Attenuating subjective crowding through beauty: an online study on the interaction
between environment aesthetics, typology and crowdedness
Panagiotis Mavros 1, Zi Liang Ngoi, Stephanie Kirk, An Shu Te, Jascha Grübel, Leonel Aguilar,
Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, Dominique Makowski1
1Corresponding authors. PM: email@example.com; present address: i3, CNRS, Télécom Paris, Institut
Polytechnique de Paris, France. DM: firstname.lastname@example.org; School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK
Attenuating subjective crowding through beauty: an online study on the interaction
between environment aesthetics, typology and crowdedness
Panagiotis Mavros 2, Zi Liang Ngoi, Stephanie Kirk, An Shu Te, Jascha Grübel, Leonel Aguilar,
Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, Dominique Makowski1
•Study on joint inﬂuence of environment typology (urban/green), beauty, and crowding
•Created large (480) international database of dynamic stimuli of video walk-throughs
•Online study of stimuli with emotion ratings, motivation, environmental appraisals
•Found positive eﬀect of environmental beauty, order both for urban and green space
•Moderate pedestrian crowding increased the desirability of both urban and green space
2Corresponding authors. PM: email@example.com; present address: i3, CNRS, Télécom Paris, Institut
Polytechnique de Paris, France. DM: firstname.lastname@example.org; School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK
Attenuating subjective crowding through beauty: an online study on the
interaction between environment aesthetics, typology and crowdedness
Panagiotis Mavros 1a,c, Zi Liang Ngoib, Stephanie Kirkb, An Shu Teb, Jascha Grübele, Leonel
Aguilarf, Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzog, Dominique Makowski1b,d
aFuture Cities Laboratory, Singapore-ETH Centre, CREATE campus, 1 CREATE Way, #06-01 CREATE
Tower, 138602, Singapore
bNanyang Technological University, , Singapore
ci3, CNRS, Télecom Paris, Institut Polytechnique de Paris 19 Pl. Marguerite Perey, 91120, France
dSchool of Psychology University of Sussex UK
eCenter for Sustainable Future Mobility Chair of Geoinformation Engineering Chair of Cognitive Science \& Game
Technology Center ETH Zurich Switzerland
fData Science Service and Systems Group \& Chair of Cognitive Science ETH Zurich Switzerland
Past research suggests a positive impact of green (compared to built) spaces on multiple facets of
cognition and emotion. However, how crowding (high density of other people) aﬀects this relationship,
and whether it is modulated by the aesthetic appeal of the environment, remains unclear. We compiled
a library of 480 video-clips of ﬁrst-person walking through diverse urban and green environments with
varying degrees of crowding, across 30 cities in 20 countries. These were rated by 377 participants on
emotional reactions, willingness to visit and other environmental appraisals.
Our results underline the interaction between environmental aesthetics and crowding in people’s ap-
praisal of various environments. Speciﬁcally, aesthetically pleasing (i.e. more beautiful) environments
evoke more positive emotions and higher willingness to visit, regardless of their level of crowding.
Less aesthetically pleasing environments presented an inverse-u relationship with crowdedness, where
valence and willingness to visit ratings peaked under moderate levels of crowding.
As many cities worldwide grapple with higher population densities and increased pedestrian ﬂows,
these results highlight the importance of aesthetics and design to foster psychological well-being. The
validated library of videos is made available open-access on zenodo.
Keywords: urban design, architecture, aesthetics, crowding, restoration, green space
Imagine walking down a beautiful, tree-lined boulevard, teeming with pedestrians - people strolling,
shopping, or enjoying the day. How would you feel? Would you like to visit such a place again? Now
consider walking through a dull, empty street – what does it look like? How would your mood and
desire to visit such a place change? It is increasingly well understood that various physical features
can modulate people’s psychological reactions and preferences towards a given environment (Coburn,
2019). Although there is extensive research on the negative psychological eﬀects of crowding, such as
increased stress, cognitive load, and negative aﬀect (Blut and Iyer, 2020; Schneider et al., 2023), in
some cases a certain degree of crowding may enhance the subjective experience of an environment.
For instance, in urban planning it is considered that "the presence of people in a space is interpreted
as indicative that a public space is functioning and healthy" (Gehl, 2013; Honey-Rosés et al., 2021).
However, the way crowding and environmental characteristics, such as its type or beauty, interact with
one another remains unclear.
1Corresponding authors. PM: email@example.com; present address: i3, CNRS, Télécom Paris, Institut
Polytechnique de Paris, France. DM: firstname.lastname@example.org; School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK
Extensive research during the past decades, has consistently reported that walking, being or even
looking at green spaces, compared built environments, brings multiple cognitive, attentional, and
psychological beneﬁts (Wicks et al., 2022; Moll et al., 2022). Research focused into the psychological
eﬀects of the built environment itself, for example of diﬀerent urban designs or architectural styles,
also suggests that various design features can improve both the psychological eﬀects, as well as the
aesthetic preferences of various urban environments. The architectural design itself can evoke diﬀerent
psychological reactions, where architectural styles more rich in information (higher fractal dimension)
tend to be evaluated as more pleasing (Vartanian et al., 2015; den Berg et al., 2016; Patuano, 2017).
Nature-related features, such as the number of trees (Parsons and Daniel, 2002; Hands and Brown,
2002), presence of ﬂowers (White and Gatersleben, 2011) and water features (Faggi et al., 2013; Voelker
and Kistemann, 2013), but also other types of interventions such as pedestrianisation (Bornioli et al.,
2018) also tend to improve psychological reactions.
In everyday life, spaces are often encountered in the presence of others – especially in pedestrianised
urban settings or in popular parks. However, in many studies in the ﬁeld of environmental psychology,
the stimuli are comprised of images or videos where environments are presented empty of people, as
part of the eﬀort to isolate the environmental eﬀects and reduce confounding factors. Intuition, as
well as research on crowding (Engelniederhammer et al., 2019; Mavros et al., 2022) alike suggest that
the co-presence of people might inﬂuence our subjective experience, but it remains unclear whether
it can also inﬂuence on the valuation of the place itself. Thus, understanding the social inﬂuence on
the psychological eﬀects of spaces is important given the the need of city authorities to anticipate and
design for increasing urban densities in many parts of the world.
From a methodological perspective, one challenge of environmental studies is to generate dynamic
stimuli such as videos which capture the properties of diverse environments. Previous studies have
achieved this at the architectural scale (e.g., Gregorians et al., 2022). To accomplish this for urban
environments we turned to the increasing number of ’walking’ videos that are available online (for
instance in YouTube) which capture longer or shorter walks from a ﬁrst-person perspective without
any edits. This type of online material presents an under-explored source for dynamic stimuli for
environmental research with wide geographic coverage.
In this article, we address these questions regarding the aﬀective and motivational impact of the
design qualities of diﬀerent environments (urban built, or green) as well as human activity, speciﬁcally
pedestrian crowding. We conducted an online, environmental preference study (N=377), showing
participants 480 videos of walking compiled from diﬀerent urban and green spaces of varying aesthetic
qualities and levels of crowding, and asking them to report their psychological reaction and provide
environmental appraisals. Our ﬁndings suggest multiple interactions between subjective crowding,
environmental perceptions such as beauty and emotional responses to places.
2.1. Urban and green spaces
Extensive research during the past decades has established their positive psychological eﬀects of
being exposed to green, compared to urban, spaces including the improvement of mood, attention
and cognition (for a recent review see Norwood et al., 2019), enhancing creativity (Sharam et al.,
2023), promoting restoration (Hartig et al., 2003), social interaction (Maas et al., 2009) and physical
activity (Ribeiro et al., 2015). These positive eﬀects tend to hold across diﬀerent kinds of green spaces,
from forests to urban green (parks), having views of greenery and trees (Ulrich, 1984; Olszewska-Guizzo
et al., 2018), sitting (Olszewska-Guizzo et al., 2022), or walking (Aspinall et al., 2013). Several theories
have been proposed to explain this phenomenon. The biophilia hypothesis (BH) posits that due to
our evolutionary history, humans have an innate preference for nature (Kellert and Wilson, 1995).
Ulrich’s stress-reduction theory (SRT) posits that access to green space fosters recovery from mental
(cognitive, psychological) stressors (Ulrich et al., 1991), while the attention restoration theory (ART)
postulates that natural and built environments diﬀer in the way they recruit our visual attention:
urban settings evoke activity related, directed attention (e.g. traﬃc) which is taxing our attentional
capacities whereas nature recruits our attention through multifractal patterns, a phenomenon called
soft fascination which restores our psychological resources (Kaplan, 1995).
