The Distance Between a Neuron and a Building

It Seems Inevitable, Given Enough Rigorous Research, that Cognitive Neuroscience Might One Day Claim a Valuable Seat at the Design Table

May 14, 2019

Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine

@brainrulesbooks

http://www.johnmedina.com/

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

I’ve been on a road-trip with NBBJ for several years now — a cartographic adventure mapping the terrain between cognitive neuroscience and architecture. I was initially skeptical about jumping into this car, mostly because of a lack of landmarks in my field, the developmental brain sciences. Despite extraordinary progress, we have a surprisingly long way to go before we even understand basic brain functions. We don’t know how people pick up pencils, for example, let alone how people create Pritzker Prize-worthy designs.

The reason I decided to join this exploration came from a ridiculously obvious point. Whatever else design is, it’s a function of somebody’s thought life, and therefore somebody’s brain life. It seems inevitable, given enough rigorous research, that cognitive neuroscience might one day claim a valuable seat at the design table. This hope ultimately challenged my skepticism — and, after NBBJ reached out and piqued my interest, provided the basis for some enjoyable conversations on the road with NBBJ.

 

Evolutionary Facts

The optimism initially sprang from two well-established “brain facts.” First, the brain is exquisitely sensitive to its outer environment. Just learning something — anything — will physically rewire it. And that has consequences. Even brief exposures to external stimuli can influence complex behavioral changes, some with surprising durability.

The second is our evolutionary history. More than 99% of our earthly experience has been spent in settings composed of natural elements — sojourning as hunter-gatherers in water-poor grasslands. Given the brain’s environmental sensitivity, it’s reasonable to assume the Serengeti would have had measurable impacts on its development. There is increasing empirical support for this assertion, guided by E.O. Wilson’s famous Biophilia hypothesis. Here’s how Stephen Kellert et al. couch it: “Human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms … people are not capable of living a complete and healthy life detached from nature.”[1]

 

Psychological Facts

Many signs point to the impact this evolutionary history makes on hominid reactions to built space. Consider our uneasy relationship with buildings. Brains tend to prefer what the late Jay Appleton calls Prospect-Refuge spaces. Jay says: “People prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and quickly hide or retreat to safety if necessary.”[2]

This preference comes right out of eastern Africa, a terrain combining flat open spaces like the Serengeti with mountainous structures like the Ngorongoro Crater. We needed prospect to look for predators, but we needed refuge in case we found one. This tension between the necessity for broad openness and tight enclosure has not changed simply because we acquired a bit of civilization.

Another example of this impact involves the brain’s reactions to color. We know that blue light arouses the organ. Since the only time in our evolutionary history where we saw large expanses of blue was in daylight, when being alert was critical, a cerulean-arousal linkage makes a lot of sense. I developed 18 lectures for NBBJ, a basic neuroscience-for-architects course, filled with data like these, that I delivered via livestream to the entire firm.

 

Neurobiological Facts

These lectures weren’t just about evolutionary psychology. We journeyed directly into the brain’s physical interior, exploring structure/function relationships, addressing questions like: How do brains physically respond to the body’s presence in three-dimensional spaces? How do spatial preferences and color preferences and navigational preferences manifest themselves neurologically? How does the brain even know where its owner’s body is standing?

We’re beginning to get answers to these questions. And so I lectured about grid cells — talented suites of neural tissues that provide a context-independent grid system. These tissues create a navigational framework, working in our brains like latitude/longitude work in our maps. We also discussed place cells, the brain’s own GPS mapping system, providing location information on that previously mentioned grid. We finally discussed head direction cells, neurons functioning like interior compasses, informing both the grid and the GPS — and you — in what direction your head is headed. These systems chat amongst themselves like teenagers, telling the brain how to react to three-dimensional space while moving through it, the left-ventricle of any architectural design. During the lecture series, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to May-Britt and Edvard Moser. They got it in part for figuring this system out.

