Photo: Thekla Ehling
Design and well-being
The relationship between architecture and health has historically received little attention, beyond the design requirements of healthy buildings. Recent work has changed this and has established a more holistic awareness of the role of architecture in health. An example of this in the UK includes the publication of reports by the Royal Institute of British Architects¹⁴ and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.¹⁵
This is supported by an increasing wealth of medical research related to physical health¹⁶ and mental health.¹⁷ The emphasis has been on ill health as a result of the effects of environmental characteristics such as overcrowding, noise, air quality and light. These effects are typically described as direct (i.e. consequences on physical and mental health) as well as indirect (e.g. through social mechanisms).¹⁸ However, rather than focusing on ill health, the definition and study of well-being has been emphasising the behaviours that support a ‘flourishing ’ population. It is the built-environment characteristics that support such positive behaviour, which is a key point of discussion here.
The science of well-being is a relatively recent area of enquiry. However, the UK Government’s ‘Foresight’ project, related to well-being¹⁹, provides the critical mass of evidence that led to the definition of the Five Ways to Well-Being mentioned above²⁰. These represent the key behaviours that have been shown to relate to improved well-being. Each behaviour is associated with subjective well-being as reported in research papers, notably in medical journals, that draw on large-scale and meta-analysis of exacting studies. Thus there is no shortage of evidence to support the assertion that such behaviours, the Five Ways, result in improved well-being.
- Connect: the quantity and quality of social connections (e.g. talking and listening to family or strangers) correlates with reported well-being as well as physical health.²¹
- Keep active: there is ample evidence from global and meta-studies to demonstrate that physical activity reduces symptoms of mental and physical ill-health.²²
- Take notice: being mindful – paying attention to the present and being aware of thoughts and feelings – is a behaviour that reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.²³
- Keep learning: aspirations are shaped in early life, and those who have higher aspirations tend to have better outcomes. Such aspirations are modified by the environment.²⁴ The evidence shows that also later in life, those participating in music, arts and evening classes, for example, attain higher subjective well-being.²⁵
- Give: evidence has emerged that pro-social rather than self-centred behaviour has a positive impact on happiness. Such consequences of altruistic behaviour are related both to spending on others as opposed to oneself ²⁶ and through volunteering and offering help.²⁷
The critical next question is to discuss how the Five Ways to Well-Being relate to and are influenced by the built environment.
The provision of local ‘everyday public spaces’ creates opportunities for people to connect, and is a significant resource of well- being for individuals and the wider community.²⁸ Although not all users have the same requirements and expectations of a social space, key qualities include: location – accessible and proximity to other communal resources (school, market) to support casual encounters; places – to stop and sit, on a park bench or at a café table, so that encounters can be more than fleeting; adaptability – spaces without specific or prescribed functions that enable spontaneous, impromptu activities; homeliness – a sense of safety and familiarity; pleasantness – clean and peaceful, or bustling and lively; specialness – unique qualities, aesthetics, or subjective memories.
When a space is pedestrian-oriented, as opposed to car-oriented, this is correlated with a sense of community, due to the perception of the pedestrian environment being strongly related to opportunities for social interaction.²⁹ And finally, natural, green or landscape qualities have been widely, and for a long time, associated with a range of health benefits.³⁰ In summary, “public spaces that brought people together and where friendships and support networks were made and maintained were key to a general sense of well-being.” ³¹
Physical activity (walking, cycling, sports, etc.) is widely associated with reducing causes of chronic conditions and the burden of disease, disability and premature death. Design characteristics associated with increasing activity include access to physical activity facilities (e.g. sports centres and equipment), convenient and proximate access to destinations (work, shops, school, public transport), high residential density (which is associated with greater proximity to facilities and destinations), land use (e.g. mixed use) and walkability (convenient and safe pavements, traffic calming features).³²
Although there are some potential additional benefits to physical activity in an outdoor and preferably natural environment, exercise indoors can be equally effective.³³ Design strategies to promote indoor physical activity include: the provision of (shared) exercise space, encouraging stair use through the distribution (separation) of functions over different floor levels, and creating attractive experiences along circulation routes (views, art, daylight, greenery).
Being mindful and taking notice of a design intervention in a population is a behaviour for which there is only recent evidence. However, in a randomised control test, the provision of art, planting and landscaping, wildlife features (e.g. insect boxes), and seating are examples of the kind of interventions that resulted in significantly increased observations of people stopping to take notice.³⁴
The same study also showed that diverse types of open space (combining green as well as hard landscaping) and a higher relative proportion of public to private space is also associated with increased reported mindfulness.
There is evidence from educational research that the physical environment of the home and classroom are mediating variables that influence intellectual development. Domestic parameters include a home that is clean and uncluttered, appears safe for play and is not dark or monotonous.³⁵ The distance and orientation of seating in relation to others will influence the level of interaction and dialogue. For example, in a circle of seats, people facing each other will converse more than people adjacent to each other. Unobstructed eye contact is an important variable particularly in an educational context, making a semicircle classroom seating arrangement most effective.³⁶ At a more prosaic level, in order to support learning, interior environments need to be physically and thermally comfortable, safe, well lit, quiet and have clean air.
However, there is evidence that learning will improve when comparing a poor environment (a run-down and poorly maintained space) with an adequate one (one that is ‘good enough’), but that further and more extravagant facilities (specialised spaces or digital equipment) do not show further improvements in learning.³⁷ As previously mentioned, the opportunity to engage in art, music and evening classes increases well-being and thus such activities should be accommodated in the design of homes (light, cleanable spaces for art, soundproof spaces for music) and neighbourhoods (local communal spaces for classes).
The presence of environmental stressors reduces helping behaviour, but little further explicit evidence is available beyond that which has been discussed above, which relates the physical environment with neighbourhood social capital.³⁸ There is evidence that people are less altruistic in urban than in rural environments, which, if nothing else, confirms that the integration of green space and contact with nature can be valuable.³⁹
Although it is difficult to observe altruism and its explicit relationship to design parameters, it can be shown that self-reported altruistic behaviour is more prevalent in neighbourhoods that incorporate the positive environmental and physical characteristics of space design (diversity, proximity, accessibility and quality) that have already been mentioned.⁴⁰