“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” — are the wise words put forth by Winston Churchill and using the same reference with more people living in cities and suburbs, one can decode how the built urban environment can change our behavior. 

Nearly 90% of our lives are spent indoors and every moment of the day is influenced by architecture. The clinical research by neuroscientists and psychologists proves that the design of cities can affect our mood and well-being and that certain cells in the hippocampal region of the brain are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of spaces we inhabit in.  

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Yet, many of our urban planners and architects have paid scant attention to the impact of their creations on the cognitive effects on human minds. The imperative to design something aesthetic and unique often neglect how it may shape the behavior of those who live within it. Designing user-friendly environments keeping in mind the functionality, space navigation, and special experiential qualities change the paradigm of how we as designers approach the design of a space. 

Alison Brooks, an architect who specializes in housing and social design, told BBC Future that psychology-based insights could change how cities are built. She says, “If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment.”

Researchers have found plenty of evidence on how the different kinds of urban environments make people feel welcoming, stimulating and safe at the same time. 

Visual complexity and variations of spaces | Urban Environments

People are often fascinated with unique appearing facades and the interesting it becomes, the greater are the positive effects on psychology. Variation and complexity in the building facades were found to be more mentally engaging, dynamic and stimulating than the simple and monotonous ones.

Community and social spaces

Outdoor Amphitheatre_©students.unimelb.edu.au

Lack of social cohesion and bonding in communities has been found to be a significant contribution to illnesses such as anxiety and depression due to social isolation. Such spaces often foster a healthy mental state and wellbeing and create an opportunity for individuals to collide within a space. 

Spatial navigation | Urban Environments

A space should develop a sense of direction and orientation for a seamless traffic flow thus increasing the usability of the building. This spatial connection and sensitivity foster belonging to a place. A disoriented space can provoke the feelings of anger and frustration and the sense of being lost. Developing arrival pause points, patios, plazas to lanes and pathways before penetration into the buildings, draws its visitors to immediately orient them across the surrounding building. Series of levels and stairways allow for better accessibility and developing an open space program.

Green buffer spaces and connectivity with nature

Green spaces are looked upon as a respite from the urban environment and have a large role in improving our mental fatigue and stress-related health problems. Rooftop gardens, plazas, indoor green walls connect people to nature and they affect the immediate microclimate and ecologies thus reducing heat and providing shade. With the increased pollution levels and global warming, it is necessary to incorporate plants and maximize tree canopy coverage. 

Apart from the climatic impact that a landscape can create, it can also enhance the aesthetic, functionally and quality of a space whether indoors or outdoors. It also provides means to escape from daily urban life contributing to their ability of recovery and state of happiness.

Pruitt Igoe Horror…

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Pruitt Igoe Housing_©www.bbc.com

In city planning, an isolated architectural design leads to isolated people. Apartments, Complexes, and Buildings without public spaces are susceptible to higher levels of crime, vandalism, or even chronic illness. Conversely, people living in connected communities are generally happier and more socially active. Lack of planning and open spaces reduce the chances of architectural horror stories – one such as the Pruitt Igoe Housing in St. Louis, Missouri designed by Minoru Yamasaki became notorious as a result of crime, squalor, and social dysfunction. 

The 33 misconceived apartment blocks created a sense of isolation from the wider community, alienating communities, and stoking racial segregation. The residential towers were accustomed to the turmoil of poverty and urban blight for over two decades that led to the destruction of the entire complex. how the design of cities can hamper or foster the human behavioral patterns affecting the functioning of the city as a whole.

Designing Happier Lives | Urban Environmentsv

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©alamy stock photo

The urban environment must be designed keeping in mind the people who intend to use them for decades to come. There are factors of social, cultural and political influences that affect the psychological wellbeing. Layout, size and the scale of the space has a significant impact on physical and psychological level. Limitations and poorly designed spaces strongly affect the crowd. 

Design needs to have more aspects rather than just being functional in nature. The design should embrace the patterns, colours, curves and the green spaces whereas shun blank facades, unsheltered spaces and sharp edges because architecture makes us feel how we analyze and conceive spaces which can only be experienced. It is time to design cities with a holistic approach to make cities more livable than just urban clutter. 


Tanya is pursuing her B.Arch from VIT’s PVP College of Architecture, Pune. She believes in a holistic approach towards design and living with nature. Through her bachelor’s study, she has developed an interest in travelling and exploring this profession. Apart from architecture, dance and music are an integral part which has made herself know better.