How the Built Environment Impacts Public Health

New research sheds light on how the brain responds to urban environments and architecture.

June 18, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


New York City

Clari Massimiliano / Shutterstock

The built environment, writes Jared Green for the American Society of Landscape Architects, "is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease." Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, says "we are deeply influenced by our surroundings" thanks to our "automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors."

"As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences." In his experiments, Hollander uses eye-tracking technology to quantify the effects of various environments on the human brain. "Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row."

"According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment" composed of "stylistically irrelevant glass boxes" that create cognitive stress in the human brain. Salingaros suggests that healthy environments are those that privilege human connectivity and the human scale–"intimate networks that are comfortable to humans."  Architect and author Ann Sussman also suggests solutions for mitigating the effects of existing forms. In Somerville, Massachusetts, "the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery." 

Because "environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress" and have a powerful impact on public health, argues Hollander, "planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being."

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