Exploring Sensory Cities for Enhanced User Experience: In Conversation with Alexandra Gomes

Exploring Sensory Cities for Enhanced User Experience: In Conversation with Alexandra Gomes

Alexandra Gomes is a Research Fellow at LSE Cities, London School of Economics and Political Science, responsible for coordinating spatial analysis across a range of projects. Additionally, she holds a Teaching position at UCL Bartlett School of Planning and is a Guest Teacher for the LSE MSc City Design and Social Science.

She has strong interdisciplinary skills and her focus spans socio-spatial comparative analysis and urban policy with an interest in sustainable mobility, health inequalities, public space, urban sensescapes, and visual communication. She has led and coordinated research projects across diverse scales and geographies, spanning Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

In the last few years, she has expanded her interest into the realm of visual and artistic outputs, using street photography, exhibitions, games – with the Kuwaitscapes card game -and video to foster knowledge exchange and community engagement.

Another crucial aspect of this analysis is how user experience is influenced by or influences socio-spatial inequalities. This element is frequently heightened by the scarcity of open access and available data, a challenge prevalent worldwide but particularly pronounced in data-scarce geographical regions such as Africa or Asia. However, just by recognising both the opportunities and challenges inherent in user experience, we are already laying the groundwork for a more informed and holistic understanding of the human-environment relationship.

Q: Please describe the multisensory approach to your work.

AG: In my urban planning background, I’ve come to understand the profound influence of non-visual senses, such as smell, sound, and touch, wield over public spaces and those who use it. Despite this pivotal role, most research and policy still tend to focus on visual aspects. Even today, sensory awareness and resulting emotions hardly play a role in discussions about the future of cities. While the use of street photography, maps, and satellite imagery offers abundant visual data and metrics, the complexity of human sensory experiences and their profound impact on people’s lives often remain concealed from our view.

As a response to this gap, my PhD research centred on the concept of “sensescapes” to dissect the interplay between the body, senses, and urban environment in public spaces. By engaging people in interviews while they’re immersed in their environment and examining the nuances of their verbal expressions, I achieved a depth of understanding that quantitative methods alone couldn’t provide. This led to the development of a framework of analysis that uncovers how our spatial dynamics are influenced by the three senses. It highlights the factors that set one space apart from another and maps how these factors collectively shape the sensory realm and consequently, the sense of place.

It is my hope, now that my PhD is finished and available online, that it can raise awareness and trigger public debate on the pivotal role of non-visual senses in urban planning and design. It helps evaluate the sensory impact of design alternatives and provides practitioners and policymakers with the necessary insights for more confident decision-making. Redirecting the focus of design away from mere aesthetics and functionality towards a more nurturing and emotional sense of attachment within our urban landscapes.

Q: What is the role of visuals/maps and gamification in your work?

AG: In my work I conduct comparative socio-spatial analysis of cities. Through research, mapping, and other forms of visualisation, I seek to understand how the built environment influences society, cultures, and the environment. As they say at LSE Cities – an interdisciplinary research centre investigating the social, spatial, and environmental complexities of the 21st-century city – I study how cities and people interact in a rapidly urbanising world. However, to identify necessary changes in public policy, we need a deeper understanding of the current situation in cities. This is where maps and other visuals come into play, allowing us to make this type of assessment.

Therefore, I employ visuals to support and enrich the research narrative or as the end product of analysis. The versatility of these elements lies in their ability to be used at different scales and in various forms, enabling them to illustrate a wide array of indicators, factors, or elements within the urban environment that might be challenging to understand with other media. Hence, many of LSE Cities’ publications (e.g., the Urban Age programme) are highly visual.

Selecting the optimal visual tool is frequently a challenge, and I believe there isn’t a single solution . The choice of visual type depends on the research’s purpose and how effectively it communicates the research narrative. For instance, in contrast to my work at the Urban Age programme, which primarily involves photography, maps, and graphics, my research in the Gulf, alongside my colleagues in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, uses a combination of visual media such as games, videos and street photography. This approach aims to engage a broad spectrum of individuals — from children to adults, from lay citizens to planners and designers — and to facilitate discussions on real urban issues while encouraging these individuals to consider the diversity of people living in these cities and using their public spaces. In a way, it helps bridge the knowledge gap on urban planning and design among these diverse groups, aiming to influence both current and future generations of citizens, educators, activists, and decision-makers.