The Symbiotic Relationship between Architecture and Human Quality of Life

A community that helps design its own buildings is usually a healthier, happier one.

A basic evolutionary view of biology encourages the conclusion that animals are attracted to environments in which they can excel. Applying this view to humans suggests that the ideal environments we seek out offer us a blend of safety and awareness. Our physical limitations compel us to seek safety, but our unique talent for processing information compels us to seek environments that deliver lots of data.

The Spaces We Love

Our favourite spaces are those that intrigue us. We like complexity and mystery. Although a regular grid of rectangular streets is easy to navigate, the roads we fall in love with are the ones that curve away from us, making a mystery out of what comes next. Humans like environments that puzzle – but we also like those environmental puzzles to be solvable.

When a given environment is easy for humans to comprehend and map, it’s called ‘legible.’ Part of this quality is ‘prospect,’ the ability to survey the environment at a distance; something important in property photography. Legibility also requires landmarks that make it easier to find our way, the same way our prehistoric ancestors used trees and hills to navigate the African savannah.

The landscapes that become most appealing to us are those that balance between complexity and coherence, mystery and legibility. Natural landscapes often provide this balance thanks to fractal geometry, an inherent combination of complexity and order. Fractal patterns often appear on buildings and cities we consider beautiful. Examples include the cascading domes of a Hindu temple, the organic sprawl of London’s streets, or the rhythmic order of windows on a Renaissance palace.

How Architecture Evolved

Humanity’s earliest buildings and settlements were patterned after the complex order we could see in the natural world and even our own bodies. Individual structures and communities built up out of them evolved slowly, over time, relying on simple building materials like stone and wood. Roads were laid out according to the underlying contours of the land.

The sheer scope and pace of life in the 21st century has severed these natural design connections. Many of us live out our lives in spaces that do nothing positive for our sense of community, creativity, and well-being. What’s the secret to recapturing healthier design principles? Alastair Parvin is one of the founders of WikiHouse, an open-source organization dedicated to sharing useful principles for the design of affordable homes. Parvin’s view is that what we consider ‘bad design’ isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just designed for priorities other than human well-being – most often, according to the economic desire to create profitable pieces of property.

Creating more human-healthy environments obliges us to give individual people agency in how their homes, workspaces, and communities are built. People who take an active role in creating their environments have a greater sense of community, pride, and responsibility. This quality is called ‘collective efficacy.’ Communities that enjoy a high rate of collective efficacy see many significant benefits: less crime, less vandalism, and even less littering.

A Happy Environment

In any community where collective efficacy is allowed to create ordered complexity, we will find vibrant and healthy environments. Examples include the street artists of Bristol, the urban farms of Detroit, or the ‘half-houses’ of Chile. Our best path to building a sustainable future for ourselves is to expand everyone’s opportunity to shape his or her environment. When we create our own communities, we are shaping ourselves – and improving our prospects for the future.