Studies have found evidence for both theories, for example, exposure to scenes of nature promotes
stress reduction (de Kort et al., 2006; Velarde et al., 2007) and restores attentional capacity (Berto,
2005). Conversely, exposure to built environment is associated with less positive and more negative
emotions (Yao et al., 2021). Furthermore, numerous neuroscientiﬁc studies have shown that exposure
to green spaces, compared to urban, are associated with diﬀerent patterns of brain activity indicative
of lower arousal and reduced attentional load, such as increased power in the alpha (8-13Hz) and theta
(4-8Hz) frequency bands (e.g. Grassini, 2022; Mavros et al., 2022; Olszewska-Guizzo et al., 2021). Other
factors associated with built/urban environments, such as air pollution (Chen et al., 2018; Buoli et al.,
2018), traﬃc noise (Sygna et al., 2014), and biological (Hoisington et al., 2019) also have negative
ample research has focused on this ’urban vs nature dichotomy’ (Karmanov and Hamel, 2008), it
is increasingly recognised that aesthetic, design, social and other qualities of both green/natural and
urban/built environments can also modulate the subjective experience, emotional reactions and envi-
ronmental preferences of people. Due to increasing urbanisation worldwide, researchers are interested
to understand what aspects of the built environment itself can improve mental and physical wellbeing
(Saarloos et al., 2011; Guzman et al., 2021; Buttazzoni et al., 2021).
2.2. Environmental aesthetics
It is not only the typology (green or urban) of environments that triggers psychological reactions but
also their quality and aesthetics. In terms of green space quality, Olszewska-Guizzo (2023) developed
the Contemplative Landscape Model (CLM), which scores green spaces on seven dimensions consid-
ering among others diverse landscape and design elements, biodiversity, colour and lighting. They
found that spaces that score higher in CLM have a higher capacity to alleviate stress and promote
attention restoration (Olszewska-Guizzo et al., 2022). When the aesthetic value of urban stimuli is
matched with that of green stimuli, diﬀerences in aﬀect disappear, although attentional eﬀects persist
(Meidenbauer et al., 2020). Johansson et al. (2016) observed that perceived urban design qualities,
speciﬁcally complexity, aesthetic, upkeep and presence of greenery are signiﬁcant in predicting intention
to choose and avoid a certain walking route, while this eﬀect was mediated by aﬀective experience (i.e.,
valence). Higher quality of public open spaces, for example having activities and better morphological,
architectural and urban design elements, is associated with improved mental health (Wei et al., 2021).
Various other factors inﬂuence aesthetic perception of the environment, but also mood and behaviour,
for instance, colours (Satariano, 2021; Jalil et al., 2012), daylight (Beute and de Kort, 2014).
At the architectural scale of buildings and interior spaces, multiple designed features inﬂuence our
emotions. Spaces that are more open, have higher ceilings and curvilinear elements are rated as more
attractive, pleasant and comfortable (Vartanian et al., 2013, 2015; Presti et al., 2022). Coburn et al.
(2019) proposed that there are three psychological dimensions underlying these psychological reactions.
Fascination, or the degree of engagement and interest in an environment and tends to be linked closely
to the level of complexity, coherence which captures the ease of comprehension of an environment, and
hominess which captures the degree that a spaces reminds us of familiar or personal spaces. These
dimensions inﬂuence the desire to visit these environments, expressed as an approach or avoidance
decision (Coburn, 2019), and are also positively correlated with valence and arousal (Gregorians et al.,
Similarly, in the case of outdoor urban environments, multiple design and aesthetic qualities are
found to inﬂuence psychological reactions. Taller buildings are often associated with more negative
aﬀect (Mazumder et al., 2020), whereas enclosure, the visual framing of an environment when it is
bounded by building facades, is associated with better ratings for spaces (Stamps, 2010) and increased
pedestrian trips (Ewing and Handy, 2009) The visual complexity of buildings facades, which can be
assessed by its fractal dimension, is associated with higher aesthetic preference and scenic beauty rating
of both interior and exterior urban environments (Coburn et al., 2019; Yusufzyanova, 2020). Visual
complexity can achieved by architectural design or through the inclusion of green elements (White
and Gatersleben, 2011). More generally, fractal patterns have a positive relationship with aesthetic
perception of the environment (Marchand et al., 2014; Weinberger et al., 2021; Zhang et al., 2018).
Studies using EEG have found that fractal patterns evoke increase in both in parietal beta frequency
and in frontal alpha frequency, which are indicative of increased attention and wakeful relaxation
respectively (Hagerhall et al., 2008, 2015). This may also partially explain the restorative eﬀects of
green environments, for example the mere presence of an indoor plant, or oﬃce window looking out at
nature is associated with signiﬁcantly less stress than their counterparts lacking botanical decor, with
a view of a more plain cityscape, in healthcare, workplace or residential settings (Ulrich, 1984; Chang
and Chen, 2005; Olszewska-Guizzo et al., 2018)
The aesthetic qualities of architectural and urban environments are inextricably linked with human
experience. Recent studies reported that buildings rated by participants as more beautiful were also
perceived as more pleasant (Coburn et al., 2019) and have positive psychological outcomes (Johansson
et al., 2016, 2011). Conversely, environments that are rated as unattractive are associated with more
negative aﬀect (Marchand et al., 2014; Yao et al., 2021), anxiety and depression (Beemer et al., 2021).
While environmental beauty, is positively correlated with valence, it is, however, uncorrelated from
arousal (Gregorians et al., 2022). This line of inquiry weaves together strands of research from envi-
ronment psychology and the emerging ﬁeld of Neuroaesthetics, investigating the cognitive, attentional
and brain processes underpinning aesthetic experiences and, in particular, the experience of beauty.
According to Chatterjee, the experience of beauty is the result of an interaction between sensory-
motor, emotion-valuation, and meaning-knowledge processing of stimuli, that jointly contribute to
our aesthetic perception (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2014). These ﬁndings are consistent with long
established ideas that beauty and pleasure are closely connected. The exprience of beauty, however, is
more nuanced; in arts and architecture beautiful artefacts can sometimes stir unpleasant emotions and
discomfort, reminding us of the notion of the sublime (Brielmann and Pelli, 2019; Brielmann et al.,
2022; Dewey, 1934). In this context, it is worth investigating how static and transient elements of the
environment inﬂuence our subjective experiences within it.
2.3. Psychological eﬀects of crowding
The notion of crowding is a complex psychological construct, that can be deﬁned as the ratio of
elements (typically people) in a given amount of space. For instance, in vision research, crowding
typically focuses on the negative eﬀects of irrelevant stimuli (called ﬂanker) on the perception of a
target stimulus (e.g. Levi, 2008). In retail studies, researchers diﬀerentiate between human crowding
which refers to the number of individuals and the rate of social interaction, and spatial crowding which
is deﬁned as the (lack of) available space due to various obstructions (e.g. furniture, Machleit et al.,
1994). In transport and urban settings crowding can also be a dynamic phenomenon, referring to
the ﬂow of people or vehicles moving through a passage, such as a gantry, a street, or other space.
Importantly, (Stokols, 1972) postulated that there is distinction between social density, deﬁned as
number of people per unit area, and the subjective judgements of crowding which also depend on the
interaction between individuals (Stokols, 1972; Shelby et al., 1989).
Historically, concerns about overcrowding in residential settings led to studies on the social and
psychological consequences of high population density. Studies in the 1960s and 70s, found detrimental
eﬀects of crowding both in animal (Calhoun, 1962) as well as in human communities (Galle et al., 1972).
Various studies have also found that more crowded settings are associated with a decline in cognitive
performance (Saegert, 1973; Levi, 2008) and have strong inﬂuence on emotions (Blut and Iyer, 2020).
More recently, research on crowding has mainly focused on its eﬀects in transport, retail, tourism,
and residential settings. In line with earlier work, researchers often ﬁnd negative eﬀects of crowding
on passenger (see review by Tirachini et al., 2013; Schneider et al., 2023) and customer satisfaction
(Machleit et al., 2000), mood (d’Astous, 2000; Elbachir and Chenini, 2017; Machleit et al., 2000), and
mental well-being (Regoeczi, 2008; Mangrio and Zdravkovic, 2018; Wang and Liu, 2022), even in the
case of marine tourism (Bentz et al., 2015; Needham et al., 2018).
Research suggests that although spatial crowding has a negative eﬀect that is linear, the psycholog-
ical eﬀects of human crowding may have an inverted-U shape (Cheng et al., 2021; Eroglu et al., 2005;
Mehta et al., 2013). In other words moderate levels of human crowding are preferable compared to
either too low or too high levels. One explanation for this is that increased spatial crowding restricts
space available for movement and potentially a sense of control, and thus evoke negative reactions (Hui
and Bateson, 1991).
