When we moved into our home, there was a room in the basement given over to spiders and those and thousand-leggers. We did our best to make the space work as a den/tv room until we could get around to completing renovations, but it didn’t really fit the bill. We got a crappy futon off a neighborhood swap and put in a rug and a couple of chairs, but the spiders did not abate. It was their space and they knew it.
This past fall, it was time to overhaul the bug’s quarters. We gave a great deal of thought to how we wanted to use the space. We considered how we wanted it to look and feel because we were being thoughtful about he we wanted to feel when we used the space. How we intended to use the room forced us to consider what we put into the room and where. It’s not just a matter of flooring and furniture, but lighting and spacing. Was the space just for movies, or would we play games, would it be for watching a ball game or hanging out and talking?
To design a space properly, you gotta give some thought to who will be using the space, how they will be using it, and even more importantly, how you want them to feel when they use it. Churches are designed to instill a sense of reverence in the occupant. It is not accidental that in many churches, you experience a sense of awe when you step through the doors. Courthouses operate in much the same manner, someone was meant to feel the weight and heft of justice when they entered the courthouse halls. This was an intentional design choice that speaks to the importance of the activities that take place within those walls.
Traditionally, when a building was designed, there was a great deal of thought put into what activity would take place in the building and what design choices would appropriately reflect that activity, both internally and externally. This sent an important message to the people passing, but more important to those that occupied the building.
A beautifully designed school building makes students and faculty feel more sophisticated just for passing through the doors, and justifiably as education is a noble endeavor. There are certain restaurants we seek out for special occasions because when we immerse ourselves in elegant surroundings, we feel a little more special.
When we think about how we design space, we have to give consideration what we want that space to embody. We have the rare opportunity to shape a space, thereafter, as Winston Churchill so succinctly put it, it starts shaping us. Because our surroundings impact us emotionally, we must give much greater consideration to how we design those spaces.
We typically get one shot to design something properly and thereafter, we just have to sit back and let it do its thing. Maybe a room will depress everyone that enters like the waiting room at a doctor’s office, or maybe it will make everyone feel fancy like the grand old hotel bar. How people emotionally experience a room is completely up to the people that make the decisions about how it looks. It might be worth giving a little more consideration than how we design things. Particularly our places, our blocks, and our cities.
As Mr. Shakespeare put it, “All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players.” I don’t know that he was referring to urban design, but he certainly could have been. We set the stage for the play we want to take place. We design a stage with the events that will unfold in mind.
It’s not like if you are feeling romantic, you will go to a depressing space and through the power of your own will and desire, make that Dollar General a sexy getaway. The Dollar General will not be romantic no matter what lighting you install and how loud you play the Sade record. Such a space is not designed with the idea of people feeling happy, sophisticated, romantic, or even good. There were no choices made about what kind of stage was being set, just about how little it could cost, which leads to a very depressing space and making everyone feel like shit for having shopped its sad half-stocked, dimly lit aisles.
Our surroundings affect our emotions. They shape the way we feel all the time, for better or for worse, and when we design our cities with only costs in mind, we are faced with the repercussions of a citizenry that is more often than not going to feel sad or anxious. People can’t help but succumb emotionally to their habitat and all of the habitats we are currently creating our devastating to a person’s mental health and happiness.
If it was our sole desire to design our cities and towns to make residents feel like shit, well bravo, we have done something truly profound. We have invested in creating unlovable and depressing places just so we can go to a million meetings asking one another how to increase resident engagement. It really doesn’t have to be this hard.
Set the stage for the feelings you want residents and visitors to experience. Design the city for the play you want to take place. Do you want residents to experience your city as a love story? Maybe lay off the parking garages. Or if you want your city to inspire a crime drama, parking garages all the way man!
Our places shape our emotions, our surroundings dictate the way we feel and how we feel about ourselves. When designing a room, a building, or a block, remember that the choices you make today will affect everyone that inhabits the space for the years and decades to come. This is why it’s important to take more than monetary cost into consideration on the front end, because there are so many other costs that will come due later, like rampant apathy. With every decision about the design of a place, we have to think about the stage we are setting. The daily lives of residents will play out accordingly, so it’s a choice our city leaders must make. Do we want people stuck in a comedy, or a tragedy or would we prefer the backdrop to their lives was the setting of a love story?