Thoughts on How The Built Environment Shapes us

We often talk about how to buy and sell, how to evaluate a particular property or find the best site for a business, but let’s pause for a moment and consider how the built environment affects us. There are both obvious cause and effect elements and more subtle situations that shape how we think and act without us even realizing it.

“Architecture is like a soundtrack that we’re not even fully aware is playing. It sends us subconscious messages about how to feel and what to expect.”

– Architect John Cary

From the micro environment of the way a particular office is laid out to the macro view of how a city’s streets are oriented, the effects on us are continuous and not always obvious.

There are the obvious conditions we can all observe and note the immediate effect, such as air quality, light, green space, water quality, safety and mobility, and there are the not so obvious conditions of things like blank walls, multiple lanes of traffic, high speeds and pedestrian crosswalks.

All of these (and many more) contribute to the ‘feel’ of a city. How does it feel to be in a city, to walk down its streets, to go about day to day errands and to enjoy an evening out.

The better it ‘feels’ the more time you will spend, the more time you spend, the more money you spend and the more you will identify and feel at home. The converse is also true. We have all driven through areas, and even entire cities, where we saw nothing that would entice us out of our cars. Nothing that made us want to stop but more often places that made us want to hurry up and get past.

Houston…(though it could be almost anywhere in the US)

There is an entire language around architecture and planning that is required learning for all nascent designers, however, thorough training in the application of this language seems to have been neglected. We all know good architecture when we see it. We know good spaces when we are in them. We may not even be conscious of it, but after leaving, realize that we relaxed in those spaces.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

– Winston Churchill

Let’s start with where many people are headed when they get into their cars in the morning, the office:

The average American spends more than 90% of their life indoors or roughly 21 out of every 24 hours. The kicker is that many spend the remaining 3hrs a day in their cars but that’s another topic. For now we can look a little closer at these spaces where most of us spend the majority of our lives.

” I believe you have my stapler.”

Just looking at the above photo will evoke a feeling for most people. Not that we can put our finger on all of the specific elements that we find distasteful but we all come away with a feeling of dread and anxiety when considering day after day in such a place.

It’s even difficult to list all of the obvious issues in this all too typical office environment: no natural light, no air circulation, ambient noise level, lack of personal space, beige everywhere, fluorescent lights, constant visual distraction and on and on.

All of these elements present workers with an environment rife with distraction; where getting up and going to the bathroom is the only way to find a quiet moment alone. Interestingly, this typical office layout was rebranded as the ‘open office’ in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and had some color added:

“We are all leveraging hyperlocal onboarding tactics to capture the low hanging fruit and capitalize on its excess capacity.”

Spending more than 40 hours, almost 1/4 of our lives per week, in such an environment is going to have an effect. An effect we are still just beginning to understand.

Let’s move on to the next most popular place for people to gather in an average week: the road. A typical road is designed to move as many cars as quickly as possible from place to place.

“The line of traffic advancing towards the rising sun looked like a procession of the returning dead. Every one of them, solitaries in clean shirts, smoking, checking mirrors to see if their reflections were still there, wore dark glasses.”

― Iain Sinclair
Nowhere USA

These roads are not designed for you to spend any time in the surrounding area. Get along. Don’t linger. Piles of signs vying for your attention at 50 mph (no one is going the speed limit). The average American will spend more than three hours per week in this kind of an environment; doing battle to get errands done. The effect is substantial and not considered by those designing these wastelands.

These roads by their very nature create a sense of impatience in drivers that elevates anxiety and fosters everyone’s favorite disembodied state: road rage. The key is understanding that everything experienced on roads and areas is undesirable, if not repellent. So, our unconscious reaction is to hurry, to push to get through it and away from it. Someone pulling out of a drive that forces us to even dab the brakes can send most people into a state of rage.

Next let’s look at the typical American home, the suburban dream. While there’s been plenty of discussion and articles talking about everyone moving to the cities, do not be fooled by the vision of everyone living in high rise condos or brownstones on leafy, tree lined streets. Cities quickly expand their borders to include as much land as they want, generally called sprawl. The vast majority of this sprawl is made up of a startlingly repetitive model of endless three bedroom three bath boxes with names like “The Kitridge” or “Country Rambler”. Names trying hard to draw the perfect home picture and not let you look too closely at what six months ago was a cow field.

“Dollar for dollar, no other society approaches the United States in terms of the number of square feet per person, the number of baths per bedroom, the number of appliances in the kitchen, the quality of the climate control, and the convenience of the garage.”

– Andres Duany
Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.

The average American home has more than doubled in size in the last fifty years and is now closing in on 3,000 square feet. Larger than many barns. The reasons behind this are legion, but we will maintain our focus on the design effect this has on people. When your home is larger, nicer and everything can be delivered to you, why would you leave this cocoon? More and more people are choosing not to. Remote work, home based businesses, flex time, all of these save us the stress of venturing out into the world.