On the other hand, human crowding can be to a certain degree desirable, and its eﬀect can be
moderated by spatial and social parameters. As Beermann and Sieben (2022) note "the speciﬁc social
situation in the box appears to play a more important role than merely the number of people waiting
there". This could be explained by theories such as optimal social contact (Altman, 1975; Sundstrom
and Altman, 1976) and arousal theory (Wohlwill, 1974) which suggest that individuals desire and seek
optimal levels of arousal in certain settings. Indeed, in the urban planning literature, the presence of
other people in urban spaces is typically associated with positive eﬀects (Gehl, 2013; Whyte, 1980).
Recent work has started looking into the eﬀects of human co-presence on the experience of green
and urban spaces. Zapata and Honey-Rosés (2022) found gender eﬀects of the increased (co)presence of
people in a public space; whereas men chose to stay longer, women stayed less in the public space. Neale
et al. (2021) found that in nature, restorative eﬀects persist with and without other people (walkers),
but the study involved only 7 other people (confederates) which was relatively low. Using a visual
discrete choice experiment, Campagnaro et al. (2020) found that with increasing number of pedestrians
in a park, general preference and (expected) stress reduction reduces, but conversely sense of safety
increases. Kyle et al. (2022) conducted a survey to understand social norms related with crowding in
a natural setting (lake). Their analysis shows that people’s emotional and behavioural responses to
encountering a crowded settings depend on their attitudes (i.e. preferences for) towards crowding, but
also their expectations for a particular time and setting. In another recent study, Gregorians et al.
(2022) also examined the eﬀect of people presence in walk-through videos of architectural space but
did not ﬁnd an eﬀect of the presence of people on measures on self-reported emotion or environmental
Several of these studies crowding is generally low and the presence of people is treated as a dichoto-
mous variable, i.e. coded as with or without people, rather than counting pedestrians. Studies which
consider larger density of people, as in central business districts, tend to ﬁnd more clear eﬀects (Schnei-
der et al., 2023). Li et al. (2019) found that high levels of crowding did not impact wayﬁnding strategies
but inﬂuenced walking behaviours. In a study comparing high versus low crowds in a downtown urban
environment, Mavros et al. (2022) found that participants reported more negative emotions and higher
arousal, accompanied with higher indices of physiological arousal and EEG markers of cognitive load.
2.4. Methodological considerations
There are three methodological considerations that emerge in this literature. Firstly, as noted by
Gregorians et al. (2022), many of the studies mentioned above rely on static images of real or artiﬁcially
generated environments, whereas urban environments are often encountered in motion, during walk-
ing or being on a moving vehicle. In response, more recent studies have emphasised the use of video
walk-throughs to emulate in laboratory conditions the dynamic aspects of environmental exposure
(e.g. Gregorians et al., 2022; Mavros et al., 2022) . Second, psychological reactions to the environ-
ment can be measured in aﬀective, cognitive-perceptual and motivational terms. Self-reported tests of
emotion following the pleasure-arousal model (a. Russell, 2009) or the positive-negative aﬀect model
(Watson et al., 1988), and can be accompanied with behavioural task (e.g. the stroop or variations of
the digit span tasks). Participants are also asked to rate multiple environmental factors (Kort et al.,
2003; Gregorians et al., 2022). More recently, researchers have started examining motivational as-
pects of environmental preferences, which can be conceptualised as an approach or avoidance decision
(Vartanian et al., 2013, 2015; Coburn, 2019). This concept relates with the notion of willingness to
visit or willingness to walk that is used in the planning literature to describe the propensity of urban
populations to walk for leisure or transport in diﬀerent environments (Ewing and Handy, 2009; Ameli
et al., 2015; Johansson et al., 2016; Sevtsuk and Basu, 2022). Through these diﬀerent measurement
approaches we can assess the multifaceted eﬀects of diﬀerent environments on human psychology and
behaviour. Lastly, one challenge in the investigations of crowding is to establish objective numbers
of people in diﬀerent spaces; this is especially diﬃcult when considering moving pedestrians. Novel
techniques that have been recently developed, such as unsupervised machine-learning, can be used to
extract such information from images and videos alike (e.g., Cao et al., 2019). This allows to study
the precise eﬀects of increasing levels of crowding, to identify tipping points when the perception of
crowding shifts from desirable to neutral or undesirable, and also to investigate whether the design of
spaces can moderate this eﬀect.
2.5. The present study
Weaving together the three strands of literature on environmental restoration, aesthetics and social
co-presence (or crowding), our study aims to understand whether the inverse-U relationship between
human crowding and its eﬀects on human’s emotional and behavioural reactions (Nouri, 2011; Cheng
et al., 2021; Eroglu et al., 2005; Mehta et al., 2013) is moderated by environmental typology (urban
vs green) and aesthetics. Given also that pedestrian activity is considered positive in the planning
literature, but negative in other cases, its eﬀect on emotions, attention and restoration is unclear.
Further, it is unclear if there is constant eﬀect or a tipping point after which reactions to the presence
of people change, and if these reactions are inﬂuenced by typology (urban or green) and by aesthetic
The primary objective of the present study is to addresses these questions through a large, online,
environmental preference study. Second, in line with other recent studies(Gregorians et al., 2022),
we aim to establish a pool of of video walk-throughs (dynamic stimuli) through real-world urban
environments, varying in terms of aesthetics, crowding and typology, which can be used to study
urban experience. We consider both objective social density (i.e. people count) as well as the subjective
judgement of perceived crowding to understand how psychological experience is moderated by spatial
and environmental factors. Here we take advantage of state-of-the-art machine learning methods to
automatically derive pedestrian counts in the video stimuli. To the best of our knowledge, this study is
the ﬁrst to investigate the joint eﬀects of crowding and beauty (aesthetics) on the emotional experience
and perceptions of diﬀerent environments. Our research questions can be summarised in the following
H1 There is an interaction between aesthetic judgement (beauty) and crowding on their eﬀect on
emotional experience; i.e., highly aesthetic (beautiful) environments are perceived positively re-
gardless of the level of pedestrian activity, whereas perceptions of less aesthetic environments are
more positive when there moderate levels of crowding;
H2 There is an inverse-U relationship between levels of pedestrian crowding and aﬀective experience,
i.e., moderate levels of pedestrian crowding lead to more positive emotions.
H3 Environment Typology (green or urban) moderates the eﬀect of social density on aesthetic judge-
ments and aﬀective experience, i.e., more pedestrian activity leads to a larger decrease in aﬀective
ratings in green spaces, compared to urban spaces.
H4 Environment beauty moderates the eﬀect of social density on aﬀective experience.
H5 Personality traits explain inter-individual diﬀerences in the eﬀects of crowding on aesthetic judge-
ments of green and urban spaces.
3. Materials and Methods
3.1. Data and code availability
The study was pre-registered on the Open Science Framework (osf.io), including the sample size,
hypotheses and analyses plan. The preregistration ﬁle, the preprocessed (i.e., cleaned) data and analysis
scripts are available on OSF project page (https://osf.io/pwz6g/).
Data from a total of 377 participants (Mean age = 30.8, SD = 10.0, range: [18, 67]; Sex: 49.3%
female) were included in analysis, while data from 31 participants were excluded from analysis due
to attention or streaming issues (see Section 3.7.1). All participants were recruited via the online
platform prolific.co (see Table 1), with recruitment criteria requiring that they complete the study
from a desktop computer, and that they are willing to turn-on their webcam (used solely to assess their
attention on the task with the webgazer.js plugin; no videos were recorded and data are not analysed
in this article). The sample size was determined to 320 in order to ensure at least 20 participants rated
each stimulus (see below, 16 sets of 30 stimuli). Due to randomisation, technical issues, and participant
failure in attention checks, data collection continued until each set of stimuli was watched at least by
20 participants. The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Nanyang Technological
University (IRB-2022-188) . All methods described in this section were performed in accordance with
the Declaration of Helsinki, and with the relevant guidelines and regulations.
