Does the built environment determine our lives?

Where the most common languages are spoken

The American modernist architect, Richard Neutra, is supposed to have once claimed that if he were so minded, he could design a house for a happily married couple that would assure their divorce within six months. Or something like that.

While it’s possibly apocryphal, the story illustrates what many architects and urban designers think – design profoundly affects our behaviour and wellbeing.

It’s clear the built environment matters. It keeps out the rain, cold and unwanted visitors. And it’s equally obvious that some buildings, like churches, can move us in the same way a natural landscape can impress itself on us.

We know that some colours can affect our perceptions and possibly, in some circumstances, even our emotional state. And we know that all other things being equal, public spaces where there are “many eyes on the street” tend to have less crime and the “dark end of the street” can be a dangerous place. And you’re less likely to know your neighbours across the street if you live on a busy road.

We also know it’s a simple enough matter for designers to channel where people walk through urban places and where they are most likely to pause in the sunlight and take in the view or a latte.

But designers have a tendency to over-state the behavioural and social effects of the built environment. I don’t know what design strategies Neutra had in mind but it seems to me he would have failed miserably. Humans are remarkably resilient when it comes to adapting to different environments.

Confine someone alone in a small cell and they’ll eventually go bonkers, but let them voluntarily occupy a room of the same size in a university college or a monastery and they’ll be perfectly happy with it. Let them have a friend stay and they might never want to leave.

Some people choose to live happily for extended periods in caravans and in small rooms in mining towns and on oil rigs. Military personnel survive dormitories and tents. There’s been a boom in demand in inner city Melbourne for 35m2 motel size studio apartments and 40m2 one bedroom apartments.

The point is that provided the built environment isn’t totally dire, it’s the social and economic meaning we bring to those environments that really determines if we’re happy with them.

And sought-after places only occasionally owe their success primarily to the designed environment. Melbourne’s Federation Square, for example, is enhanced by northern sunlight in winter and by its iconic image, but as I’ve argued before, it owes its success primarily to factors that were determined well before the designers came on board – for example, the decision to locate the (free) Ian Potter Gallery within the complex and its premium location at the “choke point” between the CBD and the arts precinct.

A common example in my experience of where designers over-sell the importance of the built environment is the claim that providing more opportunities for strangers to interact, for example in a public place, will somehow improve the welfare of those involuntarily brought together. I’ve heard it argued that driving is anti-social because people who don’t walk or take public transport miss out on the opportunity to “interact” with others.

The trouble with this view is it assumes mere proximity equates with “interaction”. It assumes there is an optimal level of “interaction” we should have with perfect strangers and that the designers know what it is, irrespective of the immense diversity of human beings. It assumes we don’t get enough of this proximity – we need more! It assumes that people can’t sort out for themselves how much contact with strangers they want – that they couldn’t, if they were so minded, just walk into a bar, a cafe or up to a tram stop and strike up a conversation with the most promising-looking stranger.

It dismisses the idea that we might have good reasons for not talking to strangers. It assumes that we don’t already have perfectly satisfactory social networks that are constantly being extended and reconfigured, with or without new blood, depending on our individual preferences. It ignores the reality that there are already plenty of places to “interact”.

There’s a presumption that we need to meet more strangers in public circumstances, as if there aren’t already enough ways to meet new people through “filters” like work, clubs, internet, bars, parties, church, school, etc. This view doesn’t comprehend that that these sorts of filters are valuable because they reduce the search costs and lower the risks inherent in expanding our range of “interactions”.

And it assumes that simply putting people in each other’s way will work as a way of creating meaningful interactions! I think there are occasions when some designers argue their work is of profound social importance but in reality are treating people as props.

The built environment can enhance the quality of our lives but let’s not get carried away and conclude that it determines our lives. It’s actually not that long ago that so-called slums in many cities were bulldozed in favour of “the projects” because of a questionable view that a better physical environment would improve the moral lives of residents. Let’s get the influence of the physical environment on our social and psychological wellbeing in perspective.

There are other aspects of this theme I’ll pick up again another time. I haven’t talked here about location and geography, so I’ll hopefully get time to talk about that in the near future too. I’ll just take it one step at a time.