As a result, I’ve had to give my skepticism a bit of a scolding. Indeed, I concluded these 18 lectures saying every architect ought to know something about these data, from Darwin to neuron, even if the only current value is understanding they exist. After all, if the science is now mature enough to win a Nobel Prize, it’s now mature enough to start a dialogue — which is shaping new approaches to behavioral health, biophilia, applied research and more. These are the beginnings of a collaboration whose creamy-center is peer-reviewed science.

That, in a nutshell, is about what my journey with NBBJ has consisted. I’m still skeptical about making prescriptions, but I’m no longer skeptical about making conversations. Given time, evidence-based reasons for design (informed by solid cognitive neuroscientific understanding) will be part of architecture’s future. Maybe most of it.

All told, this has been a fun, productive road-trip. I’m glad I got in the car.

 

Notes

1. Kellert, S., J. Heerwagen, and M. Mador. Biophilic Design. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2008.

2. Appleton, J. The Experience of Landscape. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1975.

 

Banner image courtesy nike159/Pixabay.

 

Photo by AJ Robbie on Unsplash

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How Can We Make Our Cities More Vibrant?

NBBJ and Downtown Works Host a Seattle Salon on Urban Vitality

April 24, 2019

Senior Associate / Commercial Market Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: NBBJ and Downtown Works recently hosted an event with Canadian developer Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, who spearheaded the revival of Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood and the renaissance of New Westminster. Here are a few of the key takeaways on how to create more engaging, livable cities through development and design.

Create a Core If There Isn’t One. A city that treats all of its streets in the same manner can be soulless and centerless. Creating neighborhood hubs and carefully curating a thoughtful mix of retail stores and restaurants, as well as other uses at the street front to complement residential and office uses, is critical to creating a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Focus on the Ground Floor. While residential and office spaces typically drive the financial pro forma of mixed-use developments, it is the ground floor that defines a building’s identity. The places where buildings interact with the street have the power to shape our cities in dramatic ways. Bringing in ground floor tenants that attract diverse groups — residents, office workers, families and tourists alike — is valuable to driving a thriving city. Taking a holistic approach and allowing for highly permeable storefronts that enable the building to engage the sidewalk in a variety of ways improves street life and builds a unique neighborhood character.

Tenant Selection is Key to Success. While an appropriate balance of mixed-use offerings is key, providing retail that is the right scale for an urban neighborhood can dramatically affect its character. This process begins well in advance of leasing, involves engaging the neighborhood’s residents and developing an understanding of the community’s strengths and aspirations. For example, New Westminster, British Columbia’s original capital city, was once a major retail hub in the mid-twentieth century. Many of the stores shuttered, but a retail cluster focused on bridal dress shops organically evolved when other uses declined. Embracing and building on this unique cluster with complementary retail and restaurant tenants was an important part of the strategy to revitalize its downtown core.

Preserve and Build on the Historic Urban Character. Identifying and championing our neighborhoods’ and buildings’ historic elements creates great value, both functionally and aesthetically. Yet it’s more than just historic rehabilitation, preservation and façade retention. It’s also about capturing the unique spirit and history of each community that is embodied in the neighborhood’s historic fabric. Creating engaging pedestrians’ experiences that recreate and capitalize on the texture of heritage can be beneficial in establishing a feeling of comfort and familiarity with a place.

People Need Spaces to Socialize. The most attractive urban neighborhoods offer engaging social spaces that reflect the strengths and diversity of their residents and visitors. This ties back to the street front. With much of the focus on the upper floors of the building, street level components are often an afterthought in mixed-use projects. Placing an equal focus on the first floor and those above is critical to creating spaces and experiences that draw people to a building, help them feel comfortable and provide compelling social hubs that define great neighborhoods.

Our urban places are constantly changing, and to be successful, our cities must champion and celebrate diverse activities, uses and experiences.

