In discussions of the impact of the environment on human health, the focus is routinely on problems such as chemical pollutants–it is relatively easy to explain the damaging effects and to think about how they might be ameliorated. However, there are other environmental problems that are easily overlooked because they are the opposite: The damage comes in minuscule increments from pervasive sources with indirect causation. The visual environment–natural and built–and the aural environment (noise) can be unnoticed but significant contributors to stress levels which can have significant negative effects on health, both physical (immune system, blood pressure, diet …) and mental. Many of us have thought we were handling stressful situations only to discovered when relieved how crushing the effect had been: on our energy, concentration, general levels of motivation, patience with others, …

In the days after 9/11 when commercial flights were grounded, people from all over the country commented on how “quiet” it had become. In many of these areas, almost all the aircraft was high-flying–contributing to the background noise and individually identifiable only if you concentrated. A bizarre measure of the impact of that background noise was that many people reported feeling unusually calm and collected during that period. The specifics of the commercial aircraft noise problem have extensive discussion elsewhere and are off-topic here.(foot#1)

City Hall has a Healthy Cities, Healthy Community Initiative, but I couldn’t find an explicit mention of noise in it, despite that having been an issue for years: Leafblowers, seemingly never-ending construction activity, traffic. Gone are the days when “quiet resident street”almost seemed redundant. Even during hot spells (such as now), open windows and fans used to be enough to cope, but people are increasingly installing air conditioning because windows need to be shut to reduce the noise. Aside: I don’t have A/C, but rather a set of ear plugs and noise-canceling headsets that I cycle through as each become uncomfortable.

Many creative people need significant blocks of time to be effective and productive (Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule). People shift their work schedules to avoid not just interruptions, but noise. For example, at a software development company, some of us did our concentrated work on a late schedule, such as 10pm-4am, and others had a early schedule, for example staring at 5am. Multiple studies on shift work (factory, police …) have found that going against your biological clock has detrimental health effects, although the biggest ones result from shifting the shift being worked.

Politically, noise is a difficult issue to deal with because (1) people who rise in that hierarchy tend to be those who are invigorated by noise, or at least tolerate it, and (2) their position allows them an environment that reduces noise, such as a closed office versus a cubicle or home office.

—-Visual Environment – Nature—-

Hospital patients who had a view of nature were found to have better recoveries from surgery than those whose windows faced a brick wall. This 1984 publication (“Resources”below) was one of the inspirations for an ongoing stream of studies about how the presenceof nature affects human health. An interesting alternative approach has been to try to measure how much people value having a view of nature, for example, as reflected in real estate prices.

One of the great deficiencies of current Urban Planning ideology is that it views “nature” as something you go to visit–parks, hiking trails…–rather that something that you live within.

Numerous studies have also found nature also provides a quick mental refresher (“Resources” below). Think about your experience with getting up from your desk and walking, and compare doing so in the building’s hallway, its parking lot, and a green space such as found on many corporate campuses. Palo Alto’s Healthy Cities Initiative misses this aspect: It calls out being out-and-about as being only exercise.

—-Visual Environment – Built—-

There is an extensive body of research on what makes for a visually appealing commercial/business district, for higher-density residential developments, and for low-density residential areas. Briefly, there needs to be a certain level of structure and order, with compatible variation (in “Resources” below). There are cities where there have been master architects, and places where the architects and their clients want buildings that fit in. Then there are other cities where the architects and their clients want their buildings to stand out in the opposite sense of “outstanding”. These go by many names, such as signature building or gateway, but involve the building being out-of-scale (much larger) and of in incompatible design with its surroundings. When I hear an architect–either for the building or the review panel–discuss the overall aesthetics in isolation, I often wonder if anyone verified their credentials. Context is crucial: A swan is a ugly duckling, and an even uglier kitten. It shouldn’t take a prolonged, full-throated public outcry to get the basics of design compatibility enforced.

The details of good/bad design are too gargantuan to go into here. Rather I encourage you to think about the effects of that design on those who pass through there: residents, workers, shoppers … Bad design can be cold and even threatening, making people tense and wanting to hurry away from there, and that tension can be contagious.

The Eichler house design is oriented toward its backyard and presents a largely blank face to the front, with the garage doors the most salient feature. This design discourages spontaneous and other informal interactions with neighbors–its not just that residents are rarely out-front (other than the driveway), but they have little visibility from the house of what might be going on there. This design philosophy was widespread in the 1950s and 1960s, and the undesirable consequences had been widely accepted by the 1980s, and Palo Alto subsequently updated its building design rules to prohibit the worst of these design features.

Recognize that while bad design can squelch interactions between neighbors, good design doesn’t guarantee it, but only make it somewhat more likely. This point was driven home when I visited a cousin in another city. Although her house presents a friendly face to the street, her homeowners association rules dictated that the front yards be sterile, useless spaces: It had to be a grass lawn with one tree and flowers allowed only in narrow borders. She wanted to have crocuses (bulbs) in the lawn, but that was forbidden. With no reason for people to linger out-front, the few residents I saw were in their own bubbles: joggers and dog walkers.

A basic problem in achieving good urban design from a visual perspective is that there isn’t power to dictate it, but only to somewhat influence it. This is probably a good situation, because if there were the power to dictate, it would likely produce bad designs.

—-Urban Design under Assault—-

Under the rationale that building more housing is the only priority, various advocacy groups are rejecting the importance of good design on human health. One such group is Bay Area Renters Forum (BARF) of San Francisco that although tiny has somehow achieved prominence, for example an article in the New York Times and a major lawsuit in the East Bay. That article(foot#2) describes the BARF front person Sonja Trauss as “support(ing) all of it (buildings) so long as it is built tall, and soon” and quotes her as saying “You have to support building, even when it’s a type of building you hate. Is it ugly? Get over yourself. …” She describes herself as an anarchist, but sounds like she would be happy with a building style known as “Stalinist”.

Source: By Douglas Moran

By Douglas Moran

E-mail Douglas Moran

About this blog: Real power doesn’t reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org..