The Same Place, Programmed by Dumb Software

Untitlted XXXI Arizona / Christoph Gielen

“There are repeatable formulas that make up many spaces in the world,” said architect and writer Keller Easterling at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, showing images of nameless, identical cul-de-sac suburbs, residential towers, and shipping yards. “These forms are telling an elaborate story, but really the same one, whether they are in Milwaukee or Mongolia. The story is cities are mobile, monetized technology. Their economic and technical logic is coming into view.” In a mind-expanding talk, Easterling outlined her perception of this strange new phenomenon: the city as a place-less product, resulting from a kind of “spatial software.”

These odd yet common places — replicated, cookie-cutter communities and special economic zones (SEZs) — are all over the world. They often feature the “drumbeat of generic skyscrapers.” Their new order is written in an “architectural matrix space that is outside and additional to the state. It’s an infrastructural space that has another kind of power. It’s like there is an operating system shaping the space. It’s an updating platform unfolding in real time.” Easterling said this software makes “some spaces possible and others impossible. There are active forms, protocols, routines it manifests.”

This operating system has been created by developed economies, the World Bank, “quality assurance specialists,” and “28-year old McKinsey consultants.” For them, “space is just a byproduct.” This bad software results in some inhuman places. But Easterling wonders if designers can’t somehow hack this system, “shifting how we make places.”

The dominant spatial software for creating these global no-wheres is the 3-D tour, the interactive fly-through that stuns viewers into submission. The fly-throughs result in interchangeable special economic zones (SEZs), “perfect islands of corporate control.” Every city now wants an SEZ because “they are a clean-slate entry into a foreign country. Everyone one wants one because they are the nexus of global technology.” This program has swallowed real city-building whole. In fact, Easterling said SEZs aren’t real cities at all. “Dubai is called a city, but it’s really just a collection of zones. It’s a city in a box based on Paris, New York City, or Venice.” The reality is the places programmed by these software are “relatively dumb enclaves, not optimal. The software is kind of like MS-DOS.”

Dubai maritime zone / Dubai Maritime

She added that Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is “the capital as a zone.” Astana is a sign that what is popular in one zone soon spreads through all of them. She made fun of “colored lights and fountains,” which have become contagious. “There are also fantasy resorts, palaces, and golf courses.” These places sell an image of “openness and relaxation,” but really “their closed circumstances have a special stupidity.”

Astana panoramic /

Heading back to Easterling’s original question: can we hack this thing? She said mass-produced suburbs are hard to beat. “We can’t just create one home to fight this. We need a multiplier, a contagion.” Basically, there may be better, more human, more custom-designed software out there to use. Easterling pointed to Savannah, Georgia, with its “simple spatial software, a set of instructions for relationships as wards grew.” Learn more about the city’s network of squares.

The squares of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia

“The SEZ is a contagious platform. We have to embed something in to this as a carrier. The zone has ambitions to become a city. Perhaps it contains its own antidote.” She showed images of how she would interfere with the protocols, “exchanging, absorbing, reusing, replacing, recasting, and subtracting.”

Do Curves Matter?

Curved path in Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Why do images of nature have such a positive impact on us? Is it the colors? The patterns? Or the shapes? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, Hessam Ghamari, a graduate student in environmental design at Texas Tech University, is trying to figure out the impact of contours on our brain behavior. Ghamari and his colleagues have explored the reaction to both sharp and curved as they relate to objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. As part of the experiment, they also tested to see whether prepping people to think they were in a hospital had an any impact on their response to the shapes.

Ghamari said Texas Tech won a grant to review all the neuroscience literature related to nature. They were particularly interested in one study from Harvard University researchers, who showed different behavioral responses to sharp and curved objects. They found that “sharp objects created a feeling of threat. People disliked them on a primal level.” Ghamari said, “that was a big a-ha moment, but they were only looking at objects. What about three-dimensional environments?”

Texas Tech put 36 adults in an fMRI machine to test their “behavioral responses and neural activations” to sharp, balanced, and curved objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. There were three sets of participants: one group was in their 20s, another in their 40s, and the last in their 60s. Stock images were selected if they were extreme representations of sharp or curved or a mix. Participants were shown multiple versions of tons of image, in black and white, high frequency, low frequency, or as a sketch. Each participant got to see each image for just 2 seconds. They were given two clickers — one to indicate like and one to express dislike.

Participants were then put through a pre-screening anxiety test. In the priming session, they listened to “hospital sounds” and were shown images of a hospital.

Ghamari said when asked — so when they provided voluntary responses — people preferred curved in all categories. For landscape, a whopping 80 percent pressed the like button. “Curves are just more pleasing.” (That’s something Frederick Law Olmsted and other landscape architects figured out ages ago).

At the same time, the researchers created a brain map that was an average for each category. They looked for any change in activation in the amygdala, which handles emotions and fear. The found that with objects and landscapes, the response of people’s amygdalas were consistent with the Harvard University findings: sharp objects create a sense of danger. However, with interior and exterior architecture, the amygdala was activated more when there were images of contours. This was a strange inconsistency, at least when dealing with architecture as participants were thinking about a hospital.

In a follow-up survey done without the priming, there was a “significant difference in participants’ judgements.” As Ghamari explained, “the expectation of what a hospital should look like created a different response. Context makes a difference.” More research is coming on what shapes people prefer in different contexts, which seems important.

In another presentation, we learned from Cherif Amor, chair of interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, that in learning environments, “warm color light is least satisfactory for those with ADHD.” Students with attention deficit issues preferred cool whites or natural daylight. He and his colleagues determined this because “cognitive areas were most activated with cool white light.”

