Good urban design is good for our health, says Waterloo prof Colin Ellard

Neuroscientist Colin Ellard says the geometry and appearance of a building can affect how a person reacts to their environment and can even influence their health.

Varied facades ‘satisfy our craving to learn more about our environment,’ Colin Ellard says

The city and the Downtown BIA are currently looking for community feedback on the strategic priorities. There will be an open house on April 26 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the central branch of KPL on 54 Queen St. Residents can also give their feedback through an online survey until May 21. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

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.

"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.

"You can draw a fairly direct set of lines between urban design and the state of our health," he said. "If municipalities want to hear the argument in dollars and cents, we're getting close to that."
A building that has no doors where pedestrians are walking can actually stress some people out, Ellard says. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

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."

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.

"What you're trying to do in an office design is find a way to satisfy a large number of needs and a large number of different kind of work roles, typically. So you want to build an environment in such a way that it encourages people to have face-to-face interactions," he said, noting the challenge is having an open area that also gives people their own privacy and personal space.
'Cubicle farms' give people privacy, but many find them to be oppressive.

"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.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?