14 Comments on “Does the built environment determine our lives?”

  1. Ian Woodcock says:

    The problem with the argument attempting to be made in this post is that it’s the wrong way round: the kind of control over encounters that Alan is promoting use design in a deterministic way – they have to, otherwise the sought-after control could not be guaranteed. This is the problem of having an instrumentalist approach to everything, it’s blind to those aspects of life which aren’t purposive in that way.

    While it may be true that many urban planners and designers do speak about the benefits of social life in public space, it’s not designers who have most forcefully argued the importance of social encounters between strangers in public space, it’s sociologists, the most prominent among them in this regard being Richard Sennett. The ‘unstructured’ social encounters that occur in public space are valuable because they are just that – un-structured. They are not subject to the kind of control or framing that social situations in private and pseudo-public spaces require, because they have no instrumental purpose. Sociality in public space (at least, in cities like Melbourne) is not like any other kind of space because it is premised on unpredictability and freedom, and significantly, the presence of people that not only one does not know (strangers) but who are different.

    The belief that the built environment can determine social relations is what drives the design of many of aspects of the car-dependent city: Machines for shopping, machines for working, machines for being entertained – places where as much of life as possible can be channelled in very specific ways related to spending money. This is not urban design, it is big architecture in the service of private interests. Genuine urban design seeks not to foster deterministic relations like this, but rather, the indeterminate relations of unstructured encounters in public space.

  2. jack horner says:

    Need to tease out just what we mean by ‘interaction’ with strangers. Sitting with a cup of coffee watching the passing parade is one sort of interaction.

    Doing this is more pleasant on the Champs Elysee than it is in a hardtop mall, but the motivation is the same. In my car dependent city it is striking how peeople seek out the chance to sit with a cup of coffee watching the passing parade in the most unsalubrious locations. There is a strong drive to be occasionally somewhere that is not either at home or in a car.

    It would be better if there were more nice places to do it. Needless to say car dominated urban design is generally hostile to that sort of ‘interaction’.

  3. Joseph says:

    I certainly agree with your point about public transport interaction. This morning one of my fellow passengers was spitting, last night another was begging. My life was not improved by either interaction.

    On my train line at least the only people you hear talking are those annoying types that speak unbelievably loudly on mobile phones and seem to have the least interesting conversations. Parks, sports stadiums, concert halls, playgrounds for children perhaps all do create some positive interaction, but not public transport, this is just wishful thinking.

  4. Moss says:

    I’m struggling with this post. Alan, I get the feeling you are thoroughly utilitarian when it comes to these things, and that you would mostly be happy for us to live in concrete boxes – after all they perform the essential functions you outline. Perhaps that’s being a little unfair? It is hard to gauge what level of aesthetics you deem necessary for a city – or if indeed you think beauty is necessary at all, beyond the odd inspiring church etc… Perhaps a question for you to consider is “what does it take to turn aesthetics of a place into concrete action?” ie do people actually care for a place more when it has certain physical characterisitics?
    However, I shall address your argument in a purely logical manner which you should be comfortable with:
    Matt lives in Ratville, a suburb with many dark, dead end alleyways. One day when looking for a shop he is mugged, an experience which has a profound influence on him, leading him to become more house-bound and ultimately leads to depression.
    Laura lives in Lightville, a suburb with many safe boulevards due to the “eyes on the street”. One day when drinking coffee at a sidewalk cafe with her friends she bumps into a guy called John, whom she strikes up a conversation with. They get married and live a happy life together.
    You might dismiss these examples as spurious, but the point is that the build environment contributed directly to the life paths of these people. If you like, it’s about averages. In Ratville, the built environment leads to higher crime which directly impacts a decent proportion of the population. In Lightville, the safe nature of the streets allows for a pleasant interaction that would have very little chance of occurring in a Ratville alley.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Moss, I knew you of all people would disagree strongly! Your opening comment actually is a little unfair because I didn’t say anything in my post to suggest either a utilitarian view or no interest in aesthetics – you’re inferring that.

      As it happens I’m very interested in the aesthetics of the built environment (I wouldn’t have done a degree in architecture if I wasn’t interested – or done an architectural tour of the US last year).

      What I’m discussing in this post is the intellectual pretentiousness of those designers who insist on arguing that what they do is more socially significant than it actually is. I simply wish they would focus on what they do best – designing superb environments (Docklands excepted!).

