Photo: Moelven Wood Project
Importance of neuro-architecture
The importance of urban design goes far beyond feel-good aesthetics. A number of studies have shown that growing up in a city doubles the chances of someone developing schizophrenia, and increases the risk for other mental disorders such as depression and chronic anxiety.
Alison Brooks, an architect who specialises in housing and social design, told BBC Future that psychology-based insights could change how cities are built. “If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment,” she says.
Designed for you not to succeed
Architectural horror stories as the 1950s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, whose 33 featureless apartment blocks – designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also responsible for the World Trade Center – quickly became notorious for their crime, squalour and social dysfunction. Critics argued that the wide open spaces between the blocks of modernist high-rises discouraged a sense of community, particularly as crime rates started to rise. They were eventually demolished in 1972.
Pruitt-Igoe was not an outlier. The lack of behavioural insight behind the modernist housing projects of that era, with their sense of isolation from the wider community and ill-conceived public spaces, made many of them feel, in the words of British grime artist Tinie Tempah, who grew up in one, as if they’d been “designed for you not to succeed”.
Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. Some of these studies have attempted to measure subjects’ physiological responses in situ, using wearable devices such as bracelets that monitor skin conductance (a marker of physiological arousal), smartphone apps that ask subjects about their emotional state, and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity relating to mental states and mood.
Psychology findings in urban architecture
Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg at the University of Heidelberg has shown that urban living can change brain biology in some people, resulting in reduced gray matter in the right dosolateral prefrontal cortex and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, two areas where changes have previously been linked to early-life stressful experiences.
Colin Ellard researches the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo in Canada. One of Ellard’s most consistent findings is that people are strongly affected by building façades. If the façade is complex and interesting, it affects people in a positive way; negatively if it is simple and monotonous. For example, when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys. They also quickened their pace as if to hurry out of the dead zone.
They picked up considerably when they reached a stretch of restaurants and stores, where (not surprisingly) they reported feeling a lot more lively and engaged..
Design for success
One theory is that the visual complexity of natural environments acts as a kind of mental balm. That would fit with Ellard’s findings in downtown Manhattan, and also with a 2013 virtual reality experiment in Iceland in which participants viewed various residential street scenes and found the ones with the most architectural variation the most mentally engaging. Another VR study, published this year, concluded that most people feel better in rooms with curved edges and rounded contours than in sharp-edged rectangular rooms – though (tellingly perhaps) the design students among the participants preferred the opposite.
of natural environments
acts as a kind of mental balm”
One of the first to try mental health design was the sociologist William Whyte, who advised urban planners to arrange objects and artefacts in public spaces in ways that nudged people physically closer together and made it more likely they would talk to each other, a process he called “triangulation”.
The architectural firm Snohetta has followed a similar principle in Times Square, introducing long sculpted granite benches to emphasise that the iconic space, once clogged with cars, is now a haven for pedestrians.
Ecodesign embraces all people, and all of time, and all of space. We avoid using rainforest timber from far away on the other side of the world, and we consider intergenerational equity, far beyond us in time. We respect the past, and we care for the future. We respect our own local places, here, and we care for the places and resources and wellbeing of less fortunate people far away.
Hence our motto about wellbeing: to design buildings and places that are healthy both for individuals and communities, and for the planet’s ecosystems. In broader terms: Design that is healthy for people and for the planet. Read more