22 Mar Nature inspired multi-sensory space
by Mawee Pornpunyalert
Many of you are probably wondering why we need a multi-sensory space in a sensory-heavy concrete jungle? The answer is simple, there are many types of sensory stimulations, some trigger negative emotions while others stimulate positive reactions. Many studies have shown positive benefits on human well-being and performance while being stimulated by the natural environment, and negative effects from being exposed to the urban environment, let’s find out why!
Cities are ‘hurting’ our brains
As urban dwellers, we all share similar experiences: have you ever felt that the fast pace, constant stimulus, crowds, noises, and pressure of city life often seem to set your brain on edge? Research has shown that ‘just being in an urban environment impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, suggesting that cities dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically’ (Lehrer, 2009).
“There are the crowded sidewalks full of distracted pedestrians who have to be avoided; the hazardous crosswalks that require the brain to monitor the flow of traffic as the brain is a wary machine, always looking out for potential threats. There’s the confusing urban grid, which forces people to think continually about where they’re going and how to get there.”
Cities are a dense sensory environment bursting with stimuli that require us to constantly filter and redirect our attention. They are made up of ‘distinctive smells, sounds, and tastes, as well as visual and tactile stimuli, each needing interpretation’ (Spence, 2020). This sort of controlled perception takes major energy that even the mind which is a powerful supercomputer is limited (Lehrer, 2009).
Fg.1 – Over sensory street of Amsterdam (Source: Dutch Cycling Embassy, 2022)
Let’s talk some Sense(s)
We experience the world through our senses. Our mind and body experience the sensory-rich world through all our available senses- sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. The senses operating through the body provide us with information about the world around us. Senses trigger and amplify one another to enrich our experience of space, and to orient us through ‘the sounds, smells, and shifting shadows’ (Lupton & Lipps, 2018). Our response to the environments that we are in is the result of ‘the combined influence of all the senses that are being stimulated, no matter whether we are aware of their influence or not’ (Spence, 2020).
This sensorial-overloaded concrete jungle requires individuals to psychologically adapt to the urban environment which causes individuals to form the “blasé attitude” as a “protective organ” which is described as ‘an indifference to others and the cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells that constitute the urban environment’. The “blasé attitude,” is necessary because it would be impossible to take in, interpret, interact with and respond to all of the stimuli one encounters (Borer, 2013).
Fg.2 – Blasé Attitude Phenomena conceptual graph
So it seems like the city is harming our senses, brains, well-being. But most of us cannot just move to the countryside and forgot all about this. So what can we do about it?
Create a safe space for yourself
“At our biological core is the desire to feel relaxed; it’s an essential need as a human”
Since most of us urban dwellers spend more than 95% of our lives indoors, we can curate an experience that positively stimulates the senses, and spaces that promote our social, cognitive, and emotional development, rather than hindering it.
Many studies have shown that city dwellers have higher levels of anxiety and mood disorders, and are more prone to mental disorders compared to their rural counterparts, as specific brain structures in people from the city and the countryside respond differently to social stress (Abbott, 2011). As stress is a major factor in precipitating psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, this risk of suffering from schizophrenia is almost double among city dwellers (Abbott, 2011).
One fundamental thing that the countryside has and cities lack is nature. So is the core issue sensory overload of urban environments or the lack of contact with nature? Conclusions have been drawn that it seems to be the combination of both (Lehrer, 2009). As ‘humans possess a biological inclination to affiliate with natural systems and process instrumental in their health and productivity’(Heerwagen et al, 2013).
So does it mean that nature has less stimulus to the senses than a city environment? Well, that is not always the case. Nature is filled with diversity, surprises, changes, and motion, it is full of objects and beings that evoke our senses and capture our attention. And when it comes to nature, studies have shown that more sensory stimulation has an increased benefit for the human brain than those of less stimulations. Richard Fuller, an ecologist, ‘demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life’, where subjects who spent time in a park with a larger variety of trees score higher on various measures of psychological well-being when compared with the less biodiverse park (Lehrer, 2009).