Table 1: Participant characteristics
Total Female Male
n = 377 n = 186 n = 191
18–29 229 (60.7%) 112 (60.2%) 117 (61.3%)
30-49 125 (33.2%) 61 (32.8%) 64 (33.5%)
50-64 22 (5.8%) 12 (6.5%) 10 (5.2%)
65+ 1 (0.3%) 1 (0.5%) 0 (0%)
Architecture 17 (4.5%) 9 (4.8%) 8 (4.2%)
Arts 50 (13.3%) 26 (14%) 24 (12.6%)
Other 310 (82.2%) 151 (81.2%) 159 (83.2%)
Asian 31 (8.2%) 15 (8.1%) 16 (8.4%)
Black 54 (14.3%) 33 (17.7%) 21 (11%)
Mixed 55 (14.6%) 28 (15.1%) 27 (14.1%)
Other 24 (6.4%) 10 (5.4%) 14 (7.3%)
White 213 (56.5%) 100 (53.8%) 113 (59.2%)
Other (e.g., unemployed, retired) 209 (55.4%) 106 (57%) 103 (53.9%)
Working/Studying 168 (44.6%) 80 (43%) 88 (46.1%)
Other 189 (50.1%) 86 (46.2%) 103 (53.9%)
Urban 188 (49.9%) 100 (53.8%) 88 (46.1%)
Other 126 (33.4%) 62 (33.3%) 64 (33.5%)
Urban 251 (66.6%) 124 (66.7%) 127 (66.5%)
99.5 (1.0) 99.5 (1.0) 99.5 (1.0)
3.3. Study Design
We followed a repeated measures partial incomplete block study design (Figure 1, see also prereg-
istration https://osf.io/pwz6g/). The 480 stimuli were pre-allocated in 16 sets of 30, which were
balanced to ensure diversity of environments (see below). Participants were randomly assigned to
watch 1 set of 30 video stimuli and their presentation was randomised to reduce potential order eﬀects.
Each stimulus was watched and rated by a minimum 20 participants.
A database of a total of 480 video stimuli was curated from publicly available online sources of
ﬁrst-person perspective, unedited, ‘walking’ videos, i.e., a walk through in a real-world environment
(Figure 2) from .
The original videos can sometimes be more than 1 hour long, covering hundreds of meters and
many streets in one or more neighbourhoods of a town or city. Stimuli for the study were created by
extracting sub-clips between 20 and 60 seconds. These sub-clips were chosen so that the environments
varied in terms of (i) environment typology (408 urban and 72 green space), (ii) levels of crowding
(ranging from empty to very crowded), aesthetic qualities, as well as geographic origin. The original
Repeats X 31 (demo + 30 videos)
Figure 1: Schematic diagram of study design and experimental procedures.
Figure 2: Still frames extracted from 16 out of the 480 video walk-throughs that were used as stimuli. The videos,
obtained from public sources, originate from 31 diﬀerent places (cities, parks and forests) across 20 countries.
videos were edited to extract sections of linear movement with minimal changes in camera direction
(panning) – in other words the person is walking forward and the camera looks forward in the direction
of movement. Finally, the videos were displayed for a maximum duration of 30 seconds so that
environmental exposure is consistent across stimuli. Stimuli are made available on a public repository
2when their license allows redistribution, to enable further research.
The stimuli pool of 480 videos was then subdivided into 16 sets of 30 video clips, that we tried to
balance using the following pipeline: we ﬁrst performed image processing, using the python libraries:
cv2 (opencv.org) and pyllusion (realitybending.github.io/Pyllusion/), on all frames from each
video, extracting an average score in terms of Number of Faces, Colorfulness, Contrast, Perceived
Luminance and Entropy. We then applied K-Means clustering on the ﬁve metrics, resulting in 3
clusters, and partitioned the total pool into 16 sets of 30 videos so that each set has an equal proportion
of videos from each cluster. During data collection, the 16 sets of videos remained consistent, but their
order of presentation was shuﬄed to reduce potential order eﬀects.
During data analysis, we repeated the crowd detection in each video, using the more advanced
OpenPose library (Cao et al., 2019). OpenPose is a robust, scalable, online library for pose-detection in
larger crowds which allowed us to estimate the number of people detected in each frame. We computed
the average pedestrian count per video, which we used in later analyses as an index of “objective
crowding” and we refer to as ’Pedestrian counts’ to diﬀerentiate from self-reported, or subjective,
3.5. Item ratings & questionnaires
Immediately after the presentation of each video, reactions to stimuli were captured with two sets
of ratings. First, participants were asked to rate their (i) ‘willingness to walk’, (ii) their psychological
reaction using Russell’s ‘circumplex model of aﬀect’ (a. Russell, 2009) (they were asked to rate their
experience in terms of valence - negative to positive - and arousal - calm to excited - on a 9-point
bipolar scale), and (iii) their sense of presence (with a single item; "I had a sense of being there in
that place") as a manipulation check. (iv) To relate our ﬁndings with research on restorative theory,
we also included a single item from the perceived restorativeness scale as suggested by Lombardi and
Ciceri (2021); "Spending time there would give me a good break from my day-to-day routine".
Second, participants were asked to complete a brief environment appraisal for each stimulus. Seven
bipolar adjective items were selected from the semantic diﬀerential scale for environmental evaluation
(Kort et al., 2003): boring-interesting, narrow-wide, ugly-beautiful, chaotic-ordered, unfamiliar-familiar,
unattractive-scenic, and empty-crowded.
After watching all the stimuli, participants also completed the mini-IPIP6 (Sibley et al., 2011),
measuring Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Intellect/Imagination, and
Honesty-Humility with 7 point Likert scales, a short-form version of the stimulus screening ability scale
(Mehrabian, 1977) to measure the participants’ reaction towards distracting stimuli (associated with
the need for privacy in workplaces and psychological reactions towards perceived crowding; see Oldham,
1988; Maher and von Hippel, 2005), one item from the noise sensitivity scale (“I get used to most noises
without much diﬃculty"; Benﬁeld et al., 2014), and the short form versions of the social phobia (SPS)
and the short social interaction anxiety (SIAS) scales (Peters et al., 2012). Finally, participants were
also asked to rate their general attitudes towards walking in crowded environments and, because the
study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were also asked to rate how concerned
they generally are about contracting COVID-19 when they are walking within crowded places (see
questionnaire items in the Appendix).
The experiment procedure was implemented in jsPsych (de Leeuw, 2015), and the full code for
the task is available at https://github.com/pmavros/nice_online_study/. Data collection was
performed using the platform https://cognition.run and participant management was performed
using Prolific.co, a platform and subject pool for online experiments which is consider to oﬀer more
transparency and ethical treatment of participants, e.g., in terms of minimum payment (Palan and
Schitter, 2018) and its participant pool is providing more reliable and attentive responses to studies
(Peer et al., 2022). Upon providing informed consent, participants were randomly assigned to one of
16 lists of videos and were shown the 30 videos walkthroughs in a randomized order. The experiment
consisted of three main phases: (i) instructions and calibration of the eye-tracking (used as an attention
check and not analysed in this article), (ii) a demo trial and 30 trials of presentation and rating of
video walk-throughs, and (iii) completing a personality and demographic survey. In line with Proliﬁc’s
guidelines, participants in our study were compensated at a rate of GBP 9 (approx US$10) per hour,
independent of their geographic location. Data collection was performed over several dates and at
diﬀerent times of the day, as an eﬀort to reduce the geographic bias of respondents.
3.7. Data Analysis
Data analysis was carried out using Python and R (version 4.2.0, R Core Team, 2022), with the
help of the tidyverse (Wickham et al., 2019) and the easystats (Makowski et al., 2020) collections of
packages. The full reproducible analysis script is available at
3.7.1. Preprocessing steps and data quality
A series of checks to ensure data quality. First, participants who abandoned before completing all
stages (technical and other reasons) were removed. Second, we performed attention checks based on the
‘browser window’ state, i.e. which detected whether the participants had other windows open in their
computer (they were informed in advance, and provided a reminder halfway through the session that
we keep track of their focus). We only included all trials where participants had the browser window
(i.e., the study tab) in ’focus’ and in full-screen; all other trials were removed. Data from participants
who were found to be distracted for more than 2 stimuli were removed completely. We also removed
participants with low variance in responses (i.e. average standard deviation across stimuli less than
0.75), as well as participants who had diﬃculties in the video playback (i.e., streaming); speciﬁcally, if
the video buﬀering exceeded the video duration (i.e., more than 30 seconds of buﬀering), as this could
impact the viewing experience and subsequent response. Two participants that experienced repeatedly
video playback less than video duration were also removed. In summary, out of 408 participants
who completed the study, 31 were removed after the preprocessing steps described above, leaving 377
included for analysis.
3.7.2. Statistical approach
Statistical analyses were performed using generalised mixed models. Since we hypothesised that
the eﬀect of crowding has an inverse-U shape, we modelled pedestrian counts and perceived crowding
using second-order polynomial terms (see Supplementary materials for analysis code). In the next
section we present descriptive statistics for the variables measured, perform a manipulation check, and
report statistical models for subjective crowding, perceived beauty, psychological reactions, as well as
the eﬀect of personality traits on preferences for crowded environments.
