More people worldwide now live in cities than in the countryside. Combined with sprawl and the loss of urban green spaces, this means that many of us are unable to enjoy the restorative effects of a natural setting. But what’s to say the built environment, designed well, can’t have a rejuvenating effect too? “The built environment can be more beautiful than nature,” the British planning minister said recently, “and we shouldn’t obsess about the fact that the only landscapes that are beautiful are open — sometimes buildings are better.”
What’s clear is we need more research on the psychological effects of urban design. Sadly, planning, architecture and psychology tend not to speak to one other. A new study takes us a step in the right direction. Pall Lindal and Terry Hartig presented hundreds of Icelandic participants with dozens of computer-designed residential, terraced streetspaces that varied in two main ways – the degree of variety and complexity in the building design, in terms of the ornateness of the roofline and facades; and building height, which varied from one to three stories.
Participants were asked to imagine that they were walking down the street, mentally exhausted after work. They then rated each streetscape in terms of its restorative potential, how much they liked it, its “fascination” (how much it offers the chance to explore and discover), and its ability to give a break from routine (what the researchers called “being away”).
|Examples of streets judged to have least (left), medium, and maximum (right) restorative power.|
Greater architectural variation in the street scene and lower building height both contributed to the perception that the environment was restorative – allowing the participants to “rest and recover their abilities to focus”. Greater architectural variety also tended to go hand in hand with a greater sense of fascination and with “being away” (although not with preference), factors which explained the link with perceived restorative power. In contrast, higher buildings were associated with a diminished sense of “being away” and were judged less restorative.
The findings make sense in terms of increased building intricacy and variety allowing the mind to alight on the visual scene, find interest, and therefore disengage from prior mental toils and challenges. Excess building height, on the other hand, fosters a sense of too much enclosure, which clashes with our instinctual preference for a minimal level of openness – possibly an evolutionary hang-over allowing us to notice predators.
Although this study is a welcome contribution to the psychology of architecture, it suffers from numerous limitations. Among these is the fact most of the Icelandic participants reported a lack of familiarity with urban scenes of this kind – results could be different in other countries. Also, the participants didn’t experience actual streets, and only perceived, rather than actual, restorative powers were measured. Finally, the levels of architectural variety were minimal – no fewer than 50 per cent of the buildings in any scene were identical. Higher levels of variation could have an adverse effect.
Notwithstanding these issues, the researchers said “their results affirm that densely built urban residential settings need not lack restorative quality, and that the design of the built environment can play a significant role in affecting perceptions regarding possibilities for restoration.”
“Such information is needed in the effort to create urban environments that are sustainable in social and psychological terms,” they added, “as well as in ecological terms.”
Lindal, P., and Hartig, T. (2013). Architectural variation, building height, and the restorative quality of urban residential streetscapes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 33, 26-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.09.003
Is there a psychologist in the building?
Do urban environments trigger a mindset that’s focused on the bigger picture?
Living in a city, or growing up in one, is associated with heightened brain sensitivity to social stress