      The key question I think that should be asked immediatly about your scenarios, is: why is Lightville safer than Ratville? The key explanations would be social and economic (not physical), as would any sort of sustainable solution.

      BTW I expect that Laura and John’s shared interest in Katie Perry had much more to do with them hitting it off in the first instance than the ambience of the cafe!

      • Moss says:

        Yeah, sorry Alan. But you don’t do yourself any favours sometimes, with comments like “This view doesn’t comprehend that that these sorts of filters are valuable because they reduce the search costs and lower the risks inherent in expanding our range of “interactions”.” Perhaps your aesthetics are of Brutalist extraction? ;P
        I happen to agree with you on the erroneous nature of any kind of pretentiousness regarding design, as pretentiousness is usually based upon ignorance.
        And I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the reason why Lightville is safer than Ratville – I claim that as the receptacle for the transient humanity that passes through each of those spaces, the street design (for example) actually determines things like the amount of time spent walking on the street, and that it is THIS which determines the kind of people that might dwell/transit in and through these areas. The point is that although both Laura and John like Katie Perry, there was 0 chance of them meeting up in Ratville, where they both feel unsafe, and a lot more chance of them meeting at the cafe.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Moss, I don’t get what the connection is between aesthetics, specifically brutalism, and my use of the term ‘filter’?? I used it to mean that places like work allow us to evaluate (i.e. filter) new people in terms of whether we want to add them as friends or not. Is there a misunderstanding?
        P.S. Or did you mean that my phraseology was overly technical/jargonistic?

  5. Russ says:

    Alan, I don’t understand your reference to the “Projects”. You are implying that they were a failed attempt to use the built form to improve our lives. But the fact that they failed undermines your argument. Clearly it is possible to design a built form that is socially detrimental, and ergo that some built forms are better, socially, than others. If not, then why would the projects be deemed failures?

    The problem with the projects wasn’t that they believed that an improved built environment had some social benefits, it was that their ideas on how to improve the built environment were completely, even disastrously, wrong.

    I don’t really disagree with the idea that designers can over-state the value of the built environment, but you haven’t really engaged with the ideas of the urban theorists who have done studies, and have shown certain effects. Nor with some of the complexities of the issue. even of we assume the proximity of traffic detracts from the social value of an urban environment, Witold Rybczynski makes the argument that the attraction of shopping malls is that they are pedestrianised areas, albeit ones you need to drive to. What is better therefore, a fully-pedestrianised island embedded in modern logistics systems, or a traffic-calmed, chaotic, urban form? And if, on reflection, malls are still inferior urban forms (and I’m no fan of them), why is that?

    Because, the frustration I have with planning for open space is not that certain aspects are being over-sold, it is that they are largely a pastiche of what the research and ideas of the theorists say. Which means certain developments (like Docklands) tick a whole bunch of boxes about being good environments despite being clearly terrible.

    • Alan Davies says:

      There’re lots of associated ideas that I simply didn’t have the time or space to deal with e.g. all the William H Whyte and the Jane Jacobs stuff. I’m hoping to consider more aspects another time.

      Not sure that I get your meaning re “the projects”, but I do say in the post that a really bad design can have a detrimental effect (just like an incompetent dentist can kill you).

  6. Bruce Dickson says:

    You are raising some interesting and challenging issues for wider discussion and comment Alan. Nice to read the responses to date and hope there will be more.

    I liked Moss’ basic reversal of your question, “do people actually care for a place more when it has certain physical characteristics?” This is letting each of us subjectively decide if the design characteristics and choices we may be exposed to, are having impacts of various kinds on the way we feel.

    I do notice you have largely left the natural environment (presumably covered by your mentions of geography and location at the end) out of the equation, at this stage of your posts. But possibly that is unfortunate and somewhat artificial.

    By isolating the built environment design from its context including in Melbourne its interplay with the natural features (such as the Yarra, the bay or parkland, etc), we are not treating the questions asked and their answers holistically … and thus more tellingly and accurately, I feel.

    Good designers really build on that interrelationship, even to the extent of adding and integrating their own landscaping(for better or worse), to achieve certain responses.

    If I was to try to select, by way of a test example, one specific key human response that could be aimed for by a designer and then think about potential effects of his or her deliberate human design interventions on it, I think it would at best be ‘stress’.