4.1. Descriptives of responses to stimuli
After removing participants with low attention, low eﬀort, or streaming diﬃculties (see Sec-
tion 3.7.1), we analysed 11117 trials from 377 participants, corresponding to ≈29.5 trials per par-
ticipant. Each video was seen on average 23.2 ±1.88 times. Table 2 shows the number of valid
responses for a total of 11117 trials, the mean and standard deviation for each dimension of emotional
responses and environmental appraisals. As an initial exploratory analysis, Bayesian t-tests, which
are more robust to multiple comparisons, show decisive evidence for a diﬀerence between the green
and urban space typologies. Further, a partial correlation matrix (Figure 3) shows clear associations
between the measures themselves, in particular positive correlations between emotional dimensions of
valence and arousal, willingness to walk, restoration and presence with the beauty, structure, width
and interest evoked by an environment. We can also observe a negative correlation between subjective
crowding, and valence, beauty and restoration; in addition this relationship changes depending on the
typology. These relationships are examined in more depth below.
Table 2: Descriptive statistics of emotional reactions and environmental appraisals of the stimuli, grouped by typology.
Urban (408 stimuli) Green (72 stimuli)
Unique (#) Mean SD Unique (#) Mean SD BF*
WillingnessToWalk 9289 3.63 1.73 1620 4.82 1.45 324.02
Arousal 9380 3.90 1.50 1639 3.27 1.89 110.38
Valence 9380 4.75 1.45 1639 5.81 1.27 367.35
Restoration 9459 3.25 1.92 1658 4.85 1.48 487.29
Presence 9458 4.23 1.58 1658 4.71 1.44 63.18
Beauty 9457 4.41 1.53 1657 5.89 1.27 647.00
Crowdedness 9456 4.41 1.79 1658 2.98 1.82 427.16
Width 9456 4.21 1.74 1656 5.11 1.81 180.22
Structure 9453 4.38 1.66 1656 5.47 1.41 304.94
Scenic 9453 4.24 1.61 1658 5.82 1.34 665.64
Interest 9456 4.34 1.80 1657 5.35 1.59 221.00
Familiarity 9455 4.10 1.76 1658 4.50 1.82 31.53
(*) Bayes Factor of a bayesian t-test
Figure 3: (A) Overview of average ratings for each video stimulus. (B) Correlation Matrix between self-reported measures
of emotion and environmental appraisals for videos of urban (B1) and green (B2) environments.
4.2. Manipulation check
As a manipulation check, we asked participants to report their sense of presence while watching
each video. On a scale from 1 to 7, the average presence score was 4.3, reﬂecting the fact that this study
was conducted online and participants viewed the stimuli (videos) on a computer screen. However,
we also observed an interaction between levels of crowding, perceived beauty and sense of presence
(Figure 4). Participants reported a higher sense of presence in environments considered beautiful, and
sense of presence increased with higher levels of crowding for environments considered less beautiful.
4.3. Determinants of subjective crowding
Figure 4: (A) Joint eﬀects of beauty, typology, and environmental characteristics on perceptions of crowding. (B) Joint
eﬀects of typology and crowding on perceptions of environmental beauty. (C) Joint eﬀects of beauty, typology, and
crowding on psychological reactions. Note that lines show model estimates, whereas 2D density layer (background)
shows raw values.
Psychological perceptions of crowding are a composite of the actual number of people in a loca-
tion, together with spaciousness, and other characteristics of the physical and social environment. To
examine which environmental and psychological factors inﬂuence the degree to which an environment
is considered crowded (Figure 4 A), we ﬁtted linear mixed eﬀects models (LMM), specifying subjective
crowding as the outcome (dependent variable), and specifying as ﬁxed eﬀects typology (green vs urban)
and log-transformed pedestrian counts (see deﬁnition in Methods). We also included participants as
random eﬀects and included random slopes for the eﬀects of interest. We ﬁtted four models, one for
each environmental appraisal: beauty,scenery,structure, and width. Table 3 shows results of the LMM
ﬁtted to each appraisal (separate models). There is a signiﬁcant eﬀect for average pedestrian counts
and familiarity with subjective crowding. Further we found a statistically signiﬁcant negative eﬀect
of each of the four factors on subjective crowding, in other words environments that are considered
Table 3: Linear mixed-eﬀects models of Subjective Crowding.
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Term Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI
(Intercept) 1.642*** [1.463, 1.821] 1.544*** [1.374, 1.714] 1.851*** [1.684, 2.017] 3.760*** [3.562, 3.957]
Ped.Counts [log1p] 1.850*** [1.760, 1.939] 1.879*** [1.797, 1.962] 1.844*** [1.766, 1.923] 1.180*** [1.093, 1.267]
Beauty -0.035+ [-0.072, 0.003]
Typology [green] 0.003 [-0.300, 0.307] 0.091 [-0.195, 0.377] -0.119 [-0.327, 0.088] -0.871*** [-1.135, -0.607]
Familiarity 0.028*** [0.014, 0.043] 0.026*** [0.011, 0.040] 0.039*** [0.024, 0.053] 0.055*** [0.042, 0.068]
Ped.Counts [log1p] ×Beauty -0.028** [-0.047, -0.008]
Ped.Counts [log1p] ×Typology [green] 0.565*** [0.460, 0.670] 0.582*** [0.477, 0.687] 0.593*** [0.494, 0.692] 0.662*** [0.567, 0.758]
Beauty ×Typology [green] -0.054* [-0.104, -0.004]
Scenic -0.009 [-0.045, 0.028]
Ped.Counts [log1p] ×Scenic -0.038*** [-0.056, -0.019]
Scenic ×Typology [green] -0.075** [-0.122, -0.027]
Width -0.079*** [-0.113, -0.046]
Ped.Counts [log1p] ×Width -0.040*** [-0.057, -0.024]
Width ×Typology [green] -0.045* [-0.081, -0.009]
Structure -0.416*** [-0.454, -0.378]
Ped.Counts [log1p] ×Structure 0.048*** [0.031, 0.066]
Structure ×Typology [green] 0.094*** [0.051, 0.137]
Num.Obs. 11107 11104 11105 11102
R2 Cond. 0.631 0.632 0.646 0.689
R2 Marg. 0.565 0.564 0.575 0.621
wider and more structured, scenic, and beautiful, are perceived as less crowded. In addition, we found
signiﬁcant interactions between pedestrian counts, beauty, scenicness, structure and width. In other
words, for the same number of people, ratings of subjective crowding are lower for environments that
are rated as more spacious, ordered, scenic and beautiful.
4.4. Determinants of perceived environmental beauty
We then looked at the parameters associated with higher ratings of environmental beauty. We
ﬁtted non-linear mixed models (NLMM) specifying beauty as the outcome (dependent) variable, and
ﬁxed eﬀects for typology and familiarity. We ﬁtted four models, one for each environmental appraisal:
subjective crowding, structure, scenicness, and width; all were speciﬁed as second-degree polynomials to
test for an inverse-U eﬀect. We also included participants as random eﬀects and included random slopes
for the eﬀects of interest. Table 4 show the model results. We found a consistent eﬀect of environmental
typology, where videos of green spaces are rated as more beautiful. We found statistically signiﬁcant
eﬀects for structure, scenicness and spaciousness, however, the models suggest these relationships are
linear (2nd degree polynomial is not signiﬁcant). There was also a small but signiﬁcant positive eﬀect
of familiarity, i.e., environments that look more familiar were considered more beautiful. Importantly,
we ﬁnd signiﬁcant negative eﬀect of crowding and perceptions of beauty, which is ampliﬁed as crowding
increases (Figure 4B).
Table 4: Non-linear mixed eﬀects models of Perceived Beauty.
