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. Read the rest of this entry »


Banging the high rise drum

The Age is banging the high rise drum again.

This quote from Living the high life or just scraping by? in The Age on Saturday (who writes these clever puns, Tim Vine?) is a good example of setting up a ‘straw man’:

“With Australia’s population growth an increasingly vexed issue, ‘density’ has become a popular word with planners and developers. But are skyscrapers the way to achieve it?”

A ‘straw man’ is a logical fallacy where a decoy argument is substituted for the real issue under debate. In this case high-rise is easier to disparage than the real issue, even though (almost) no one is actually arguing that high rise is the answer. The real issue is almost entirely a debate about sprawl versus medium density housing. Sprawl is mostly about detached houses while medium density is mostly about two storey town houses and four storey apartments. Read the rest of this entry »


Get social to increase density

Almost everyone with an interest in the future development of Melbourne agrees that a key strategy for dealing with unprecedented population growth is to increase the supply of multi unit housing in the suburbs.

Unfortunately there is also a consensus that this objective will be hard to achieve given the near certainty that existing residents will fight tooth and claw to resist new developments in their neighbourhood. Read the rest of this entry »