The (Built) Environmental Revolution: A Conversation with Sarah Williams Goldhagen

“Good design is not a luxury… It’s about how your kid learns and how mother heals from a hospital stay.” These are the stakes that Sarah Williams Goldhagen, writer and former architectural critic for the New Republic, outlines in her new book Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. She advocates for a more palpable sense of the built environment in the public sphere, and says that there are both financial and rights-based reasons to improve the quality of architecture and urban design in the face of hyper-urbanization. As a precedent for this shift, she talks about how in the 1970s nature slowly started to be talked about as “the environment,” an interconnected system with a multitude of feedback systems that is both material and socio-political. This new vision of nature spurred the environmental revolution in U.S. politics and society. In order to help catalyze the same kind of shift in the built environment, she has written a book that appeals to a general audience, academic readers, and policymakers alike.

I recently spoke with her about how developments in cognitive neuroscience and environmental psychology bear on architecture and why the built environment is so crucial to our individual and collective welfare as our world rapidly urbanizes.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

The cover of "Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives" by Sarah Williams Goldhagen

Carly Griffith: Can you start us off with an introduction to what this book is about?         

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: The book offers a new paradigm for how we should understand the relationship between humans and the built environment, setting out the basic principles of how people experience the environments that they mostly live in—how built environments affect our emotions, our cognition, our physical health, our mental health, and so on. I wrote the book in part because I realized that in the last 25 years, new technologies have completely revolutionized our entire understanding of how the brain and mind function. And nobody had really sat down and figured out what they means for how people experience the built environment. The last book that was written on the subject, really, was in the 1950s by Steen Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecturewhich was 1.) only about architecture, and 2.) used Gestalt theory and other now-outdated theories. I knew there was this form of knowledge called embodied cognition that actually started out in cognitive linguistics and philosophy about 20 years ago, that was being confirmed as the model of human cognition that was correct. So I research all this knowledge and thought what does this mean for the built environment and the people’s experiences in their lives?

One of these new findings about how the mind works that many people know is mirror neurons. If I look at you and you smile, the same neurons that fire when I smile fire when I watch you smile. That’s part of why humans learn so quickly. They are constantly mentally simulating things that they see. So when the mirror stuff came out, I wondered how it worked in the built environment. When you look at a door handle, do you imagine opening that door? It turns out the answer is yes. I realized this is something that needs to be retheorized.

CG: You talk about the hyper-urbanization our world faces in the next 50 years, offering some quite terrifying statistics. Do you think that we need to redefine our relationship to nature to support the interdependence of the built and natural environment within that context?

SWG: Obviously it is. What we know is that physiologically—and this comes from evolutionary psychology, but it’s also very much confirmed by studies of cognition—we have powerful and almost immediate responses to nature. If you take a hospital patient who’s in a wheelchair from his or her room into a garden, within five seconds his or her heart rate will settle down. Cortisone levels will go down within 10 or 15 minutes. We know that the lack of daylight is implicated in some mental illnesses. We know the curative effects of daylight. We know that exposure to morning sunlight will accelerate the mitigation of a mania in bipolar patients, whereas afternoon sunlight much less so. So we have pretty fine-grained knowledge. We know the difference between people’s exposure to landscape paintings versus looking at actual landscapes. There’s been a lot of research on this. People need nature.

The statistics in the book are really frightening. If China builds one or two cities of one million people every year for the next 30 years they’ll only just barely be able to contain all the people who are coming into the cities. So how can we manage this? There are always ways to integrate nature into even very high-rise residential buildings. There’s always a way to make sure natural light gets to places. It’s a matter of building regulations. We think of China as this horror of regulations. But they actually require that even the highest-rise building, the first floor apartments have to be oriented so they get three hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year. If we just did that, it’s better. We say “nature” and people think of greenery. It’s not only that. It’s natural light, it’s variation.

Four high-rise buildings against a skyline with cranes and Chinese characters.

High-rises under construction in Shanghai. Photo by Neville Mars, September 2004.

CG: You discuss how design informs our social lives. Can you say a little more about that?