If developments are carried through with the right intent and strategic collaboration, our cities will be energetic, lively and diverse — places that our future generations will be proud to call home.

Banner image courtesy of Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

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Suburban Retrofit

How to Transform Industrial Sprawl into a Compact Neighborhood Supporting Manufacturing

April 9, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Introduction

It has been encouraging over the past couple of decades to see many suburbs begin to transform from car-dependent, land-use-segregated enclaves to more compact neighborhoods that promote walking, cycling and a mix of uses. However, our towns and cities remain surrounded by many areas hosting light industry, which under-utilize adjacent infrastructure, turn their backs on nearby neighborhoods and fail to meet the growing interest in health and wellbeing.

Yet these island-like, unsustainable and amenity-deprived areas can be catalysts for innovative ways to address changing workplace expectations, logistics consolidation, sustainable urban systems — heat island mitigation, multi-modal connectivity, responsible water usage — and housing affordability. The ambition is not to displace industry but to introduce a mix of uses that will not only co-exist with it, but also benefit local industry and workers.

NBBJ researched one of these typical sub-urban areas to explore how it might be transformed, as a prototype for future developments in similar areas. We selected Woburn, Massachusetts, less than 20 miles from Boston, for its close proximity to regional public transport, adjacency of light industrial and residential uses, evidence of natural systems, and clear lack of amenities and services.

 

Case Study: Woburn, MA

The industrial park in Woburn, bounded by Interstates 93 and 95 and straddling the rail line that serves Anderson/Woburn station, typifies the conditions of the low-density, light industrial suburb. Our goal was to explore and demonstrate how this area can be retrofitted such that it will support a walkable, cyclable environment that supports living, working and recreation, and takes advantage of its close proximity to the train station. In particular we focused on opportunities to connect with natural systems and exploit their potential as a connected and civic realm.

The ambition of the project was to propose a prototypical spatial approach to retrofitting under-performing or soon-to-be-redundant light industrial areas, recognizing the socioeconomic implications of any proposed interventions. Critical to the study was the retention of light industry or potential for new manufacturing, research and biotech labs to co-exist with a mix of uses. As manufacturing and warehousing businesses compete for workers, being located in a context that offers amenities and services will increase their attractiveness.

 

Guiding Principles

We first conducted research to gain an understanding of Woburn as it compares to other towns in the region in local demographics and employment. Then, through a combination of on-site observation and informed conjecture, we considered rail usage and audited the businesses that occupy the site to gain an understanding of their logistics requirements.

The outcome of the study was a set of principles/objectives for this type of sub-urban site:

1. Connect to Nature

a. Integrate residential, civic, and commercial uses with pedestrian and green links. Pedestrian pathways and natural systems provide fluid connections between neighboring residential and commercial areas. Community uses like recreation fields, a senior center, multi-family housing, a civic center or library can provide transitions between commercial and industrial areas and residential areas. Similarly, the forging of a bicycle and pedestrian network connecting places of business to the commuter rail station provides modal choice for both workers and residents.

b. Use natural systems and materials to ensure the transformed industrial park is, indeed, more park-like and environmentally sustainable. Reimagine storm water infrastructure as a green amenity; mitigate heat islands through tree-planting and white, blue or green roofs. Sports fields and parkland serve local employees before or after work or at midday. Culverts, drainage systems and tree canopies should be seen as part of a cohesive natural and ecological systems network that links to and, where possible, provides green amenities with both recreational and connectivity benefits.

2. Diversify Land Uses

a. Integrate and expand community-facing uses into existing or former industrial buildings. Industrial buildings can include community amenities by incorporating related public-facing spaces and programming, such as convenience stores, F&B establishments or pop-ups that relate to the manufacturing/commercial activity. Capitalize on existing community-serving assets such as healthcare, education, daycare facilities, recreational facilities and gymnasiums by expanding their footprint and influence to contribute to active street-facing frontage and green/blue open space.

b. Identify opportunities to intensify with diverse residential types and development models. Provide residential choice, with a use mix and flexibility reflective of today’s needs, in order to address living and work space affordability and retain and attract a younger population that will lay down roots.

