Design shapes us, often in ways we don't even realize.

A dream place. There’s a place that’s been intentionally designed, down to the smallest, most excruciating detail, to make visitors feel warm and joy.


Mainstreet, U.S.A. at Disneyland. Image: Joshua Sudock

During construction, a contractor wanted to use plastic in place of wrought iron. Walt Disney shut down the idea, insisting that everything needed to feel real and authentic. Disneyland needed to suspend belief. Everything from the soft edges of the architecture down to the texture of pebbles on the ground needed to draw visitors into the story. Walt would say to John Hench, the Creative Director of The Disney Company:

“You get down to Disneyland at least twice a month and you walk in the front entrance, don’t walk in through the back. Eat with the people. Watch how they react to the work you’ve done down there.”
Walt Disney standing next to a map of Disneyland. Image: Walt Disney Archives

The design of the enclosed space seems more comparable to the building of software than to a city. Building it is tethered to some vision of what the experience ought to be for visitors, and there’s a clearer measure of what success looks like. But Disneyland is a park, not the real world; a city can’t possibly deliver the same fantastical experience to its inhabitants or A/B test toward optimal. Yet, cities around the world have and continue to use real design on real places to improve people’s quality of life. It’s as messy and hauling a pursuit as it sounds.

City design in reality

We underestimate the power of urban design despite the growing evidence that shows cities profoundly shape our lives, often in ways we aren’t even fully aware of. There have been examples of good and poor design, with measured effects they leave on residents’ lives.

Mayor Peñalosa’s efforts in reimagining Bogotá, Colombia is oft-cited as a success story. The economist turned urban planner ran for office twice before assuming the role of mayor. He promised, not increased income per capita, but a different measure of happiness that would come from redesigning the city to support a better way of life.

Peñalosa alongside other bikers. Image: Model D Media

His projects included the TransMilenio, a world leading bus rapid transit system; a reclaim of parks, public spaces, and sidewalks aimed at putting the city’s people in the foreground; as well as the development of public libraries and cultural centres. Within a span of three years, he helped transform Bogotá and distinguish the city as a leader in urban mobility and social justice.

A public space in Bogotá. Image: Laura Puttkamer

Then there are stories like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project; a complex of 33 identical towers demolished two decades after being built.

Aerial view of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings. Image: Bettmann/Corbis

Initially conceived as a series of low-rise units alongside larger towers to be surrounded by playgrounds and landscaping, budget constraints led to poor build quality, skip-stop elevators that forced residents to use the staircase, and large communal corridors which eventually exacerbated the problems set to unfold. The racially segregated complex dealt with ever-increasing vacancy rates, and with no funds to support maintenance, the buildings became dilapidated. The large communal corridors and staircases meant to provide community spaces became unsafe. Oscar Newman, an architect who visited Pruitt-Igoe, commented on the relationship between social health and design.

“Landings shared by only two families were well maintained, whereas corridors shared by 20 families, and lobbies, elevators, and stairs shared by 150 families were a disaster — they evoked no feelings of identity or control.”

Charles Jencks, an architectural historian, marks the urban project as the moment “modern architecture died.”

Cities shape us more than we think

It’s not a matter of denoting parks and greenery as good and characterless buildings as bad, but sitting with the fact that the design of everything around us impacts us far more than we realize.

Colin Ellard, a neuroscience professor at the University of Waterloo, explores the intersection of psychology, architecture, and urban design in his research. His strongest findings focus around the powerful effect of nature on how people feel moving through their city. Walking into a park elicits a physiological response; you actually experience a spike in happiness and an ease in your arousal levels. You may not even be paying attention, but nature has a transformative effect — and that’s no exaggeration. Buildings that look out on greenery experience half the violent crime level compared to buildings that look out to courtyards. This is surprising considering that criminologists point out that bushes and trees are convenient cover for shady behaviour.

Aerial view of urban park. Image: Dronepicr

Even something as simple as riding an elevator up a high-rise building affects you. Stanley Milgrim, an American social psychologist, explored how cities, despite physically pushing people close, socially pulls people apart. How is it that we can feel lonely and crowded by other people at the same time? Here, there’s a difference to be noted between density and crowding; one is a physical state while the other is psychological and subjective. In an elevator then, psychologists have shown that where you stand in it can change your emotional state. You’re less likely to feel crowded when you’re next to the control panel with all the floor buttons. We’re better at tolerating others when we feel we can moderate our contact with them. Here, lies the opportunity for design of spaces to help us moderate our social interactions.

Cities moderate how we interact with others and our relationships in life. John Helliwell, a Canadian economist and editor of the World Happiness Report, finds that when it comes to life satisfaction, relationships trump income. Going from having zero friends to having one you can rely on has the same effect on life satisfaction as a tripling of income. That being said, the way a city is shaped impacts how strong or weak our social networks are. We might think we’re rational when we consider the benefits and consequences of where we live or how long we commute, but there’s been studies that show otherwise. Researchers Stutzer and Frey found that a person who has to commute an hour, has to earn 40% more to match the life satisfaction of someone who walks to the office. But even when people are aware of the trade-off they make between commuting and their well-being, they do not take steps to change it.

Traffic congestion. Image: Sergio Dionisio

Reshaping cities for social well-being

By recognizing the impact of our space on our behaviour, cognition, and physiology, we can aim to redesign city space to transform culture for the better. Jan Ghel, a renowned Danish architect, dedicates his life to exploring this idea of designing for social wellbeing. In one study that looked at how people in Danes and Canadians behaved in their front yards, he found that people chat with passerby when the yards are shallow enough to allow for conversation, but deep enough for a retreat. The perfect yard depth is 10.6 feet.

In another study, Ghel documented what took place on the streets of Denmark after efforts were made to make the area more pedestrian-friendly. He and a colleague measured not only foot traffic, but also the number of people sitting outdoors in cafés, watching street performers, or just sitting doing nothing. Between 1968 and 1985, the number of people simply hanging out on the streets of Copenhagen tripled.

After Strøget in Copenhagen was changed into a pedestrian street. Image: Howrad Denton

It’s not that physical spaces are designed to force people together, but rather that they provide an opportunity for people to willingly interact. The ideal social spaces are ones that scale gradually from private to public where we feel we have control over being close or far apart.

Being more mindful of design

This barely scratches the surface of the wealth of research done in the space of urban design and psychology. Unfortunately, though experts in the field of neuroscience, psychology, design, and engineering mingle in academia, they collaborate far less in practice where cities are actually shaped. Despite there being evidence-based research and guidelines on how to design user-friendly buildings, most buildings aren’t built that way.

City design is far more complex than product design, but both share in that their presence in our lives impacts us, and influences us in profound ways we currently aren’t even measuring. So whatever design we do in our day, or if none at all, we ought to be attentive because it may prove to shape us more than we’re comfortable admitting.

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