At $350 million, New York City's Sept. 11 memorial for Ground Zero features pools of water, oak trees and vast open space for the sun to shine through. But given the huge investment, are these carefully chosen aesthetic touches truly the right ones? Will they resonate for visitors to the memorial? And what will they mean to those living and working in lower Manhattan?
UC Irvine social ecologist Oledele Ogunseitan may be able to provide the answers. Ogunseitan has created a method to measure the relationship between a person's environment and his or her mental well-being. Environmental psychologists have long believed that a relationship between these two exists, but, until now, there has been no scientific method for testing the strength of the association and pinpointing preferences by populations. According to Ogunseitan, this new method can help planners and designers determine which architectural or landscape designs will have a more positive impact than others on a specific population.
"Before investing millions of dollars in a public park, corporate plaza or other type of communal space, we could use this instrument to assess the preferences of people who would be living and working near the space, and then create environments that enhance the general health and well-being of those people," said Ogunseitan.
In a study being published in the February issue of "Environmental Health Perspectives," Ogunseitan uses this method to examine topophilia -- a person's love of place -- to dissect people's preferences for specific environmental features. The method looked at four categories, including natural (water, trees, flowers, hills), sensory (colors, smells, sounds, light), familiarity (spaciousness, privacy) and complexity (mystery, texture). He surveyed 379 people, asking them to rate how important certain features are in an urban environment that they perceive as healing or restorative. He then asked people about their general sense of mental well-being, using a quality of life assessment survey developed by the World Health Organization.
A statistical analysis of the replies found a positive association between a person's connection to a restorative environment and a person's mental health. The study also found the most common features participants saw as enhancing their mental health were the presence of flowers and large bodies of water, such as lakes or oceans. In addition, buildings or landscapes with complex designs were not seen as healing to most study participants.
According to Ogunseitan, the study shows that the impact of an urban environment on quality of life depends not only on aesthetic appeal of a place, but also on how well people feel a connection or bond with it.
Ogunseitan says the real significance of this study is the development of a scientific method for measuring the relationship. "I expect to see more researchers explore the interactions between the topophilia and quality of life categories I?ve mapped out," Ogunseitan said.
Ogunseitan believes this type of assessment could assist city and urban planners, architects, and landscape designers who are involved in projects with large communal spaces that are intended to be healing, such as the Sept. 11 memorial, "Reflecting Absence." He cites the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., designed by Maya Lin, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier, as examples of designs that incorporate healing or restorative elements. The complex exterior of the Seattle Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas and the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry are the types of structure that his study participants would not find restorative. Although, Ogunseitan notes, the people of Los Angeles may be attracted to the restorative aspects of the Disney Hall interior?s musical function for which the structure is designed.
The study was funded by the UCI Libraries and UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts, which has commissioned Maya Lin to develop an outdoor plaza.
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