    There is little doubt in my mind that certain built designs and spaces and their layouts and features directly influence stress levels and can be quite calming in effect (or potentially the opposite).

    And at the individual experience level too, without even asking about any potential extra changes in dynamics and response possibly arising from the presence of additional people and the altered circumstances they might add.

    Many examples come to mind – e.g. design excellence reinforcing clean lines (internally not just externally) and minimizing visual clutter. This can be soothing – if not an essential prerequisite in e.g. a work space – for many people. Look at people’s ongoing responses to zen inspired Japanese designs. Consider also the Chinese focus on the feng shui elements – all taken very seriously for generations.

    There is also the loud evidence of the frenzy of home improvements (often highly meticulous and ‘detailed’) that Australians regularly engage in – presumably aimed at achieving more than just functional redesign outcomes?

    In holidaying (chill out/de-stressing) terms consider the impact of a stay in a tropical hut located on stilts immediately above a lagoon somewhere in the Pacific Islands. The design (e.g. with thatched roof and stairs permitting immediate access to the marinelife below) will impact very memorably, if not measurably, on the stay, especially a person’s capacity for experiencing greater sensory pleasure and presumably lower stress levels … but again, definitely in conjunction with those other companion holistic elements, which are so hard to isolate in terms of any direct cause and effect.

    Finally it probably pays to consider that we might not be so sure that a stark concrete bunker (or Aussie 60’s style brick veneer structure) substituted for that hut in exactly the same location would achieve such a positive outcome. There is also that issue of the equation between expectations, iconic imagery, dreams and unfulfilled realities!

    And speaking of unfulfilled realities, it is possibly the sheer mediocrity of what passes for so much built design in Australia that creates the biggest challenge in trying to examine and answer your central question in a meaningful and worthy way.

  7. Ian Woodcock says:

    It’s not clear quite what the central argument is, even now, since the original post covers a gamut of issues – from the ways that the built environment affects people’s behaviour (and their perceptions, values, lives), the types of social encounter that are beneficial to life (and the degree of control people should be allowed to have over them) to whether or or not designers (who it seems shall not be named) are being pretentious when they make social claims for their work. However, One concept that does tie these disparate areas of concern together is ‘affordance’ – the capacity of built form to provide for, provoke, allow, constrain or enable certain types of actions (and by extension, perceptions and meanings) – which may shed some light on the question asked above: “do people actually care for a place more when it has certain physical characteristics?” – it would very much depend on which people the question is directed at, and the kinds of care that one is interested in, ultimately, the degree to which the full range of affordances of any environment are manifest are relative to who is using it and their sense of how it could be used.

  8. Bruce Dickson says:

    To Ian: In my experience with facilitating community workshops, often the appreciation of an environment combining built and other features is not always an overtly conscious one. People tend to feel more emotion and miss something more (thereby suddenly appreciating its true value to them) when one day it is gone … demolished, drastically changed, etc. Sad, but true.

    This also means it is very important for politicians, developers and planners in conjunction with communities to more consciously and formally (using a regular process) focus a lot more on what a place does NOT WANT TO LOSE from its environment, and not just look – in a potentially damaging form of tunnel vision – at what things ‘new’ should be developed. Often in ‘place of’ the old and possibly treasured.

    • Ian Woodcock says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Bruce. My own experience facilitating community workshops has taught me much the same, and since I became an academic, that’s one of the things I spend much of my time researching.

      My remark about affordances would very much apply to such issues as the things about a place people don’t want to lose – i.e. what affordances are valued and how do they work? It’s the role of designers to understand how places work as much as it is to design for them. The planning system in Melbourne is supposed to use processes that engage with places to generate that kind of knowledge, so that (you’d hope) it can be incorporated as policy and regulations that maintain valued affordances into the inevitable changes that all urban places undergo. That this often fails hardly needs to be pointed out, but who is to blame? As someone who teaches designers, my feeling is that less angst should be directed at my colleagues and more at the custodians of the planning system, those who ultimately have the say in what gets built through making up the rules of the game and passing judgement on whether the rules have been followed. Things can be done differently. Systems exist that put better informed, intelligent, and place-literate people in charge of planning policy and approvals. It’s high-time Melbourne changed the way things are done.


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