Common Ground: Emily Talen and Marc Berman

Sometimes a quick walk through nature helps relieve the stress of city life. But what exactly is nature? Why does it help? And how might cities be designed to give people a better experience in the first place? Those are questions being asked by faculty in the Division of the Social Sciences who are looking closely at the design of the built environment and the effect it has on the health of humans and society.


Emily Talen is Professor of Urbanism in the Division and Director of the Urbanism Lab at UChicago. Her research is devoted to urban design and urbanism, especially the relationship between the built environment and social equity. Studying the making and unmaking of neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Talen (who worked as a professional planner in California and Ohio before entering academia) looks for ways to improve the form and pattern of American cities and neighborhoods so they can be more inclusive and supportive. In a book currently underway, Talen explores the ideal of the neighborhood, comparing a wide range of perspectives on what makes a neighborhood, and the relationship between idealized neighborhood plans and reality. An earlier book, City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, looked at urban codes over the ages — showing that while many contemporary codes stifle communities, encouraging sprawl and even blight, revised codes can produce a more positive outcome.


Marc Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and is involved in the Cognition and Integrative Neuroscience programs. His research centers on understanding the relationship between individual psychological and neural processing, and environmental factors. Berman’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab uses brain imaging, behavioral experimentation, computational neuroscience and statistical models to quantify the person, the environment and their interactions. Recent studies from the lab have determined that the density of trees in a neighborhood has positive effects on individual health comparable to being younger and wealthier, and have identified elemental features of natural and man-made environments that influence individual preferences, and also memory, attention, and mood.


Dialogo sat down with Talen and Berman to find out more about their research interests and how they overlap. Read the full conversation here.