Amor said “neuroscience is a beautiful field. How we behave is an environmental paradigm. Why we behave is a neuroscientific paradigm.” One doubtful audience member said, “the only thing this study proves is that people have brains.”

Nature Is But Another Name for Health

ASLA 2012 General Design Honor Award. Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus — New Academic Complex by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects / Bill Timmeman

“We are trying to figure out precisely what types of nature provide the most health benefits,” said William Sullivan, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at the Environmental Design Research Assocation (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. The eventual goal is to be able to prescribe doses of nature, or specific activities in nature, to help with a range of illnesses. But we have a long way to go before we can get to this point. “We are just at the beginning of the research. We are moving in the direction of more specificity.” Sometime in the future, designers of all kinds will have guidelines that explain the best ways to reap the positive effects of nature. “But today — although we have good evidence that exposure to green landscapes is good for you — we can’t say if you design something this way, people will live four years longer.”

Sullivan brought together a unique group of researchers to explore the latest science and show the rest of us where all of this is going. A few graduate students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign presented their data-based findings about the effects of nature on our own cognition and stress levels:

Dr. Bin Jiang said research shows “acute, chronic stress will lead to disease and death.” Stress has been directly linked with a number of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, and suicide. In his study, Jiang examined how much stress recovery can be achieved through views of green streets. A group of people from the Midwest were alternatively stressed — by being asked to do complex math rapidly in front of a group or give a speech — and then shown images of nature. They were exposed to ten videos, with ten different levels of tree canopies, ranging from 2 percent up to 62 percent tree cover. These guinea pigs were surveyed to see how stressed they felt and then their physiological responses were also examined. Researchers took saliva samples to test for cortisol levels and tested their skin conductance, finger temperatures, blood volume pulse, and heart responses.

According to the surveys, increasingly green scenes improved stress recovery by 250 percent. But the actual physiological stress recovery rate — as measured by all the devices — was improved by just 55 percent. This shows that “we are prone to believing the narrative about nature.” Jiang concluded that “there is a positive, linear relationship between tree cover and self-reported stress recovery, and a curvilinear association between objective stress recovery and tree cover.” This means physiologically, there’s a peak tree canopy level and then it declines. According to Jiang, the optimal tree cover rate is 30-40 percent. But Sullivan interjected, “every tree matters. More of these kinds of studies need to be conducted on all types of nature: parks, bioswales, rain gardens, etc.”

Dongying Li presented an excellent study on high school landscapes and academic performance. There is an understanding that views of green spaces out of windows may benefit students. “Access to nature has been correlated with lower stress and higher attentional function.” But Li wanted to see if she could find a causal relationship between views of nature out a window and performance. Three sets of students were randomly assigned to be tested in a room with no windows, a room with a barren view of rooftops, and then a room with a green, leafy view. The results: green views significantly improved attention, while barren or no views had no impact. Li added that “the effect of the window view is greatest during the subjects’ rest period, not during their stress period. The window view also affects stress recovery. Students with views of green spaces recovered from the stress of classroom assignments considerably faster than their peers who had been assigned to classrooms without windows or those with views to built spaces.” She said the effect is not just from the green color but from the actual content of the landscape.

Sullivan said this makes the case for bringing trees closer to classrooms. “Somehow there’s a meme out there that if there are windows with some to look at, students will be distracted. This study shows that’s the farthest from the truth. We have spent hundreds of millions to boost academic performance in high schools and the results of programs like DARE are now clear: it has had zero impact. Simple interventions like putting in windows and designing campus landscapes to include many opportunities to have green views could significantly improve performance.” There’s a reason, it seems, those Ivy League schools are so leafy.

Finally, Chun-Yen Chang, Professor of Landscape Architecture at National Taiwan University, presented more amazing research, this time looking at the brain’s response to images of nature. In Taiwan, thirteen subjects suffered through being in an fMRI machine for hours at a time, exposed to urban scenes and then images of mountains, forest, and water. With images of the urban landscape, “all parts of the brain were active,” while fewer sections were active during the nature scenes. Here, we can introduce a novel word, at least for me: voxel, which is a measure of how busy a brain is. Chang said when we see a traffic jam spreading for miles with cars honking, our voxels are around 180,000. Meanwhile, a forest scene accounts for less than 100 voxels. And a beach scene even less: 28 voxels. Our brains respond to urban and natural scenes incredibly differently. If we have 180,000 voxels going, how many more can be used? What happens when we are at 180,000 voxels too long?

At one point, a participant asked, “If you know you have something to do later that’s stressful, can we immunize ourselves by going earlier into nature? Can we then recover from stress faster?” Chang said “attentional fatigue and stress are two different things. If we have something cognitively demanding to do, it’s good to spend time in green spaces. But there’s no evidence we can immunize ourselves from stress with nature.” Sullivan concurred, saying “there’s evidence that going to green spaces improves cognition for later. And if we have that evidence, we can then incorporate this into our discussion of the benefits of green infrastructure.” Instead of just focusing on the stormwater management benefits of green infrastructure, “what if we could prove green infrastructure can also boost innovation and creativity?”

And one more future area of inquiry: “Do the most ecologically-healthy landscapes result in the healthiest people?” Sullivan said this will be an important research area, as “we have to be smart about how we configure these natural places. An ecologically-healthy place could have snakes and spiders, which will end up scaring people away. We have a responsibility to create a healthy ecosystem but we can’t create stress and anxiety about being in nature.”

Explore all these research studies.