets was an experiment conducted by Canadian urban planning and design consultancy, Happy City, to “measure the effect colourful or lush interventions have on people’s wellbeing.” Through a series of different methods (self-reported surveys, Implicit Positive and Negative Affect Tests (IPANAT), Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), and galvanic skin response (GSR) tools), the experiment sought to answer the question: “can everyday places be transformed to support happiness, trust, and belonging?”


In September of 2016, more than 100 participants were taken on walking tours around Vancouver, Canada. The tours took participants to three different types of everyday places —a residential alley, a traffic intersection, and a manicured green space— and then took them to similar types of places where “colourful or lush interventions” had been carried out.


After analyzing the results, Happy City found that “participants who experienced the interventions expressed a greater sense of happiness than they did at the standard sites.” In particular, when the participants encountered a traffic intersection in the heart of the LGBTQ community which had been transformed through paint and color, 60% said they were more likely to meet up with their friends at this intersection. The results also showed that “there were significant positive improvements in the levels of happiness that participants reported when greenery or colour were present.” Among the most notable findings were that “public space interventions using novel expressions of nature and colour had a strong effect on wellbeing.” In the spaces that added brightly coloured paint, “participants expressed greater place attachment,” and they were “more likely to pick up litter and be upset about vandalism."


Painted building in Tirana, Albania (Photo credit: Blocal)

Tirana, Albania

In his TED Talk, Take back your city with paint, Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, tells us how, during his 11 years as Mayor of Tirana, he transformed the city with bright and happy paint. He used color to “revive the hope that had been lost in [his] city” and, as a painter himself, he understood the “joy that color can give to our lives and to our communities.”


When he first started as Mayor, he inherited a city budget that was next to nothing. So Rama started with one building on the central plaza of the city and painted over its “somber gray” facade with a “radiant orange.” As soon as the final coat of paint was dry, “there was a traffic jam and a crowd of people gathered as if it were the location of some spectacular accident or the sudden sighting of a visiting pop star.” 


And he didn’t stop there —soon buildings all over the city were getting colorful makeovers. Rama describes the transformation: “the rehabilitation of public spaces revived the feeling of belonging to a city that people [had] lost —the pride of people about their own place of living— and there were feelings that had been buried deep for years under the fury of the illegal, barbaric constructions that sprang up in the public space. And when colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started transforming the spirit of people.”


Beyond the emotional effects, the color had measurable effects too. Crime fell, litter started to disappear, residents started to pay their taxes —“beauty was acting as a guardsman where municipal police, or the state itself, were missing.” With his painted buildings, Rama gave us a “small example of how one thing —the use of color— can make change happen.”


ColourChat participant (Photo credit: Colour Your City)

Colour Your City 

Cath Carver of color-centric creative studio, Colour Your City, has conducted research, through projects and installations, which focus on “human comfort in urban environments, and specifically the impact of colour on comfort.” Carver believes that color is paramount to good design, and, through her work, she has been able to capture and measure the effect color has on the built environment. In a project Colour Your City completed with PatterNation in Durban, South Africa, participants experienced a photo exhibition, encountered play sculptures, and took part in a ColourChat conversation series. The conversation series uncovered the positive effects of color and participants' responses brought out some funny and inspiring thoughts and ideas on color in our lives and the spaces we inhabit. 


In response to the question “How does colour impact your comfort?,” one participant said, “Colour makes me feel alive and more comfortable with myself.” When asked “Does a lack of colour affect urban space?,” someone playfully responded, “If you paint the walls gray the people will follow.” And, the question “How does colour improve attractiveness in the built environment?” elicited a variety of responses that Carver categorized as either affecting aliveness (e.g. “Makes it inviting,” “Welcomes,” etc.), mood improving (e.g. “Puts a smile on my face,” “Elevates the mind,” etc.), or inspirational (e.g. “Makes being in town inspirational,” etc.).


Carver has gotten similar results from other projects around the world and has found that a “lot of pleasurable emotional value (joy, aliveness, expression, inspiration) and clear indicators of comfort (contentment and enjoyment) [are] associated with colourful urban settings.”




We all need to be part of the color revolution and demand more happy, comfortable, and welcoming spaces and places. Bringing more color to your neighborhood, town, or city is just one, very affordable way to enact that change. Organizations, municipalities, businesses, institutions, etc. should seek out those who understand color’s impact and celebrate the power of color through their work. Manufacturers and companies need to develop and offer more colorful and patterned products for the built environment. And, designers, architects, and creatives should embrace the vast and exciting world of color, not fear it.





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