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In the last hundred years more than 4 billion people have settled in the world’s cities. Predictions show there are many more to come. Cities are like magnets because of their economic, social, and cultural potential. Today, their inhabitants live in an age of constant change which requires them to adapt, learn, and grow. To embrace the change and be prepared to meet all sorts of challenges, we need to create strong communities made of resilient individuals.
Cities are made of buildings which serve as shelters and places of comfort, they are connected by streets where people stroll and filled with squares and parks where they meet others. They shape human experience – for better or worse. But architecture and urban design, which are ultimately responsible for creation of our environment, the medium of our lives, has been reluctant to put humans and their experience first in the past.
It is high time we acknowledge that cities and their buildings affect our physical and mental health, well-being, quality of our relationships and even the level of trust we feel towards others. Buildings and public spaces are not just technical and functional creations. They have profound psychological and social functions. They affect our behavior, thoughts and feelings.
By writing this letter, we want to encourage a dialogue between science and architecture. We call for the use of behavioral and neuroscientific knowledge in creating the built environment. We call for change in architectural education and for broad collaboration between stakeholders. Architects, urban planners, engineers, scientists, developers, politicians and investors all need to be part of the conversation. We will be radically open-minded and foster learning, all with a single goal in mind: To create places which benefit human wellbeing.
To achieve these goals we present the following ten points. Each of them is a call to action and encourages a shift in values. We invite you to share our letter and join our cause. This is not the only letter we will write, there will be many of them. We will persevere until we witness a change in the world of architecture towards a complete orientation towards people and quality of their life.
The Ten Points
1. Put people and their wellbeing first.
There is nothing more important than the human experience of life. Architecture significantly influences the quality of our lives because it creates the inescapable environment in which we live. To design cities which are truly good for people, we must turn towards science for knowledge about what designs benefit and what designs harm people. Only this way can we create places which enable both physical and psychological flourishing.
2. Take responsibility for how your creations affect humans.
Everyone who participates in designing architecture and cities needs to realize that every choice they make will have a positive or negative impact on people’s wellbeing. These choices shouldn’t be based on fashion, tradition, or arbitrary criteria. Designs need to be based on responsibility towards fellow humans, as the environment in which they live affects them so much.
3. Strive to create beauty.
We all got used to the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For many years, it was used to silence criticism of any architectural form. Buildings started to be judged as if they were art pieces in a gallery, instead of forms shaping our minds. Today, scientific research is confirming the relevance of classical principles of beauty, which were reliably used for millennia before we got rid of them in the name of modernity. We need to revise our stance towards beauty and make it one of the highest values of the built environment.
4. Design cities for everyone.
Streets and public spaces should be accessible to all. They need to be safe and pleasant for a broad range of individuals and personalities. Not just the drivers of vehicles and healthy, young adults. We need to design streets where children can walk to school without the supervision of their parents and where the elderly can comfortably be a part of the local community. Whoever they are, the streets should belong to them too.
5. Foster social capital.
More and more people start living in cities, where almost everyone they meet is a stranger. Evolutionarily, we were not built for such situations. Without social capital – a glue creating trust, altruism and cooperation, we wouldn’t be able to live in such places. Through architecture and urban design, we should support this social cohesion.
6. Pursue truth and think critically.
Architecture should be based on facts. Facts about the workings of the human body and mind. Facts about people’s feelings and behaviors. Facts about the world itself. In order to build good cities, we can’t make decisions based on presumptions or opinions of authorities. Architecture needs to become a science-based craft, creating good environments, instead of a field of personal expression and focus on creators themselves. We also need to be critical towards ourselves, revise our past decisions and judgements and strive to improve the future ones.
7. Make things truly sustainable.
Sustainable development has been a catchphrase for almost 30 years now. However, a genuine transition towards sustainability is starting only slowly. The focus on superficial and marketable sustainability has prevented us from seeing the solutions to real problems. Many new buildings are receiving sustainability certifications, but they are still only designed for a lifespan of a few decades. To build truly sustainably, we need buildings to last centuries and appeal to people so much that they will wish to keep them in their place for so long. Apart from only being sustainable on their own, they should also support sustainable values and behaviors on the part of their users.
8. Empower communities to make choices.
For cities to work well for their inhabitants, a relationship between those two has to form. People need to feel a connection and ownership of places where they live. They need to be able to territorialize, personalize and affect their design. This is why meaningful participation needs to become a standard part of the architectural and urban design process.
9. Stay authentic and human.
In the modernist view, which dominated architecture for the last 100 years, buildings and cities were seen as machines for living, working and shopping. Today, this mindset still sometimes prevails, as buildings are becoming industrially manufactured and packed with technologies to even greater extent. But if humans are to feel connected to a place, it needs to share the qualities of who they are. Imperfect, messy, organic, slow, local and interesting. Simply put, human. We need to bring back a balanced view of people into architecture. One that sees them as both rational and emotional beings. One that will make places alive and humanly pleasant.
10. Be open-minded.
Every single day brings new knowledge and experience. We might feel comfortable with what we already know, but if we fail to constantly update our ideas, we risk not living up to our potential. Anyone engaged in creation of environments for humans should constantly pursue new knowledge which helps them create better designs. When our work is judged only by measurable productivity, we risk becoming stuck. We need to make learning a core part of the work of all environment creators.
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Who are we?
We are two people intimately close with humans. A medic and a psychologist, who got involved in architecture to make it better for people, based on combination of scientific facts and humanist values.
Michal Matlon is an architecture psychologist with 10 years of multidisciplinary experience in technology, media and marketing. He helps to create places of flourishing and meaningful work, from offices to urban quarters. He is a passionate public speaker and writer, talking about the importance of building humane environments based on scientific knowledge. In the past, Michal worked at one of the largest and most innovative office developers in Europe, where he developed the user experience strategy and established an internal education program. He now works at theLivingCore consultancy in Vienna.
Natalia Olszewska is a Researcher and Practitioner in Neuroscience Applied to Architecture. Being a graduate in medicine (Jagiellonian University & Tor Vergata), neuroscience (Sorbonne Université & ENS), Brain and Mind studies (UCL) and ‘Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design’ (IUAV university) she works between disciplines and creates insights for people-centered environments.
At work, she combines her deep care for people and their well-being with her passion for architecture and design. Natalia is a co-founder of Impronta, behavioral science and neuroscience consultancy for architecture.