Fg.3 – Less Biodiverse vs More Biodiverse in relation to well-being
That is because It is important to stay connected to our senses and embrace the sensory richness and ambient variability of the world as ‘human satisfaction and well-being continues to be reliant on perceiving and responding to sensory variability’ (Heerwagen et al, 2013). Enriching our senses can enhance human physical, emotional, intellectual fitness, and is crucial to our maturation, productivity, and well being. Unlike the stimuli in an urban environment, most of those in nature do not trigger a negative emotional response. After all, the sound of Chaffinches singing is nothing like a car honking. So it is not about eliminating the stimuli in our environment, it is about finding ones that our senses and brain react positively to. So let us go into the ‘woods’ to find the ‘cure’ to our urban life struggles.
Daylight & circadian rhythm
Humans find comfort and safety in daylight, it enables us to visual surveillance in order to avoid possible threats. Daylight facilitates critical chemical reaction within human bodies which regulate circadian rhythms or body clock- synchronising the sleep and wake cycle which affects our ‘alertness, cognitive performance, and nighttime sleep’. Exposure to natural light suppresses the emission of melatonin which ‘reduces depression, increases daytime alertness, and fosters sleep quality’ (Heerwagen et al, 2013). Fg.4 –The industrial building, the Wearhouse, was transformed into a vibrate office space by MOSS through an introduction of a sunken courtyard garden and skylight which floods an otherwise dark space with an abundance of light.
View of nature & stress reduction
It is in the human genes to ‘pay attention to, affiliate with, and respond positively to nature’ due to the need to adapt to nature for survival in the past (Heerwagen et al, 2013). The view of nature reduces negative emotions such as fear and anger while elevating positive feelings such as pleasantness. From an evidence based study, exposure to a sight of nature for three to five minutes can have a positive effect on stress, brain activity, blood pressure, heart activity, and muscle tension (Heer wagen et al, 2013).
Fg.5 – Deep in the heart of this housing complex lay the hidden gardens of Westbeat. The 150 starters’ apartments are organised around a shared courtyard giving the residents a view of the garden from their apartments.
Prospect / refuge & privacy
Prospect and refuge is “the ability to see without being seen” as referred to by Appleton (Appleton, 1996). Prospect is the visual access of ‘distant objects, habitats, and resources’ to identify danger or simply just to observe movements. While refuge refers to the ability of the structure to provide security and protection. Which in modern days translates to nurturing spaces to withdraw and replenish our psychological and physical resources, and an escape from the constant scrutiny of strangers.
Fg.6 – For the design of the Arup office, MOSS took inspiration from our natural environment of creating a shelter. The movable modules planters encompass a high volume of equatorial plants that can be configured to endless arrangements- secluding one from distractions, providing a screening giving privacy, and enhancing creativity and well-being.
Green buffer & traffic noise
Sound plays an important role in both physical and psychological injuries and it also affects individuals’ performance and productivity. Noise pollution is one of the biggest concerns for cities, it is found that road traffic noise can trigger symptoms such as ‘nervousness, depression, undue irritability, and asthma’ (Cassidy, 2013). A study has shown a direct and significant relation between the error rate and the noise intensity, as the noise intensity increases, the performance decreases and rates of error increases (Khaiensiri et al, 2016).
Fg.7 – De Voortuinen is a residential building consisting of fourteen floors, all apartments have a private terrace with their own ‘front yard’ which acts like a green buffer screening the residences from the noisy streets.
The sound of nature has proven to have a restorative effect on people’s stress and suffering. Bird songs are physically relaxing, reassuring, and cognitively stimulating, they can improve mood and attention abilities. This is due to the acknowledgement that ‘when the birds sing, we are safe’ (Butterfield, 2014). Studies suggest that there is a preference for a scene with a water feature and that people ‘value the sound of water more than any other sensory experience’ (Malnar & Vodvarka, 2004).
Fg.8 – Central Park has a flowing stream of water through the indoor garden. The sound of flowing water fills the 500m2 indoor oasis, creating a relaxing retreat for the employees in this 23-story-high building.
