How architecture shapes our cities - and our lives

Communities which design their own buildings are more likely to be happy and healthy

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. He was right; our surroundings can make us healthier and less likely to drop litter, enhance our beauty, decrease our perception of pain and enable us to solve puzzles more quickly.

But long before buildings, the elements of our natural habitats shaped us. According to Darwinian theory, all animals should be attracted to the sort of settings they excel in. For humans, this means habitats providing the right balance of information and refuge. We can’t swim, fly or smell very well, but we glide gracefully through seas and skies of information – our special super power. We follow the promise of new environmental information like a bloodhound tracks a scent.

We like spaces that flirt with us: complex and mysterious settings. While orderly layouts like American street grids are easy to navigate, we prefer streets that curve out of sight, leading us on with a tantalising hint of what lies beyond. We like environments that excite our curiosity, but also satiate it.

An environment is “legible” if it’s easy to survey and form a cognitive map of. Prospect – the ability to see the distance – is part of this. To be truly legible, there must be elements that help us find our way, like the clumps of trees in the African savannahs of our origin.

The landscapes we love most balance legibility with mystery, coherence with complexity. Natural scenes are marked by fractal geometry, with a specific recipe of order and complexity. These fractal patterns hold the key to understanding wellbeing in buildings, from the detailing of window frames to the cascading domes of Hindu temples and the configuration of London’s streets.

The form of vernacular structures and settlements arose from the ordered complexity of our own minds and bodies – human neurological processes display fractal properties, as does the biology of our cells and lungs. In the past, buildings evolved in a more organic way – using natural materials such as wood and stone. Places grew slowly. Roads followed the contour of the land.

But much of this has been lost in the colossal scale and fast pace of 21st-century life. Many of our everyday spaces fail to support wellbeing, community and creativity. So how can we recreate the world we want to be defined by? As Alastair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, an open-source platform for designing and constructing affordable homes, says: “What most people call bad design isn’t bad design. It’s really good design for a totally different set of economic outcomes, which is producing real estate.”

To create something better suited to human needs, you need to give people the tools to co-create their own homes, streets and workspaces. When people are involved in creating and nurturing their own environments, they also feel a greater sense of agency, community and pride – a quality known as “collective efficacy”. And when communities have high rates of collective efficacy, they also tend to have less litter, vandalism and violent crime.

From clever Chilean “half-houses” to Detroit’s urban farmers and Bristol’s street artists, where there is collective efficacy and the ordered complexity it creates, we see vibrant, healthy places. To build a resilient future, we must take an active role in the shaping of our own environments – the shaping of us.

The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure our Lives, Behaviour, and Well-being by Lily Bernheimer is published by Constable & Robinson at £14.99. To order a copy for £12.74, go to

Lily Bernheimer

The GuardianTramp

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