3. Create a Coherent Block Structure

a. Intensify the existing built form and open space. Add frontages onto buildings with large setbacks to activate streets. Define blocks to create separated routes, concentrating logistics routes and servicing on the interior of blocks. Stack storage vertically to open up building frontages for more active uses.

b. Catalyze adjacent densification through corridor improvements. Creating welcoming streets —generous sidewalks, tree canopies to mitigate heat islands, street lighting — will catalyze densification on adjacent blocks. Increased foot traffic and decreased car and truck speeds will encourage new development and more street-facing uses.

 

Precedents

There are few relevant precedents that attempt to intensify uses at the scale of an industrial district with the same qualities as our case study AND attempt to integrate residential. Similar projects are those that strive for a complete area-wide rebranding and reconfiguration to create an innovation district — a trend sweeping across Western cities that, encouragingly, recognizes that the lines between different activities are blurring. The Netherlands has been quite progressive in redeveloping industrial districts while allowing for the coexistence of manufacturing and housing, often focused around a single repurposed large-scale building that acts as a catalyst for wider redevelopment.

Econinnovation District (Uptown Oakland, Pittsburgh) presents a slightly different context from Woburn, as some residential and commercial exists in a site area characterized by surface parking lots and derelict buildings. However, the initiative is promoting rezoning to allow for a mix of research and work space, housing and community uses.

INIT (Amsterdam) is a multi-company building in the inner-city Oostenburgereiland, a former industrial area. INIT, housing meeting rooms, auditorium, fitness center, restaurant, childcare, exhibition and cultural space, is expected to catalyze the redevelopment of the industrial district and the renewal of a 19th-century neighborhood with housing, offices, culture, leisure, hotel and new bridges. Being situated near to a waterfront is obviously an asset.

Buiksloterham (Amsterdam) demonstrates how an existing industrial area can be intensified and transformed into a mixed-use area containing light industry, offices, culture and housing. The city is promoting an emphasis on sustainability and the circular economy, and (acknowledging that these types of sites are opportunities for diverse development models) self-builders are invited to build their own houses. Again, this site is situated on a waterfront, undoubtedly increasing its attraction.

Northside Studios (Andrews Road, London) accommodates five double-story light industrial units with on street lay-by access and a tight rear vehicular access. The 10 residential units above are set back from the road, minimizing the visual impact of activity associated with the industrial units below and creating a generous terrace. The units are adequate for many businesses, although they will be of limited use for noisy businesses or noxious operations.

The BDM Logistics Management (Royal Albert Basin, London) warehouse component left a plot available for residential development along a blank facade. Separate industrial access routes will be maintained with yard space on the opposite side from residential development, so the warehouse itself will shield noise from truck movements. The administrative elements of the BDM building are to be placed to bring human-scale activity along the street elevation.

 

Conclusion

The suburbs are abundant with places similar to the study area in Woburn — nearby to commuter transportation and employment hubs, developed in an environmentally unsustainable manner, transforming in their industrial needs, with residential neighborhoods in close proximity and natural systems untapped as a connective resource.

These are areas of opportunity, places that can cater to middle- and lower-middle-income households. Similarly, these suburban areas can offer affordable, diverse and flexible workspace — from makers’ spaces to biotech labs to healthcare and learning space — as businesses and institutions, like residents, are priced out of many cities.

It is paramount that we continue to explore typologies and neighborhood structures that allow light industry, workspace, housing and community infrastructure to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

Research credits: Carolyn Angius, Charlie Smith (NBBJ interns); Rodrigo Guerra, Kathryn Firth, Chris Herlich (NBBJ staff)

All images courtesy NBBJ, except aerial courtesy Google Maps.

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