The planet is rapidly urbanising, with more than 50 per cent of the world’s population now living in cities. By 2050, that figure will rise to 64 per cent in the developing world, and 86 per cent in the developed world, according to the United Nations.
All those new urban residents — around 70 million each year — will need housing, but what sort will they end up with? In many cities, they will end up with a flat in a tower, and that can often be psychologically detrimental, according to Carlos Galan-Diaz, researcher at the University of Aberdeen, and Dörte Martens, lecturer at University of Potsdam.
Writing in The Conversation, their article Architecture’s brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival examines the impact of the built environment on people’s psychological state, and concludes that psychology is often overlooked in the design process.
The authors note that London has approximately 230 new towers in the planning stages, despite clear evidence that “cramming people together” has negative behavioural consequences.
“It looks like a complete failure of common sense,” Galan-Diaz and Martens wrote. “[A] modern successor to past psychological building blunders like the Red Road flats in Glasgow; Butterburn and Bucklemaker in Dundee; and London’s Milton Court. All have either been demolished or are on the way down.”
Glasgow’s erstwhile housing projects, such as the Plean Street Flats, were notorious for drugs and crime. Since 2006, 25 per cent of Glasgow’s high-rise flats have been demolished.
Writing in The Guardian, architecture critic Rowan Moore offered his two cents on towers, as well.
“Nobody could go to the places already being shaped by towers – Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall or Stratford High Street, a discus-throw from the Olympic Park – and say that these are great places to linger, or that the tall buildings now rising there enhance the experience,” he wrote.
It’s not just towers that are detrimental, however. Any housing project that mucks up the design elements will create an unpleasant and possibly dangerous environment.
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project, a 2,762-apartment low-rise development in St. Louis, Missouri, Galan-Diaz and Martens noted, was demolished after only 18 years. Architectural experts had praised the project for its efficient design, with no space wasted on semi-private areas. Crime and vandalism sprouted rapidly, however, as the design stifled residents’ ability to interact and get to know their neighbours.
Design elements are key in creating spaces that people like and that will endure.
“If we don’t like a particular environment we will not dwell in it voluntarily – be it a public space, a shopping centre or our home,” Galan-Diaz and Martens wrote.
Important design elements may seem obvious, but often are not in practice, such as “people tend to prefer environments that are clean, have a degree of ornamentation, are uncluttered, have an open view, good illumination and so forth.”
However, how the built environment makes people feel, and what it requires of them to be there, are key elements.
“Good designs do not demand too much attention, and are easy to move through and understand – imagine the different experiences between a busy underground station at rush hour and a park in the full summer sun, for instance. Such environments tend to promote well being in a general overarching way,” Galan-Diaz and Martens wrote.
Public green space is a key design element, though it's often traded away for more housing units.
“Better to build smaller apartments with large public community green spaces than use the same acreage to build large urban lofts with private green spaces,” Galan-Diaz and Martens suggested.
Considering the myriad housing projects underway, the authors worry that past mistakes are likely to repeat.
“If 21st-century buildings are to be fit for purpose, psychologists need consulted much more often,” Galan-Diaz and Martens wrote. “Otherwise it will not be long before we are pulling down today’s new buildings in much the same way as we are pulling down many of our post-war developments now.”