The Western civilization is increasingly describing the world in negative terms. According to a recent article in the Financial Times, the last two decades, particularly, have seen a marked increase in pessimistic literature.
And it seems to be no different when it comes to journalism and popular culture. But the actual reality of our daily lives usually looks different. Consider the following quote.
“The old benches, the sound of the brakes, the bell when requesting a stop, all while passing through the neighborhoods I love [makes it my favorite spot].”
Sophia is a passionate advocate for designing cities that prioritize the well-being of both people and the planet. As a Director at Gehl, an urban design practice on a mission to create more equitable, healthy, and sustainable cities, she leads the Foundation and Philanthropy Team. In this role, she guides her team in shaping change in neighborhoods and communities towards better health. Sophia’s commitment to enhancing the quality of urban spaces stems from her background as an anthropologist and deep understanding of the human experience within the built environment. Her expertise ensures that urban transformation processes result in lasting social and health impacts.
Michal: Let’s start with your story. How did you even begin to think about people, cities, culture, and the connection between those?
Sophia: I’m from California, from a hippie, tiny town. My father was one of the first cohorts in the Peace Corps; he lived in a Mayan Indian village in Guatemala. It had a transformative impact on his life. He raised me with a global outlook despite our small, closed town.
He instilled in me a curiosity about culture and the world. That’s why I went into anthropology, to understand. I went to university in Portland, Oregon. I studied community development and cultural anthropology.
When I was in university, I studied abroad in Copenhagen. I was very interested in architecture and urbanism, and I was interested in the role that urban environments play in people’s culture and experience of the world. Why is it that certain environments shape people’s everyday decisions?
In today’s fast-paced world, where we are constantly bombarded with information and demands, finding a place to unwind and rejuvenate is more important than ever. The concept of “restorative spaces” addresses this need, providing a haven for mental recovery and relaxation.
So far, we have mostly associated these restorative spaces with natural environments. Spending time in forests, lakes, meadows, and hills is a favorite restorative pastime for many.
Research has often compared the effects of natural environments to typically harsh urban spaces. This may give us an idea of the overall effect of today’s cities, but it doesn’t show the potential of what restorative cities could be if designed well.
Today, many organizations are still adapting to the changes brought about by the recent pandemic. With the majority of people preferring to work remotely at least some of the time, companies are trying to come up with a workplace strategy fit for the future.
And many of the models of the recent past seem to be broken now. Such disruption may be a good opportunity to put aside preconceptions and take a fresh look at the facts about what really works in the workplace.
Of course, this will be very specific to each organization. But a general overview, such as the following review by Masoudinejad and Veitch, can help us get a better idea of where to start if we want to base the design of our workplaces on knowledge of their impact on people and businesses. And it seems that high privacy, one or two user rooms, may be making a comeback.
Due to the growing mental health crisis, society has shifted its focus to promoting human well-being. This is said to be even more important for younger generations. At the same time, there’s growing evidence that our mental health is highly responsive to our environment.
For example, when people feel isolated from each other and from nature, and when they live in densely populated cities, both their mental and physical health suffer. Because exposure to the built environment affects our emotional and psychological health, it’s important to study and measure it scientifically.
But well-being is a complex concept, and measuring it isn’t always easy. We can think of it as the pursuit of pleasurable experiences or life satisfaction (hedonism), but it can also be understood as personal growth, wholeness, and living a good life through the pursuit of meaningful goals (eudaimonia).
Keith (he/him) is an Associate and Senior Director of Experience Outcomes for the global design agency Forge Media and Design. He holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from York University. He serves as a Fellow at McLaughlin College with peer-reviewed published works in Taylor and Francis Architectural Science Review. Keith is a member of the BrainXChange Design and Dementia Community of Practice, a board member of the Canadian Healthcare Infrastructure, a guest lecturer for the Ontario Association of Architects, the Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design program in Venice, and other organizations. He’s also the founder of COUP, The Community of Unlikely Partnerships.
Natalia Olszewska: Keith, your journey through the world of design is special. You focus on the experiential aspects of design. What does that mean and how did you get there?
Keith Francis: I always thought there was a relationship between creativity and how it affected the human experience. It was often frustrating to work in a creative field where aesthetics, color palette, form, materiality, all of those things were leading the discussion. Especially when that happened at the expense of people who felt absent from the process.
The design palette was generally placed before the lived experience of people, whether they were neurotypical or neurodiverse or different cultures. I always felt that it should have been reversed.
In a study well timed for the northern summer, researchers Overbury, Conroy and Marks from the University of Bath reviewed the research on open water swimming. The short version: it can be as good for our brains as it is for our bodies.
The research team identified 14 published studies on open water swimming that met the inclusion criteria for their review. They searched the databases PubMed, PsychNet, Web of Science Core Collection, and Embase, as well as references from the articles they found.
Studies of interest looked at associations between open water swimming and mental health or well-being and focused on swimming in any natural environment. Therefore, articles reporting data only from indoor pools were not included.
Cleo Valentine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on examining the impact of architectural form on neuroimmunology and neuroinflammation. Cleo received her MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies from the University of Cambridge, MSc in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford and Bachelor’s in Urban Systems and Economics from McGill University and the University of Copenhagen.
She has worked as a computational systems designer at Open Systems Lab (formerly Wikihouse), has held positions as the Neuroaesthetics Fellow at The Centre for Conscious Design and as a guest tutor at the Royal College of Art and the Architecture Association in London. She is currently an associate at Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd., where she provides consultancy services on public health and architecture.
Natalia Olszewska: I’m excited to talk to you because this is going to be a conversation where we can dive deep into human physiology and how it relates to architecture. What brought you to neuroarchitecture in the first place?
Cleo Valentine: My interest in neuroarchitecture comes from both my academic and personal experience. I first studied at McGill University in Montreal, where I did a program called Urban Systems.
It was at the intersection of urban studies and human geography, examining how people move through space and how urban environments evolve over time. It gave me an interdisciplinary approach to studying architecture and cities.
While at McGill, I had the opportunity to study at the University of Copenhagen on an exchange program. I became interested in going there after watching ‘The Human Scale’.
There is hardly anything more difficult to quantify in architecture than beauty. How can I quantify beauty in a market where values are controlled by capital? How can I give an emotion not only a value, but also a price? How can I trust people to feel with their hearts and not just reason with their brains in a world where the greatest trust is placed in data and digital?
To me, beauty is an art, not a science. You can’t catch it, you have to follow it. I will not put a price tag on beauty, and I will not talk about numbers and formulas.
Instead, I have decided to share my very personal ten criteria for beauty. These are neither complete, nor do they pretend to be the absolute. Since I have taken the liberty of doing this in a very personal way, I will outline them not only theoretically, but also practically. I will do this based on projects I have designed myself or personally collaborated on.
Suppose after years of marriage, one partner calls for divorce only because they want someone younger. In movies, we’re supposed to be disgusted with this person for abandoning their loved one, even though nothing is wrong. Yet this situation describes analogously our relationship with many consumer products.
We constantly want the newer (younger) model. On average, people abandon their cell phones for a newer one every year and a half. Computers tend to be replaced every three to five years. People, on average, replace a car every 8.4 years. These replacements often have nothing to do with whether the old one is broken.
When brand new, people croon over the glory of these objects, and they keep buying them because they “can’t live without them.” However, they can and do live without them; any given model is expendable once the new one hits the market. Architecture is not immune from this cycle. People consume and keep consuming.