Human-Centered Design and Connectedness in Communities

By Emma Harries
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

In May, I sat down with Dominic Richards, an architect and property developer who is challenging the status quo of built environments. Under a ceiling of skylights and surrounded by white-washed walls at the Architekton offices in Spitalfields, London, Dominic and his team presented their past and present projects, which seek to revolutionize the way city blocks are designed.

Working in development and architecture for over 20 years, Dominic “has gained a deep understanding of the impact of the built environment on the quality of life of those living and working within it.”[i] His concept seems simple enough: to create connected communities through sustainable development. Yet, not everyone shares his vision; he and his firm Architekton face barriers imposed by government agents and other development companies who see no qualms with the current car-centric, concrete jungles.

Since cars entered mass production in the United States in the early 20th century, they have become ubiquitous, and infrastructure has been developed with them in mind. In the 1960s and 70s, most of Europe followed suit, seeking to replicate the modern American city. Planners deemed traditional residential blocks “unhealthy and suppressive, and the utopian vision was of streets in the sky and grand boulevards for the motorcar.”[ii] Consequently, concrete was poured over footpaths and streets were widened to make room for built-for-speed machines.

Ironically, the shift towards car-centric, city planning has produced the very unhealthy and suppressive environment it sought to replace. Experiences of social isolation in cities are robust,[iii] and urban planning has largely contributed to the problem. Indeed, “many modern cities have been designed around cars, at the expense of the parks, public plazas and common spaces where people naturally congregate.”[iv] I experienced this reality on a recent trip to Paris, when a frustrated friend explained that the concrete parking lot running down the centre of her street used to be a luscious, grassy park where joyful giggles of playing children wafted through the open balconies of surrounding apartments. The windows and curtains of such apartments now remain closed, the artificial light inside more appealing than the sea of cars below, and the humming of indoor fans favoured over screeching horns.

However, the problem is not merely the existence of cars. The design approach to buildings, in response to this car-centric environment, have also contributed significantly to increasing social isolation within cities. Highways have encouraged the proliferation of high-rises, as buildings were, and still are, being constructed vertically to make room for sprawling streets. Proponents of high-rises see them as the remedy for rapid population growth as well as a mechanism to prevent urban sprawl.[v] Yet, in reality, high-rises damage the “character, livability, social fabric and even the public health of a city.”[vi] The desire for social connectedness amongst city-dwellers is rife,[vii] so we must reimagine our built environments.

Perhaps the key is a return to traditional approaches towards city planning and architecture. HRH The Prince of Wales suggests “designing places according to the human scale and with Nature at the heart of the process.”[viii] This, he argues, does not mean turning back the clock; rather, it means considering the future with community and environmental sustainability at the core. To do so, we must “reconnect with those traditional approaches and techniques honed over thousands of years which, only in the 20th century, were seen as ‘old-fashioned’ and of no use in a progressive modern age.”[ix]

Dominic Richards is doing just that. Architekton’s recent residential development projects – which include the revitalization of derelict commercial buildings in Spitalfields and the regeneration of industrial quarters in Norwich – favour walkable neighbourhoods, congregation spaces, local identity, and community engagement.[x] Moreover, rather than high-rises, he favours a more traditional-style of building, using a variety of materials from brick to wood in order to evoke a sense of individuality while still preserving continuity between each structure.

Reflecting on my experience at university, I can’t help but wish that my campus was modelled after such human-centered principles. Architekton’s philosophy holds that “the quality of the built environment exerts a critical effect on our quality of life.”[xi] This could not be truer, and universities should seek to emulate what Dominic and his teams are designing. This would entail crafting campuses that are more community-based, from building design to outdoor space. It would involve renewing buildings, favouring open and inviting spaces for congregation and plenty of windows, as natural daylight has been shown to increase productivity and promote health and well-being.[xii] This would be in the best interest of universities as a healthier student body results in higher retention and graduation rates.[xiii]

The effects of architecture and the built environment on students’ mental health and ability to learn should not be taken lightly. And when the time comes for refurbishment or expansion of campus buildings, deepening social connectedness should be a primary goal. If city planners, developers, architects and university administrators across the globe applied Dominic’s designs and HRH’s principles in constructing built environments, individuals and communities may very well be happier, healthier, and more harmonious.

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[i] “Investing in Community – Building Capital Growth.” Architekton. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://architekton.uk/.

[ii] Cathcart-Keays, Athlyn and Tim Warin. “Story of cities #36: how Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist ‘utopia.’” 5 May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/05/story-cities-copenhagen-denmark-modernist-utopia.

[iii] Trivedi, Jitendra K., Himanshu Sareen, and Mohan Dhyani. “Rapid Urbanization – Its Impact on Mental Health: A South Asian Perspective.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 50, no. 3 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738359/.

[iv] Samuel, Kim. “Building for Belonging.” Resurgence. 2015. http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article4400-building-for-belonging.html.

[v] “Ups and Downs of High-Rise Living.” The Guardian. January 18, 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2002/jan/18/urbandesign.housingpolicy.

[vi] Bloomingrock.“7 Reasons Why High-Rises Kill Livability.” Smart Cities Dive. September 29, 2014. http://www.smartcitiesdive.com/ex/sustainablecitiescollective/7-reasons-why-high-rises-kill-livability/561536/.

[vii] Hortulanus, R. P., Anja Machielse, and Ludwien Meeuwesen. Social Isolation in Modern Society. London: Routledge, 2006.

[viii] HRH The Prince of Wales. “Facing up to the future: Prince Charles on 21st century architecture.” The Architectural Review. December 20, 2014, https://www.architectural-review.com/rethink/viewpoints/facing-up-to-the-future-prince-charles-on-21st-century-architecture/8674119.article.

[ix] HRH The Prince of Wales. “Facing up to the future: Prince Charles on 21st century architecture.” The Architectural Review. December 20, 2014, https://www.architectural-review.com/rethink/viewpoints/facing-up-to-the-future-prince-charles-on-21st-century-architecture/8674119.article.

[x] “Projects.” Architekton. Accessed June 4, 2017. http://architekton.uk/#projects.

[xi] “Projects.” Architekton. Accessed June 4, 2017. http://architekton.uk/#projects.

[xii] Boubekri, M., IN Cheung, KJ Reid, CH Wang, and PC Zee. “Impact of windows and daylight exposure on overall health and sleep quality of office workers: a case-control pilot study.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: JCSM: Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine 10, no. 6 (2014).  

[xiii] Simon, Caroline. “More and more students need mental health services. But colleges struggle to keep up.” USA Today: College. May 4, 2017. http://college.usatoday.com/2017/05/04/more-and-more-students-need-mental-health-services-but-colleges-struggle-to-keep-up/.