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Why bright city lights dazzle and illuminate: A cognitive science approach to urban promises


  • Rodrigo Cardoso

    (Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, The Netherlands)

  • Evert Meijers

    (Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, The Netherlands)

  • Maarten van Ham

    (Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, The Netherlands; University of St. Andrews, School of Geography and Sustainable Development, UK)

  • Martijn Burger

    (Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

  • Duco de Vos

    (Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, The Netherlands)


Despite the many uncertainties of life in cities, promises of economic prosperity, social mobility and happiness have fuelled the imagination of generations of urban migrants in search of a better life. Access to jobs, housing and amenities, and fewer restrictions of personal choices are some of the perceived advantages of cities, characterised here as ‘urban promises’. But while discourses celebrating the triumph of cities became increasingly common, urban rewards are not available everywhere and for everyone. Alongside opportunity, cities offer inequality, conflict and poor living conditions. Their narrative of promise has been persistent across different times and places, but the outcomes and experiences of urban life compare poorly with the overoptimistic expectations of many newcomers. And yet, millions still come and stay regardless of odds, raising the question why we have such positive and persistent expectations about cities. To examine this question, this paper considers the process of urban migration from the perspective of decision-making under uncertainty. It discusses how decisions and evaluations are based on imperfect information and offers a novel contribution by examining how the cognitive biases and heuristics which restrict human rationality shape our responses to urban promises. This approach may allow a better understanding of how people make decisions regarding urban migration, how they perceive their urban experiences and evaluate their life stories. We consider the prospects and limitations of the behavioural approach and discuss how biases favouring narratives of bright urban futures can be exploited by ‘triumphalist’ accounts of cities which neglect their embedded injustices.

Suggested Citation

  • Rodrigo Cardoso & Evert Meijers & Maarten van Ham & Martijn Burger & Duco de Vos, 2019. "Why bright city lights dazzle and illuminate: A cognitive science approach to urban promises," Urban Studies, Urban Studies Journal Limited, vol. 56(2), pages 452-470, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:urbstu:v:56:y:2019:i:2:p:452-470
    DOI: 10.1177/0042098018804762

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    1. Tomas Hanell, 2022. "Unmet Aspirations and Urban Malaise," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 164(1), pages 83-103, November.
    2. Camilla Lenzi & Giovanni Perucca, 2022. "No Place for Poor Men: On the Asymmetric Effect of Urbanization on Life Satisfaction," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 164(1), pages 165-187, November.
    3. Finnemann, Adam & Huth, Karoline & van der Maas, Han & Borsboom, Denny & Epskamp, Sacha, 2023. "The Urban Desirability Paradox: UK Urban-rural Differences in Well-being, Social, and Economic Satisfaction," OSF Preprints 3g2d8, Center for Open Science.
    4. Burger,Martijn & Hendriks,Martijn & Ianchovichina,Elena, 2022. "Anatomy of Brazil’s Subjective Well-Being : A Tale of Growing Discontent and Polarization in the 2010s," Policy Research Working Paper Series 9924, The World Bank.

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