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YOUR BRAIN ON THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

By Rita Danielle Steele

Science Now Says That Poor Design Causes People Mental Harm.

Several years ago, I ruminated on the most common buyer phrases we hear when they fall for a property: “This house just feels good,” and, “it just feels like home.” I have, on more than one occasion, felt that way myself, pulling up into a driveway, or stepping through a threshold of a surprising place.

Back then I posed the question, what feels good? How do we explain or define that?

Well science has come a LONG way in this field over the past several years and those warm fuzzy feelings are officially a real thing.

Studies in neuroscience and cognitive psychology now show the consequential relationship between our buildings and ourselves. According to recent these studies, the human response to, and experience in, the built environment is both physiological and psychological. How we think is profoundly influenced by our environment. Put another way, our environment shapes the WAY we think.

This means that there is no such thing as a “neutral” environment. It is now explainable why we find some places welcoming and other places “cold.”  Taking it further, we can now explain how and why we are driven to act differently depending on the space we are in or the buildings and ascetics we are surrounded by.

Place Attachment.

The built environment also plays a big role in people’s connection to their identity and their “place” attachment. This is where things get concerning. Science tells us that the more exposure someone has to a certain condition the more they will associate it with the normative. This can be misconstrued as preference. I.e. we develop a preconditioned level of comfort with our existing conditions. This leaves most experiencing a certain level of inertia with their surrounding built environment. But despite our adaptability, the poor design of much of our built environment is actually causing us harm.

Considering the current state of Providence’s disappointing “big picture” urban planning culture, it is not difficult to connect these findings to our need for larger scale science-based planning to better our communities. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science: “It has become increasingly clear that the built environment not only directly impacts our health, but also factors in less direct, complex ways into the health of individuals residing in single-family homes, housing projects, blocks, neighborhoods, and entire cities.” Low-income communities are disproportionately burdened by their environment. With the City’s median household income hovering around $37,000, annually, these disparities should be identified during our efforts to develop the City.

Access Inequality.

Taking one local statistic as an example of this division, a little over 10% of Providence is designated as park/public space. This is the norm, excepting forward thinking and public wellness prioritizing cities such as Stockholm, Sydney, and London, all of which boast green space of over 35% of their public land. The bigger question is access. Who is within a 10 walk to green space? Our lovely but underappreciated Roger Williams Park – cut off from most of the community by the Highway, comes to mind. It is more accessible to me, coming from Pawtuxet Village than it is to most Providence residents who are within a closer proximity to it but cut off by Route 95 and Route 10.

South side of Providence, cut off from Roger Williams Park by Rt 10.

Who looks out their window at trees, verses who looks out their window to see the blank side of another building? These types of disparities within our community have not been paid enough attention. A shift of community perspective is essential to the advancement of our City.

Future city developments should take the progress science has made and look at projects holistically. How will green space be optimized? Just as importantly, will the development encourage social connections and feelings of safety? This is not a drastic departure from the current City planning processes – this is NOT a major leap. Simply taking time to prioritize elements that will have positive effects on the mental wellbeing of City residents will go a long way.

The Takeaway.

The takeaway here is that those of us in the building industry can do better, and we should expect more from our built environment. Reconnecting our public health and urban planning sectors and encouraging more collaboration between the two would be a good starting point. Smart design is a social good, and the perception that it be reserved for the elite realm of high cost architectural statements separate from the regular expectations set for the general building community is a defunct and outdated mindset.

This article reflects key findings that were flushed out much more substantively in Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s book, “Welcome to your world: How the Build Environment Shapes our Lives.” I highly recommend it.