A garden as a ‘space of scent’ should not be underestimated. The smell of herbs is known to have a therapeutic effect on humans’ bodies and brains, this is from the association of the importance of herbs in the medical world. Certain fragrances like jasmine are a natural remedy for ‘depression, anxiety, emotional stress, low libido and insomnia’ as it affects the ‘heart rate, body temperature, stress response, alertness, blood pressure, and breathing’(Hongratanaworakit, 2010).
Fg.9 – On the rooftop of Zoku, a short-stay hotel in Amsterdam, locates a beautiful herbal rooftop garden designed by MOSS. The planters which are filled with aromatic herbs reflect the architectural style, while the scent of the herbs creates a special and unique experience.
Several studies have shown that indoor plants enhance air quality, remove pollutants, and reduce bacterial and fungal infection spread through air purification and humidity control. This topic has become even more relevant in recent years after the spread of Covid-19 since high viral contamination rates were found in the air of poorly ventilated areas with recycled air. A recent study has concluded that the role of plants in regulating relative humidity in confined places could be considered an alternative solution that can be used to reduce the viability of Covid-19 (El-tanbouly et al, 2021).
Fg.10- At Joolz, MOSS designed and constructed three greenhouses of 120m2 in the centre of the office space which serve as a green oasis with a purified and humidity-regulated environment.
Humans generally prefer natural over artificial materials. Timber is a warm and natural material both to look at and feel, it is a ’sympathetic material’ to touch because it never causes temperature shock. Timber is versatile in texture- strong grain if left unpolished, and is smooth to the touch when polished. Wood also embraces the process of weathering, changing the texture and character of the wood which gives a strong sense of time.
Fg.11 – The atrium of Dr. Sarphatihuis nursing home is filled with integrated green modules made entirely of recycled wood with a variety of grains and textures that not only are warm to touch but also stimulating to the sense of touch.
Plants & texture
Our sense of touch can make the garden an exciting place to explore the different textures of plants and flowers. From rough to smooth, waxy to grainy, and soft to prickly, integrating different textures encourages an interaction that goes beyond the familiarity of everyday urban textures. Touching plants is also a great way to practice mindfulness by concentrating on the ‘here and now’. Gardening is therapeutic and stimulating to all senses, especially touch, as it is an act of physically engaging with the nature through the senses.Fg.12 – Azorian flora was the starting point of inspiration within Central Park. This flora consists of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, cosmopolitan (occurring all over the world), and tropical species. Approximately 50 trees and shrubs, and 1,500 plants with a huge variety of textures fill up the indoor garden.
Materials, colours, texture, and smell
The sense of taste in architecture does not refer to the physical act of eating but rather alludes to architecture’s ability to evoke an oral sensation. It is an abstract concept that is evoked by the stimulation of other senses. There is a subtle transference between colour and taste, tactile and taste, and smell and taste. Materials, according to their textures and colour, stimulate different sensations on the tongue, where ‘certain colour and delicate details generate a specific oral sensation’ (Pallasmaa, 2012). Having said this, the sense of taste in architecture is still very much understudied.
Fg.13 – The colour blue was integrated into the planters at EVBOX. Blue is one of the most common colours in nature, it evokes a taste of freshness and energises our bodies.
The presence of edible plants is stimulating for the oral sensation and can be a part of the spatial experience. It can contribute to a healthier lifestyle, enhance health and well-being, foster social capital, reduce stress, promote environmental consciousness, as well as reconnect urban dwellers to the origins of food. A study has shown that urban agriculture activities improve the psychological health of participants and exhibit lower depression scores compared to their control groups (Audate et al, 2019).
Fg.14 – The former rooftop bar at CASA400 Amsterdam is planted with fresh crops and herbs which are used to garnish the small dishes and cocktails served by the bar.
Humans often forget that we are a part of nature. The consequences of pushing nature out of our cities is apparent through many of our contemporary urban and societal issues. We should make more of an effort to look at ways in which we can reintroduce and rekindle our relationship with nature. Introducing green, multi-sensory design is just of the many solutions mother nature has to offer to create better cities.
If you are a researcher or institution who is interested in this topic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for research collaborations.
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