Much of my work is focused on motivating people to ask themselves: how does this place make me feel and why?
The purpose of my question is to raise awareness for the impact of physical space on our state of mind. Most people tolerate places that are bad for their psyche without considering how it affects their mood, their physical health, and ultimately their neurological health. Conversely, they rarely consider the design elements that make them feel better.
Judith Heerwagen has studied the evolution of zoo design over recent decades in relation to environmental design for humans. Tight cages in zoos have generally been replaced (though sadly, not for the dolphins) by more spacious natural habitats. As in nature, better habitat designs offer more options for playing, resting and retreating from public view. She explains the incentive for this change, “A key factor was concern over the animals’ psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals alive, but they couldn’t make them flourish.”
Neurotic behavior due to unnatural design is more obvious in zoos than in human habitats. Animals pace back and forth, pick fights and exhibit obsessive behaviors when they must cope with deprivation design. Diagnosis of human depravation design is more complicated.
My recent quest has been to find simple “test” questions that anyone can use to analyze any human habitat. A flash of insight came to me while watching the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo Panda Cam, which generously gives the public a window into the world of giant panda mother Mei Xiang and her cub, Bei Bei.
The National Zoo’s giant panda habitat appears to be well designed in every way. But one morning when Bei Bei was suddenly placed in a big sterile box, the contrast with his naturalistic rock bowl (aka his “happy place”) sparked my reaction, “this big box is not his happy place.”
AHA! Now there’s a test question that cuts through all the fancy design terminology about qualities of streets, buildings, public spaces, and other locations where humans spend time. Which of these locations can be described as someone’s happy place?
Every place cannot be a happy place. Some places need to provoke or protect us. A universal, constant state of happiness with no contrasting emotions would be boring. But we all need to ask whether we are spending enough time in “our happy place” from a design perspective.
At nearly five months old, Bei Bei makes his public debut this month. You can see him in person and observe his design preferences…because Bei Bei votes with his feet (see photos below).
My video, “Diagnose Your Habitat” suggests five vital signs that contribute to healthy cities and workplaces, in case you want to see lots of examples of happy and unhappy places.
photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo