Perception + Space Workshops

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Exploring the psychological impact of design

By David BeeversPhD student in Psychology at the University of Salford on the Perception+Space session at the International Postgraduate Research Conference, April 2022

In a world where the emotional and psychological pressures on urban populations is greater than ever, the need for designers of the built environment to take such emotional pressures into account when designing future projects is increasingly important. This means collaborating with disciplines such as psychology to not only meet the external, practical, and environmental needs of the end-user, including function, location, and ease of access to key services, but also the inner emotional needs of residents, ensuring the built environment has a positive influence on mental health.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a mental health crisis around the world and the UK is no exception. A study among 14,393 adults showed a 13.5% rise in mental health problems across all age groups in the first half of 2020 (Daly, et al., 2020). Evidence has also shown that the built environment can have effects on emotion and wellbeing. For example, Herzog (1992) found that viewing medium-height buildings led to more positive emotions than viewing very tall or very low structures. Larcombe and colleagues (2019) found that people living in high-rise flats are at greater risk of mental health problems than the rest of the population. What we build has an enormous impact on how we feel, and how we feel impacts on how mentally strong we are.

We are entering the era of New Urbanism which, despite its name, is a return to more traditional urban design strategies in response to the need to create future urban space which reflects reduced car ownership, a need for improved air quality, and greater emphasis on the individual. This would seem to be the perfect time to consider and learn about how to include the emotional needs of individuals into the design process.

The psychological impact of urban design was explored in a session at the International Post Graduate Research Conference (IPGRC) hosted by the University of Salford’s School of Science, Engineering, and Environment (SSEE). The session was chaired by David Beevers, a PhD candidate in psychology whose research focuses on the restorative effect of environments, Dr Tanja Poppelreuter of the SSEE, and Dr Catherine Thompson, History and theory of architecture and psychology lecturers at the University of Salford. The four speakers in the session explored the psychological impact of design from very different perspectives – the question of aesthetics, the importance of community, the relatively new science of neuroarchitecture, where the brain’s neural responses to design are taken into account, and the importance of natural daylight in buildings for individuals’ well-being. 

Aesthetics have been shown to influence how people view urban environments. For instance, studies have found that views of awe-evoking buildings and settings can improve attention and enhance positive emotion relative to more mundane buildings (Collado & Manrique, 2020). The idea that how a building looked could affect our psychological well-being cut right across the principles of the Modernist architecture movement which grew in the pre- and post-war years with the insistence that ‘form follows function’ and that buildings should have as little ornate embellishment as possible.

The importance of aesthetics and their psychological impact was outlined by Dr Armagan Dogan, from the Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania. Her research looks at the role of aesthetics in people’s building preferences. By presenting Modernist examples and more ornate traditional designs of buildings she has been able to suggest that even when the more traditional design has a feature associated with a negative reaction (e.g. a church spire, a shape associated with danger or fear) people still preferred it to the Modernist alternative (a box-shaped tower).

The neutrality of Modernist design and the lack of aesthetics, a ‘featureless’ approach to ensure the buildings appealed to everyone, is partly the reason for their loss of popularity. Dr Dogan pointed out: “In the beginning, Modernists had to build many buildings quickly, so they didn’t have the chance to think about everyone’s emotions. They needed a general approach that would work for everybody. But now they are constantly being demolished because no-one can identify with them.”

Dr Dogan recognises the need to strike a balance between ornateness and function. Her research is focused on establishing what blend of aesthetic complexity and functional neutrality is most appealing to people. Too much complexity and people will feel overwhelmed; too much neutrality and there will not be enough of interest to engage with them.

Whilst Dr Dogan focused on preferences for spaces, our next speaker was interested in how spaces impact on community. A sense of community is at the heart of an urban population’s psychological needs – the security of having that network of support, the idea of being in it together, and the feeling of camaraderie rather than isolation, creates a sense of well-being. Too much social housing over the past 70 years has neglected to take that into account. 

Eve Blezard, a PhD research candidate at the University of Salford, highlighted the effects of a loss of community in a particular social housing estate which had been neglected and which was hit hard by the austerity politics which followed the global recession of 2007-2009. The negative impact of the recession on social housing communities needs to be heeded so that future design of community-based housing, where many people live within a small urban area, can have their psychological needs protected. Eve’s research, speaking to residents of a north-west social housing estate, has stressed the importance of a ‘third place’, that shared space where households can come together and support each other. The third place, a phrase coined by Oldenburg (1999), is beneficial in physically bringing the community together, thus pushing back against damaging aspects of mass social housing, including anti-social behaviour and isolation.

Eve explained: “[The idea of the third place] was found likely to be really important in a social housing context because the estate was experiencing austerity, anti-social behaviour, and crime, which made that third place more important to reach out and connect to others and form a supportive environment.” She added that it was felt this was the responsibility of those designing these estates to incorporate these shared spaces, as they were an important part of protecting the psychological well-being of the individuals in that community.

Our first two speakers provided evidence to show that design can have a psychological impact, and as part of building our understanding of this, it is essential to be able to measure this impact. Our third speaker Andrea de Paiva, a PhD student at University College, Dublin, seeks to achieve this via the relatively new area of neuroarchitecture. Neuroarchitecture is a cross-disciplinary approach which aims to use principles and methods of cognitive science to quantify the impact of design. Andrea’s area of study is looking at how neuropsychology can inform the way educational establishments are designed. Using experimental research methods such as brain monitors and sweat response tests, a picture of how a design is affecting us at a neural level can emerge. These methods can highlight emotional and biological reactions to different designs, rather than relying on self-reporting by participants about their perceived level of well-being. Andrea, speaking from her home in Brazil, told the audience: “The idea behind this is to allow us a more complete understanding of how an environment can affect us, not just effects on our behaviour or performance but also the long-term effects on our well-being. Cognitive science allows our understanding to go beyond people’s conscious awareness of how they feel.”

Measuring neural responses can give us an insight into the many ways building design can impact the well-being of individuals using the space. One important factor within design, particularly in hotter countries, is the level of daylight which users can access while inside. Designs which allow generous levels of daylight into the interior space have been shown to improve well-being, productivity, memory formation, and immune response (Lee et al., 2022). Researching what daylight levels provide the optimum benefit is at the heart of the PhD research of Mohamed Abdelrahman, based at Benha University, in Egypt. He pointed out at the conference that the amount of daylight must be balanced with a degree of shading within the interior space. Too much daylight can bring with it problems such as glare and increases in interior temperatures, which have been shown to increase headaches and eyestrain among occupants (Jamrozik et al., 2013). The optimum ratio of daylight to shade is therefore a crucial factor in design. But Mohamed has added a third factor which can affect well-being, that of view quality. A large body of research into the psychological benefits of operating in a space with a window view tends to favour views of nature rather than the built environment (e.g. Hartig et al., 1991; Ulrich, 1984) although Aries and colleagues (2010) suggest it is view quality which determines its benefits – a high quality urban view can be equally beneficial. This aspect of view quality ties in with Mohamed’s research. He is aiming to find a way of integrating view quality into a holistic approach to investigate how the three factors of daylight, shade, and view quality combine to promote well-being.

Mohamed’s presentation illustrated the importance of considering different elements within the architectural design process. Together all four speakers showed the range of factors that need to be considered if we want to support psychological wellbeing in urban spaces. The aim of the session was to highlight the need for mental health and well-being to be considered in all urban design approaches. The speakers each gave a strong argument for the importance of designers meeting the practical andpsychological needs of an urban population.