A giant indoor lab that simulates life-size public spaces could hold the key to mobility equity

The Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory (PEARL) helps researchers understand how people experience, interpret, and navigate urban landscapes.
Photo of pedestrian pathway sign

Horns honking, crosswalks beeping, bicycle bells ringing, shoes click-clacking on sidewalks: It looks, sounds, and feels like a bustling city street. It even smells like a city street, too. But this isn’t a real cityscape. It’s a simulated one, and it allows researchers to study how people of all ages and abilities experience urban environments.

The Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory, or PEARL, can house life-size reproductions of train platforms, playgrounds, busy intersections, and other public spaces. The building’s interior, which is almost large enough to accommodate an American football field, looks more like a movie set than a lab: Researchers build realistic simulations of urban areas, including light, sound, smell, and other stimuli, and then observe how people navigate them and interact with each other. The goal is to design public spaces that are safer and more inclusive.

“Within these four walls, we test how people can live without restriction in the world, and how urban designers and planners can make cities more accessible and equitable for everyone,” said Nick Tyler, professor of civil engineering and director of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London, the driving force behind the project.

In one study, PEARL researchers recreated an urban park using real and artificial plants and images projected onto large screens.
Better data for better design

By providing a true-to-life lab where researchers can control variables and directly observe participants, PEARL helps researchers collect comprehensive and accurate data to inform urban planning and design.

Before PEARL, researchers typically relied on computer surveys or in-office interviews to try to understand how, for instance, the loud sirens of a passing ambulance might affect autistic children at a public park. Although these studies are informative, the results are skewed by respondents’ perceptions and biases. At the same time, controlling all the variables in an outdoor urban space is not feasible and the costs of conducting on-location research can be prohibitive.

PEARL, on the other hand, provides a realistic environment that is completely controlled. For example, in one recent series of experiments, researchers created a park setting that included a living tree, artificial plants and grass, and real leaves on the ground. The 30-by-30-foot scene blended seamlessly into middle-distance video footage of a London park projected on four large screens surrounding the space. Researchers then invited children with cognitive challenges into the area and recorded their reactions to street noise and other sounds. The goal is to inspire park planners to create acoustically protected spaces for children who have difficulties discerning sounds in nature from urban noise.

PEARL also improves mobility by allowing researchers to study how people of all abilities experience spaces like train stations and airports. Recreating rail platforms, bus stops, jetways, and other transit hubs helps ensure that everyone can use public modes of transportation safely and comfortably.

But researchers ask questions about more than just physical access, Tyler says. With the ability to fit study participants with brain scanners and other sophisticated equipment, PEARL researchers can record how participants’ brains and bodies react to stimuli in public spaces, gaining insights into their perceptions and feelings.

Designing and building such a unique facility presented challenges. When the team from Penoyre & Prasad, part of the London studio of Perkins&Will, asked Tyler exactly what he wanted to do inside the building, he replied: “We want to build the world in it.”
The result: A unique space for research

Although the lab opened in 2021, researchers have already helped make London more accessible by suggesting legibility improvements for signage on buses and demonstrating the need for modified train schedules to give people with mobility challenges more time to safely navigate platforms.

Future projects are limited only by researchers’ imaginations. “This building is here so we can re-create the world as it is, and then test how changing that world might make it more accessible and equitable,” Tyler says.

“This building is here so we can re-create the world as it is, and then test how changing that world might make it more accessible and equitable.”
Nick Tyler, professor of civil engineering and director of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London
Photo of rooftop solar panels atop PEARL, the Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory
Rooftop solar panels produce more energy than the building needs to operate. Excess power is sold to the grid or distributed to nearby buildings.
Sustainability street cred

PEARL is the first building in University College London’s portfolio to be certified as net-zero operational carbon. It also achieved a Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) Outstanding rating.

Rooftop solar panels fulfill the facility’s energy needs, and then some. “A 4,000-square-meter solar photovoltaic roof system allows the facility to produce its own energy,” says Ian Goodfellow, design director at Penoyre & Prasad. Excess energy is distributed to neighboring buildings or sold back to the national grid.

Insulated panels, high-performance windows, and thorough sealing help maintain comfortable interior conditions while minimizing energy use. In addition, PEARL’s mechanical systems include air-source heat pumps and large ducts that more easily move air with minimal energy from fans. This strategy also minimizes noise from mechanical systems, which helps maintain the lab’s excellent acoustics.