Good urban design is good for our health, says Waterloo prof Colin Ellard
Varied facades ‘satisfy our craving to learn more about our environment,’ Colin Ellard says
A streetscape can make you smile or it can completely stress you out, a University of Waterloo researcher says.
"There are all kinds of ways in which the geometry, the appearance of the surfaces of our surroundings, influence how we feel and how we act, how we decide about things, how we think, how we pay attention," said Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Waterloo. Ellard spoke with host Craig Norris on The Morning Edition Thursday about research he has done into understanding how our environment, architecture and urban design affect us.
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"Varied facades contain more information, they satisfy our craving to learn more about our environment, much more than those long, boring homogeneous facades do," Ellard said.
"As you move from place to place, if things change … if there are things to look at, if there are entrances, if there are ways to go into buildings, then that's all of much more interest than if those kinds of things aren't there on the street."
Direct link between design, health
How buildings look and how they can affect people isn't just cool trivia, Ellard added.
He noted a study published last year in the journal Nature that looked at green space in Toronto. The University of Chicago researchers found adding 10 more trees on a city block, on average, improved the health perception "in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighbourhood with $10,000 higher median income or being seven years younger."
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There are physiological links between a person's surroundings and the state of a person's body, especially stress responses, he said, and the levels of those hormones go up and down in relation to where we are in our environment.
Interior spaces a challenge
Ellard, who is also a design consultant and author of Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, said the same applies to interior spaces.
He said the big question these days is how to make office spaces that make people happy.
Offices have evolved from cubicle farms – which many people found oppressive – to more collaborative workspaces.
"One of the real sparks for creativity is if you can actually design a space that encourages people whose work roles are not necessarily all that closely related to bump into one another in their workspace. And you can do that with the kind of geometry, you can kind of amplify the water cooler effect. We don't have water coolers really anymore, but we can have a proxy for that in the design of space."
Ellard will be giving a lecture Saturday at 2 p.m. in the sanctuary of St. Peter's Church in Kitchener during Waterloo region's Doors Open event.