0 Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Term Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI
(Intercept) 3.861*** [3.764, 3.957] 4.006*** [3.919, 4.094] 4.469*** [4.422, 4.516] 4.071*** [3.983, 4.159]
Subj. Crowding [1st degree] -0.972 [-5.336, 3.391]
Subj. Crowding [2nd degree] -17.489*** [-20.562, -14.416]
Typology [green] 1.328*** [1.245, 1.410] 1.087*** [1.010, 1.165] 0.243*** [0.189, 0.297] 1.178*** [1.107, 1.249]
Familiarity 0.133*** [0.117, 0.150] 0.113*** [0.098, 0.128] 0.033*** [0.024, 0.042] 0.099*** [0.084, 0.115]
Subj. Crowding [1st degree] ×Typology [green] -18.689*** [-27.473, -9.904]
Subj. Crowding [2nd degree] ×Typology [green] 9.603* [1.638, 17.567]
Structure [1st degree] 55.409*** [51.183, 59.636]
Structure [2nd degree] 4.805** [1.783, 7.827]
Structure [1st degree] ×Typology [green] 0.514 [-8.989, 10.017]
Structure [2nd degree] ×Typology [green] -3.159 [-11.461, 5.143]
Scenic [1st degree] 137.104*** [134.614, 139.594]
Scenic [2nd degree] -2.104* [-3.992, -0.216]
Scenic [1st degree] ×Typology [green] 1.391 [-4.896, 7.679]
Scenic [2nd degree] ×Typology [green] -4.448+ [-9.594, 0.698]
Width [1st degree] 59.713*** [55.215, 64.210]
Width [2nd degree] 5.092*** [2.085, 8.099]
Width [1st degree] ×Typology [green] -17.449*** [-24.457, -10.440]
Width [2nd degree] ×Typology [green] 1.021 [-5.801, 7.842]
Num.Obs. 11107 11102 11104 11105
R2 Cond. 0.366 0.519 0.797 0.539
R2 Marg. 0.136 0.195 0.688 0.193
4.5. The joint psychological eﬀect of crowding and beauty
Table 5: Non-linear mixed eﬀects models of psychological reaction.
0 WillingnessToWalk Valence Arousal Restoration Presence
Term Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI Est. 95% CI
(Intercept) 0.020 [-0.080, 0.120] 1.622*** [1.539, 1.705] 2.929*** [2.802, 3.056] -0.399*** [-0.520, -0.279] 2.490*** [2.353, 2.627]
Typology [green] 0.023 [-0.271, 0.318] -0.013 [-0.253, 0.227] -0.024 [-0.396, 0.348] 0.575*** [0.248, 0.902] 0.062 [-0.209, 0.333]
Familiarity 0.051*** [0.038, 0.065] 0.065*** [0.054, 0.076] 0.007 [-0.009, 0.024] 0.007 [-0.008, 0.021] 0.151*** [0.138, 0.163]
Typology [urban] ×Subj. Crowding [1st degree] -6.052+ [-12.498, 0.395] -8.555** [-13.828, -3.281] 13.632** [5.459, 21.805] 1.918 [-5.321, 9.157] 15.067*** [9.065, 21.068]
Typology [green] ×Subj. Crowding [1st degree] -23.512+ [-48.895, 1.870] -41.439*** [-62.274, -20.605] 6.878 [-25.421, 39.177] -22.054 [-50.641, 6.533] 15.103 [-8.575, 38.781]
Typology [urban] ×Subj. Crowding [2nd degree] -26.946*** [-33.409, -20.482] -30.770*** [-36.058, -25.482] 13.767*** [5.571, 21.962] -15.490*** [-22.749, -8.230] 3.827 [-2.192, 9.845]
Typology [green] ×Subj. Crowding [2nd degree] -30.196* [-54.042, -6.349] -44.388*** [-63.912, -24.864] -2.553 [-32.816, 27.710] -25.095+ [-51.919, 1.729] -16.595 [-38.815, 5.626]
Typology [urban] ×Beauty 0.771*** [0.756, 0.787] 0.650*** [0.637, 0.663] 0.201*** [0.182, 0.221] 0.823*** [0.805, 0.840] 0.255*** [0.240, 0.269]
Typology [green] ×Beauty 0.757*** [0.708, 0.806] 0.653*** [0.613, 0.694] 0.087** [0.025, 0.149] 0.776*** [0.721, 0.830] 0.250*** [0.204, 0.295]
Typology [urban] ×Subj. Crowding [1st degree] ×Beauty 0.767 [-0.627, 2.161] 0.974+ [-0.166, 2.113] 7.536*** [5.770, 9.302] -1.402+ [-2.967, 0.163] -2.505*** [-3.802, -1.207]
Typology [green] ×Subj. Crowding [1st degree] ×Beauty 1.179 [-3.212, 5.569] 5.060** [1.459, 8.661] 3.839 [-1.743, 9.422] 1.488 [-3.451, 6.427] -2.955 [-7.046, 1.137]
Typology [urban] ×Subj. Crowding [2nd degree] ×Beauty 3.111*** [1.706, 4.516] 4.637*** [3.488, 5.787] -3.858*** [-5.640, -2.077] 0.961 [-0.617, 2.539] -0.502 [-1.810, 0.806]
Typology [green] ×Subj. Crowding [2nd degree] ×Beauty 2.653 [-1.411, 6.716] 6.075*** [2.747, 9.402] -0.259 [-5.417, 4.899] 2.748 [-1.822, 7.318] 1.934 [-1.851, 5.720]
Num.Obs. 10899 11009 11009 11107 11106
R2 Cond. 0.640 0.664 0.311 0.645 0.625
R2 Marg. 0.545 0.563 0.127 0.497 0.118
Following the separate analyses of the factors which inﬂuence perceptions of crowding and beauty,
we looked at the joint eﬀect of beauty and crowding on psychological reactions: willingness to walk,
valence, arousal, restoration, interest and presence. We ﬁtted NLMMs, specifying each reaction as the
outcome variable, adding polynomial predictors for subjective crowding, and ﬁxed eﬀects for typology
and beauty. Table 5 shows model estimates and performance. In Figure 4(B) it can be observed
that spaces that are considered as more beautiful, are consistently rated higher in willingness to visit,
leading to more positive emotions, excitement, sense of presence and sense of restoration. Green
spaces are rated as more lower in arousal, but for the other variables after taking beauty into account
ratings of valence, willingess to walk, and presence are similar. Further, we can observe an inverse-U
relationship between levels of crowding and valence, willingness to walk, and restoration. Presence
appears modulated by the interaction of beauty and typology, but not crowding.
4.6. Individual diﬀerences in preference for crowding
Last, to understand individual diﬀerence in preferences for crowding, we analysed self-reported
preference for crowded environments is related with participant characteristics, personality traits and
participants’ own responses to the diﬀerent stimuli. Overall, participants tend to dislike crowded envi-
ronments (mean 1.2, on a scale 0 to 4). We performed we ﬁtted a linear mixed eﬀects model specifying
willingness to walk as the outcome variable, and ﬁxed eﬀects for average pedestrian count, and envi-
ronmental beauty, random eﬀects for participants and random for average pedestrian count. From this
model we then extracted the random intercept for each individual, which conceptually corresponds
to their average response to pedestrian crowds, as well as the random slope, which corresponds to
whether participants respond more positively or more negatively when pedestrian crowds increase.
These values were then compared with their self-reported preference for crowded environments using
Bayesian Pearson correlations. We found decisive evidence for a positive relationship between random
intercept and crowd preference (Rho = 0.24 , CrI=[0.15, 0.33], BF > 1000) as well as decisive evidence
for a positive relationship between random slope and crowd preference (Rho = 0.35, [0.25, 0.43], BF
> 1000). We then compared the self-reported preference for crowds (see Section 3.5), with age, sex,
environment of upbringing and current residence (urban vs other), and personality traits (IPIP6). We
found that individuals who self-reported higher preference for being in crowded environments, tend to
score higher in extraversion, lower in the honesty-humility scale, higher in stimulus screening ability
and also low in noise sensitivity (Table 6). We did not observe any diﬀerences explained by sex or
whether people grew up or currently live in a city.