“Unique layout and distinct curb appeal!”

When you do have to leave the safety of the home, we are immediately confronted with a maze of streets and byways that would make a lab rat retreat. The unnecessary complexity of these neighborhoods can precipitate anxiety even before reaching the ‘feeder’ roads that take us to work or the mall.

If it’s such a chore to simply get out of your neighborhood, it becomes a brake to action, to human interaction and can have substantial detrimental effects. The social ramifications of this type of cul de sac environment are finally being understood and many are pushing back against it, but the vast majority still view this as their ultimate badge of success. The American Dream.

Lastly, let’s look at the design implications in downtowns and how good design can make a place ‘feel’ better. From a design perspective we’re looking to answer the simple question, “is there a ‘There’ there?” Is there a reason to be there? Not a business reason, but one that draws you in and makes you want to spend time, even live there.

“[Cities] are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.”

― Jane Jacobs

As we did above let’s start with some examples of when cities fail the people who live in them.

Downtown Houston

Houston is widely and roundly derided as one of the ugliest cities in the world. It suffers from a substantial and growing poor and homeless population, as well as a complete lack of formal zoning regulations. For all the difficulty developers struggle through in order to abide by zoning in most cities, Houston is a postcard from the other side of what can happen with a complete abdication of civic input into its built environment.

Zoning in many downtowns is necessarily more complex than outer regions of a city; following the idea that greater care and focus needs to be taken when more people are packed into smaller spaces. Does this make building more complex and expensive? Certainly. But this additional scrutiny will, hopefully, provide a better outcome for the city as a whole.

So how does a lack of civic direction affect the feel or attractiveness of a downtown? Much in the same way as was noted previously, but in a far more concentrated way. Fundamentally, zoning is the municipal way to say to the rest of the world, “we have a vision for how we want the city to grow and how we do not want it to grow.” They are directives about how big a building you can build and where on your property you can build it. Without this, or any substitute, a city is simply abdicating it’s vision of itself to the market. This is a prescription for a race to the bottom and Houston sits a proof of this failure in management.

“Listening to mayor after mayor and how they explained their idea of a successful city, it became very clear that both the best measure of a thriving place and perhaps the best contributor to a thriving place was street life: walkability.”

– Jeff Speck

The elements of what makes a city like Houston ‘feel’ awful generally boil down to a fairly straightforward idea: has the city been built with people in mind or as a factory? When cities are built for people, they attract and retain people. Conversely, when they are built as factories, they repel people. Much like the picture of the office space above, people may put up with it in trade for money, but they will not spend a moment of additional time there. Successful cities provide so much that you neither need, nor want to leave them.

As you look around at a city, take note of what you see and ask, “was this built for people or machines (cars, etc)?” You will quickly see the specific elements of great cities: wide sidewalks, tree lined streets, traffic calming, benches you’d actually sit on, clusters of small interesting shops, but most importantly, you will see other people.

As humans we enjoy places that make us feel good. Places that feel safe and welcoming. While there is an entire language for the creation of these spaces, most of us simply say we like a place without understanding the elements that make it up. Most people, frankly, do not need to learn this language, but for designers, builders and developers it should be mandatory. These are the people creating our cities, towns and homes and allowing all of it to be built to the most ‘cost effective’ option. Developing in this way creates places no one wants to be.

Further Reading;

There are some excellent sources to further your understanding of how the built environment shapes us. Here are just a few (Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate and if you buy from the links below I will make millions and retire to Boca):

I noted that there is an entire language around building that should be compulsory for all who build and the dictionary for that language is Christopher Alexander et al’s tome ‘A Pattern Language’. This is a reference book not an armchair read (except for the seriously nerdy among us) but it is an invaluable addition to understanding why some places work and others fail.

Maybe the most foundational work that should be required reading for everyone who lives in a city is Jane Jacobs ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’

From the unapologetic urbanist Andres Duany comes the seminal work on what has gone wrong in American cities in the past fifty years and more importantly how to fix it: ‘Suburban Nation’.

Also, from Duany is ‘The Smart Growth Manual’ which is a handy reference for understanding the principles for smart growth and lays them out in a simple reference format. Each principle is given a page with an example image and detailed text outlining the goal of the principle.

From one of Duany’s co-authors on Suburban Nation and the Smart Growth Manual, Jeff Speck brings us the ‘Walkable City’, which is a great read on how cities in the US can work to improve their citizens experience by focusing on the principles of walkability.

Moving away from the urban planning vein, the cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard’s excellent book ‘Places of the Heart’ takes an indepth look at how the places we occupy affect us and shape our thinking. A fascinating and dense read, I highly recommend this book if you are looking to get deep into the relationship of humans to their built environment.