We’ve learned the hard way that some aspects of modern life aren’t good for us. We can’t eat sugary, high-fat diets and live low-exercise lifestyles without paying a price. It’s not what Mother Nature intended. And now we also know that there is a price we pay for constructing big, blank, boxy buildings.
It’s simply not what our brain and bodies expect if we are to function at our best, new findings in cognitive science and psychology suggest.
Our origins matter when it comes to understanding behavior and well-being. As primates, we evolved in rich, complex surroundings, beginning in the African tropical rain forests about 60 million years ago and moving to the savanna. These stimulating spaces are what our brain still expects to see and respond to. Like other primates, we are highly visual. Neuroscientists report that 50 percent of the human mental apparatus is engaged in visual processing, demonstrating the brain’s astonishing prioritization of vision over other senses.
This brain design also hints at a key criterion for successful city design: we crave visual variety to satisfy our enormous visual appetite. It also suggests why negative psychological repercussions follow when visual requirements are not met. We can watch these behavioral shifts when people walk between the new and old section of many cities, including Boston. In a recent Aeon article, environmental psychologist Colin Ellard characterized the mood of people outside a new blank-walled megastore in Manhattan as “bored and unhappy.” He noted an immediate transformation in behavior, however, when the same subjects moved less than a block away to an older strip of restaurants and “stores with lots of open doors and windows.” They “felt lively and engaged.” They didn’t want to leave. You can observe the same thing happening during a walk from Boston’s empty City Hall Plaza to busy Quincy Market, or from the sparsely populated Greenway to bustling Hanover Street in the North End.
Not only do dull streetscapes fail to attract, some research suggests the lack of visual variety leads to boredom and psychological distress — and even higher mortality rates. Cortisol, “the stress hormone,” which has been linked to increased rates of heart disease, depression, and lower life expectancy, has been found to increase after boring experiences. While the detailed research and biometric measurements of cityscapes is only beginning to happen, Ellard and earlier urban observers suggest city design that’s unresponsive to the human need for social or visual stimulation is harmful. Ellard says it could even be killing us.
This does not mean cities and public spaces need to be modeled with the artifice of a Disneyland or Las Vegas strip, but it does help explain why we can effortlessly have a good time in many older European cities, without speaking the native language. These places feed our brain what it loves to see when we walk: rich detail, complex patterns, symmetrical ornament, and lots of faces.
Our origins might also prompt new ways to think about building places, reorienting the way we consider the design of buildings and neighborhoods. Where we came from reinforces the importance of putting people first.
As people debate the strengths and weaknesses of building projects going forward, we should always ask: Does the plan fit our species’ uniqueness and evolutionary predispositions? Let’s also make it more seamlessly mesh with the natural world. We’ll all be better off for it.Justin B. Hollander is an associate professor in the department of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. Ann Sussman is an architect. They are coauthors of “Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment.”