Table 6: Determinants of Crowd preference
Parameter Median 95% CI BF
Bayesian Pearson Correlations
Crowd Prefs ~ Extraversion 0.272 [ 0.179 - 0.364 ] > 1000***
Crowd Prefs ~ Honesty -0.270 [ -0.358 - -0.177 ] > 1000***
Crowd Prefs ~ NSS -0.237 [ -0.334 - -0.144 ] > 1000***
Crowd Prefs ~ SSA 0.194 [ 0.097 - 0.289 ] 160.99***
Crowd Prefs ~ SIAS -0.118 [ -0.224 - -0.021 ] 1.83
Crowd Prefs ~ Neuroticism -0.110 [ -0.209 - -0.011 ] 1.14
Crowd Prefs ~ SPS -0.102 [ -0.201 - -0.000 ] 0.861
Crowd Prefs ~ Openness -0.038 [ -0.140 - 0.058 ] 0.159
Crowd Prefs ~ Agreeableness 0.036 [ -0.058 - 0.138 ] 0.153
Crowd Prefs ~ Conscientiousness -0.029 [ -0.128 - 0.068 ] 0.144
Crowd Prefs ~ Age -0.019 [ -0.120 - 0.082 ] 0.130
Crowd Prefs ~ Sex -0.145 [ -0.314 - 0.026 ] 0.431
Crowd Prefs ~ Upbringing Env. -0.049 [ -0.231 - 0.125 ] 0.135
Crowd prefs ~ Current Env. -0.079 [ -0.266 - 0.104 ] 0.168
The present study investigated how the presence of pedestrians in urban or natural environments, in
other words levels of crowding, as well as the aesthetic qualities of these spaces, inﬂuence psychological
and environmental perceptions. Extensive research during the last decades points to psychological
beneﬁts of being or walking in natural, compared to urban environments, and has also identiﬁed positive
psychological eﬀects of high quality architectural, urban, and natural spaces. There are however
divergent eﬀects of crowding, depending on the spatial, behavioural and social context. Furthermore,
it remains unclear what is the joint eﬀect of crowding and aesthetics – i.e., encounters with places of high
or low aesthetic qualities under diﬀerent levels of crowding. In addition, although a lot of research on
the psychological inﬂuence of urban and/or natural environments, has studied static exposure to those
environments (e.g., sitting in park or a room), here we turn our attention to the psychological eﬀects
of pedestrian experience – in other words how we experience diﬀerent urban or green environments
To address these research questions, we compiled a library of 480 videos comprised of ﬁrst-person
perspective walk-throughs that depict diﬀerent outdoor environments, sampled from online sources to
ensure an international coverage of urban and natural environments from diverse spatial, social, and
cultural contexts (30 cities and parks from 20 countries). We then conducted an online study (N=379),
asking each participant to watch a subset of 30 videos and then provide ratings of their subjective
experience, as well as ratings of qualitative environmental characteristics. In line with our hypotheses,
we ﬁnd interactions between perceptions of crowding, environmental aesthetics (perceptions of beauty)
and typology. These ﬁndings have important implications for our understanding of the relationship
between the design quality of green and urban environments, human behaviour and well-being. In the
following sections we discuss our ﬁndings, organised by theme, the limitations, policy implications and
future research directions.
5.1. Determinants of subjective crowding
We ﬁrst examine which factors inﬂuence perceptions of crowding in pedestrian settings. In line with
our expectations, we found that subjective crowding is positively correlated with pedestrian counts,
and also that for the same number of people more spacious environments are perceived as less crowded
supporting the notion of social density. We also found that environmental typology also contributes to
the relationship between objective and subjective crowding, speciﬁcally the same amount of persons in
the scene is rated as more crowded in green spaces. Notably, we observed that when adjusting for the
number of people present, spaces rated as more beautiful, scenic and ordered, are also perceived as less
crowded. Previous literature suggests that the presence of people, in the context of cities, has divergent
associations, which are in some cases negative, such as crowding in public transportSchneider et al.
(2023), and in other cases positive, for instance when considering the vibrancy of streets Gehl (2013).
Here we ﬁnd that environmental typology and aesthetics also have a moderating role, an observation
that calls for a more nuanced study of crowding, and how to mitigate its eﬀects.
5.2. Environmental perceptions
We asked participants to rate environments for beauty,scenicness,structure, and interest. In
line with recent studies, all these dimensions were positively correlated (e.g. Coburn et al., 2019;
Gregorians et al., 2022). Intuitively, we found that ratings of scenicness were closely correlated with
those of beauty, and green environments were generally perceived as more scenic. This is consistent
with past research linking scenic beauty with both the presence of green space and botanical features
(Yusufzyanova, 2020). Higher beauty ratings were also positively correlated with structure and width.
This is inline with previous studies showing that individuals consider more pleasing and prefer more
spacious indoor and outdoor environments (Vartanian et al., 2015), and relates with the notion of
enclosure (Csanády, 2019; Presti et al., 2022). Ratings of how structured an environment is were found
to be positively correlated with beauty, regardless of environment typology. This is consistent with
previous research, where orderliness predicted preference for urban parks (Olszewska-Guizzo et al.,
2022), wetland landscapes (Dobbie, 2013). This preference may partly explain the general preference
for historical architectural styles (Brielmann et al., 2022; Mouratidis and Hassan, 2020). Furthermore,
it is likely that a clear organization facilitates navigation and wayﬁnding which may also contribute to
more positive perceptions (Csanády, 2019).
Notably, we found an inverse-U relationship between subjective crowding and beauty. In other
words, environments that are rated as more beautiful are those which have moderate levels of subjective
crowding. In the contrary, empty and overly crowded environments, particularly when combined with
a narrowed and unstructured features are considered less beautiful. Past research has also linked
extremely crowded tourist sites, environments as having a negative eﬀect on the perceived attractiveness
of immediate environment (Yin et al., 2020). Furthermore, environments with too few or too many
people may evoke a lack of safety or control in an environment (Altman, 1975), and thus perceived
as less aesthetically appealing. Moreover, for the same level of subjective crowding, green spaces were
considered more beautiful. This is inline other ﬁndings that the presence of trees on urban streets
appeared to moderate the perception of pleasantness and friendliness (e.g., Basu et al., 2022). More
research is needed to tease apart these relationships and the potential implications of designing high-
density urban environments which are also aesthetically pleasing.
5.3. Determinants of psychological reaction to places
Based on previous literature (e.g. Cheng et al., 2021; Eroglu et al., 2005; Mehta et al., 2013;
Wohlwill, 1974; Altman, 1975)), we hypothesised the eﬀect of pedestrian activity on aﬀective experi-
ence to have an inverse U-shaped relationship. Supporting this, our results show that environmental
factors, including crowding and aesthetic qualities, inﬂuence aﬀective experiences. We found a complex
relationship between crowding and valence. For less beautiful green or urban spaces, there appears to
be an inverse-U relationship, whereas beautiful environments were related to positive emotions regard-
less of crowding. Valence ratings were correlated with willingness to walk, which is in line with studies
showing that people avoid unpleasant routes (Johansson et al., 2016). Urban environments were con-
sistently rated higher in terms of arousal, i.e. as more exciting, whereas green environments were rated
as more calm. In contrast, for green spaces, arousal was uncorrelated from valence, in line with other
recent ﬁndings Gregorians et al. (2022) which suggests a dissociation between how exciting or calm
an environment is, and the pleasantness of spatial experience. In contrast, for urban spaces there was
a correlation between arousal and valence – exciting spaces evoke more positive emotions. Further,
for urban environments, we observed a positive relationship between subjective crowding and arousal.
This is inline with Wohlwill’s earlier arousal theory who postulated that arousal increases along with
crowding density, and can even lead to hyper-arousal Wohlwill (1974). However, this eﬀect was not
observed for green environments, which suggests potentially diﬀerent psychological mechanisms behind
the evaluation of green and urban environments in terms of crowding.
Overall, in terms of restorativeness, for similar levels of subjective crowding, green spaces were rated
as more restorative, which is in line with previous studies (Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan, 1995; Ulrich
et al., 1991). However, when taking into account the eﬀects of beauty, we noted that urban spaces
that are rated high in terms of beauty achieve comparable levels of restorativeness ratings, which
supports earlier ﬁndings by Meidenbauer et al. (2020). For beautiful environments, restorativeness
declined steadily with increasing levels of subjective crowding. By contrast, an inverted-U eﬀect was
observed for environments rated lower in terms of beauty; these were rated most restorative when they
were depicting moderate levels of crowding, and this eﬀect was stronger for urban scenes. This ﬁnding
suggests that human co-presence, and crowding, contributes to some facets of the psychological process
of restoration, which is inline with the CLM where sense of solitude moderates restoration (Olszewska-
Guizzo et al., 2022). Given that in this study we only a single item of the perceived restorativeness
scale (’being away’), more research is needed to clarify the role of subjective crowding and aesthetics
have on restoration and typology.
Initially included as a manipulation check, participants reported a moderate sense of presence, as
would be expected from a desktop study, However, we also found that moderate levels of crowding
increased the sense of presence, which is in line with previous studies that observed a positive eﬀect
of co-presence on sense of presence, for example in virtual places (Nowak and Biocca, 2003). Notably,
this eﬀect was more pronounced for less aesthetically pleasing environments, suggesting that people
feel more drawn and immersed while watching beautiful environments, whereas for environments that
are considered less pleasing ugly, increased crowding can enhance presence and immersion.
Finally, participants indicated greater willingness to walk in environments with moderate levels of
subjective crowding, and more importantly, both typology and beauty showed signiﬁcant interactions
in this relationship. This is in line with several past studies which also found association between an
aesthetically pleasing environment and pedestrian activity (Ball et al., 2001; Inoue et al., 2010; Chan
et al., 2021), and higher preference to walk in urban environments described as having picturesque
scenery, and architecturally beautiful structures (Ferrer et al., 2015; Davies et al., 2012), whereas
individuals are less keen on walking in areas with dilapidated shop-fronts (Middleton, 2009). The results
imply that environment aesthetic can also act in mitigating the aversive eﬀect of higher crowding. In the
light of current eﬀorts to increase walking, this suggests that improving the environmental aesthetics of
walking routes – especially those with higher pedestrian ﬂows – alongside other measures like greening,
can enhance and encourage pedestrian experience.