SWG: I’ve always been interested in design’s political and social dimensions. My father was a city planner. If I knew one thing, I knew that the built environment was a political entity and socially constructed. I knew that by attending to individual experience, you were also attending to social experience. So I needed to work out what that relationship was. And I found it in the work of this behavior psychologist from the 1950s named Roger Barker. He was trained as a behaviorist but was very critical of the profession, because all of the experiments that behaviorists were doing were taking place in labs. He thought, people don’t live in labs, they live in environments. So he set up this psychological research station to study people in their environments. For one study he assigned a researcher to each kid in a big class at an elementary school. The researcher literally followed the kid from the time they woke up in the morning to eat breakfast, went to school, to chess club, family dinner, and back home. They collected research for months. What they found was that they could predict more about a kid’s behavior from where they were than from who they were, their individual psychology. That is consistent with everything else I say in the book. And it shows how profoundly social and socializing the built environment is.

The built environment affects us so profoundly that we need to change the way we value it as a society. It’s about how your kid learns and your mother heals during a hospital stay.

I could give other examples, or I could go back to something about memory that I wanted to say.

CG: Yes, please.

SWG: Our understanding of memories has been really quite radically shifted with new technologies and research. When I was a kid, we were taught that there was probably a place in the brain where memory was stored. Well, that’s not the way it works at all. Basically, you have an experience and it comes in through all your sensory portals (there are many, many more than five), and it’s consolidated into what we call a long-term episodic or autobiographic memory in a portion of the brain called the hippocampus. Then it goes back out to all the sensory portals from which it came. So when you remember your memory, you’re more or less reconstructing it.

The reason this becomes so fascinating when you think about the built environment is that the hippocampus has two functions: consolidation of long-term memories, and spatial navigation and place recognition. We know there are neurons in the brain called place-recognition neurons. And building-recognition neurons. What they discovered was that this long-term consolidation of memories that happens in the hippocampus happens in the same places that spatial navigation and building recognition and place recognition happens, such that we actually can’t form episodic memories that don’t retain something of that place. So the larger implication is that construction of our identities (since our identities are constructed through our memories) is inextricable from place.

Three brick public housing towers against a blue sky.

The George Washington Carver Houses in East Harlem, New York. Photo by Aidan Wakely-Mulroney, January 2012.

CG: A core tenant of your book seems to be that good design is not a luxury, that it requires the same resources to construct a building that impairs our capabilities as it does to erect a structure that enhances them. To take the example of Harlem, where you now live, that’s not how public housing plays out. It’s much more regulated by a market-driven approach than a rights-driven approach. What are your thoughts on how we can make design accessible to communities like the one in which you live?

SWG: A lot of things need to change. But it requires the political and social will to do it. That requires education that the built environment matters more than we thought it did. Most people think that there’s this neutral thing called the built environment and then there are these cool things called architecture. And that there are blah city parks and then there are cool landmarks parks, like the Brooklyn Bridge Park. My argument is: no. It’s all architecture. It all matters.

A small house with a multi-colored stained glass exterior. The Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

“MAXIKIOSCO,” an installation by Tom Fruin in the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo by Shawn Hoke, October 2014.

I use the term “built environment” because it encompasses urban design and landscape architecture; it’s not just architecture. But the other work the term does for me is as an analogy. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, nature was nature. It was trees, it was forests, it was streams. But then slowly people began to talk about nature in the public sphere as “the environment.” And the environment was an integrated entity—lots of different parts working together as a system, and one part could affect another way down the line. And it became a socio-political entity: the Environmental Protection Agency was set up. This was called the “environmental revolution.”

That kind of shift needs to happen with the built environment. I’m calling for a built environmental revolution. Every kid from kindergarten on learns about the environment. They’re taken on nature walks and they’re taught it’s really important to know at least some stuff about the environment. People have to be taught about design. Then we have to change how architects and urban designers are educated. Architectural training has always come out of a fine-arts tradition. They need basic training in how people experience environments.

Featured image: The travertine and wood offices of San Diego’s Salk Institute, designed by Louis Kahn. Photo by Wayne Grazio, January 2017.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes and lectures about architecture and landscapes, cities and urban design, infrastructure and public art. She has published three books: Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism (Yale University Press, 2001); Anxious Modernism: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture (MIT, 2001), edited with Réjean Legault; and, most recently, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (HarperCollins, 2017). She is a contributing editor at Art in America and Architectural Record and, before that, architectural critic at the New Republic. She has taught architectural history at several institutions, including ten years at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her current book project is “Critical Criteria: Judging the Built Environment.” Website. Contact.

Carly Griffith is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include environmental history, critical cartography, and cultural landscape studies. She holds an M.A. in Public Humanities from Brown University and was formerly Program Director of the Center for Cultural Landscapes at the University of Virginia. TwitterContact.

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