Overall, we found that environmental typology, i.e., green versus urban spaces, played an important
role on emotional reactions and environmental appraisals. Green environments were systematically
rated as more beautiful than urban, which is consistent with past literature(Weinberger et al., 2021;
Marchand et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2018). Nevertheless, for both typologies we found moderating
eﬀects of aesthetic qualities as well as presence of people. For instance, urban environments considered
as beautiful received emotional or willingness to visit ratings that were highly similar with those of
green spaces. Beautiful urban spaces were considered more pleasant and rated higher for willingness
to walk than green environments of low beauty.
In previous studies, crowding negatively impacted the pleasure derived with being in green recre-
ational spaces (Arnberger, 2012; Arnberger and Eder, 2015). Studies have also shown that context
or frequency of visits can moderate these eﬀects. Arnberger and Eder found that green space visitors
had similar preferences for their environment, except for when they sought stress relief, in which case
visitor density became an important factor in their experience and selection of environment. Another
study by Sharp et al. (2015) showed that regular visitors, compared to ﬁrst-time or irregular visitors
expect and thus are less negatively impacted by the crowding. In our study, we found an additional
moderating factor. After controlling for levels of familiarity with each scene, green spaces with higher
levels of beauty were less inﬂuenced by subjective crowding, compared to green spaces with lower lev-
els of beauty, in terms of evoking positive emotions and a desire to visit. Similarly, for urban spaces,
aesthetic qualities, i.e., higher beauty, appear to mitigate the negative eﬀects of increased crowding.
5.5. Individual diﬀerences
We hypothesised that personality traits will be associated with inter-individual diﬀerences in aes-
thetic judgements of green versus urban spaces, and our results support this hypothesis. We measured
personality traits directly with a custom questionnaire to obtain self-reported preference for crowds, as
well as indirectly by assessing emotional reactions (valence and willingness-to-walk ratings) for crowded
environments, in other words whether they felt more pleasant and wished to visit places with higher
levels of crowding. First of all, we found that direct and indirect measures of preference for crowds
were highly correlated, suggesting that both approaches assess a common underlying preference. We
then compared self-reported preference for crowds with personality traits, and found that self-reported
preference for crowded environments correlated positively with extraversion, and negatively with noise
sensitivity, honesty-humility, and stimulus screening ability. We found no eﬀect of gender, or whether
participants grew up or live in an urban versus non-urban environment. In other words, overall people
are aversive towards crowded place, but more extroverted people enjoy being in more crowded envi-
ronments, whereas people who are less cooperative or they are more sensitive to stimuli and noise tend
to dislike more crowded environments.
5.6. Limitations and future work
This study presents a number of limitations. First of all, exposure to the diﬀerent environments
was simulated through short 30-second videos viewed on a desktop computer without sound. Thus
participants’ emotional reactions and behaviour (e.g., gaze) may diﬀer from physically walking within
these environments (Foulsham et al., 2011; Lin et al., 2020), and having a complete multi-sensory
experience which includes auditory (including noise pollution, e.g. Zare Sakhvidi et al., 2018) and
olfactory information (Bentley et al., 2022). Second, our stimuli present environments to a certain
degree, but there exist other more extreme cases of pedestrian crowding that we could not ﬁnd adequate
videos for our testing; future work should examine reactions to higher numbers of pedestrians. Third,
despite our eﬀorts to mitigate and control for diﬀerences in the presentation of stimuli (e.g. video
quality) or participant attention (see Methods), due to the nature of an online study, it is still possible
that some of these issues inﬂuenced the results. Last, in the present study we did not assess factors that
may modulate and moderate feelings of safety, (e.g. such as graﬃti or litter Beenackers et al., 2013;
Kweon et al., 2021). Future studies should address these methodological issues and also investigate
more speciﬁc features and aspects of the scenes pedestrians are exposed to for determining their impact
on aﬀect, restoration, etc, in urban and green spaces.
5.7. Implications for design
•Strive for high aesthetic quality for spaces which accommodate large pedestrian crowds
•Prioritise green spaces of high aesthetic value to enhance positive psychological eﬀects
•Use strategies to limit crowding in green spaces to ensure restorative psychological eﬀects
In conclusion, this study investigated the joint eﬀects of environmental aesthetics, typology and
crowding on the psychological experience of urban and green spaces. A database with 480 dynamic
stimuli (video walkthroughs) with international coverage of 30 cities / 20 countries was established, and
used in a large online study (N = 377) following a screen-based environmental exposure paradigm. Our
results show environmental perceptions, speciﬁcally beauty and order, have an attenuating eﬀect on
the subjective experience of crowding. We also found an inverse-U relationship between crowding and
psychological outcomes (positive emotions, arousal, willingness to walk), highlighting that moderate
levels of pedestrian activity can increased the desirability of both urban and green spaces.
These results advance our understanding of person-environment interactions, and contribute to
the ongoing debate about the psychological impact of urban environments. Our main ﬁnding that
aesthetics increased the positive emotional experience and desirability of urban spaces, as well as
makes these spaces more restorative has implications not only for environmental psychology but also
for design and planning. Our results also suggest that to a certain extent environmental aesthetics can
mitigate subjective crowding. In other words for the same number of people, spaces that are designed
to higher aesthetic standards are associated with improved psychological reactions. This ﬁnding has
potential implications for the design of public spaces and pedestrian facilities. For instance, spaces
that are expected to accommodate large pedestrian crowds, aesthetic designs can mitigate some of the
psychological eﬀects. Making aesthetic quality a mandate for the design of spaces, especially those
that accommodate large numbers of pedestrians, may also bring psychological and other beneﬁts.
Future work should investigate subconscious cognitive and emotional processes that take place during
the experience of urban and green spaces, positive and negative eﬀects of pedestrian co-presence for
emotional wellbeing promotion, as well as strive for more ecologically valid experimental designs, for
instance outside the lab.
We would like to acknowledge the creators of the original videos that were used to generate the stim-
uli (Youtube accounts): @4kseoulwalkingtour400, @Yi1080, @BangkokUnmasked, @ASimpleVideoSG,
@ADTravel, @NordinWalks, @letsgowalkingtour, @elmundotravel7396, @revisualsla, @poptravelorg,
This research was supported by a Intra-CREATE Seed Collaboration Grant (NRF2021-ITS008-
0010) from the National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Oﬃce, Singapore, under its Campus
for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) programme.
Appendix A. Stimuli location
Stimuli were sourced from video clips ﬁlmed in 20 countries (Austria, Canada, Czech Republic,
France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain,
Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, UK, USA), and more 31 diﬀerent locations/cities. Speciﬁcally:
Amsterdam (18 clips), Bangkok (4), Cuxhaven (8), Dublin (31), Esquimalt (4), Georgetown (15),
Heraklion (3), Istanbul (13), Jurong Lake (2), Kaiserslautern (13), Kakum National Park (2), Lille (23),
Liverpool (18), London (39), Manheim (11), Milan (17), New York (11), Nottingham (9), Palisades
Interstate Park (2), Prague (7), Salem, Oregon (3), Salzburg (10), Santa Monica (10), Seoul (18),
Singapore (65), Stockholm (18), Usti Nam Labem (22), Valencia (14), Vancouver (27), Vienna (27),
Appendix B. Additional questionnaires
Appendix B.1. Preference for crowds
To assess the degree to which people might enjoy being in the presence of pedestrian crowds during
diﬀerent situations, the following three questions were devised, presented in a randomised order, and
rated on a 5 point scale from Strongly disagree to Strongly agree. The score was calculated as the
average of the three responses:
•I like being in crowded places.
•During my leisure time, I enjoy walking downtown among pedestrian crowds.
•During my commute, I like being in a crowded public transport.
Appendix B.2. Concern for Covid-19
To assess the degree to which people might be concerned about contracting Covid-19, the following
four questions were devised, presented in a randomised order, and rated on a 5 point scale from Strongly
disagree to Strongly agree. The score was calculated as the average of the four responses:
•Contracting COVID-19 is something that worries me when I am in a crowd.
•When I am in public spaces, I pay a lot of attention if people are wearing their masks.
•Because of COVID, I avoid going to busy locations like downtown, shop, or malls.
•I think when you are outdoors there is not a lot of risk to contract COVID. [Reversed]
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