When was the last time you walked down a street with new buildings and felt anything positive? Or anything at all?
Modern buildings have become boring—flat, plain, shiny, rectangular, monotonous, anonymous, characterless, and dull. At best, these structures make us feel nothing. At worst, they can have a negative impact on our mental health and physical stress. For instance, in 1984 Roger Ulrich, a health care design researcher, conducted a pioneering study that proved a room with a view to nature accelerated the post-operative recovery of patients. Today, there’s much more evidence to show that bad design can have a range of negative consequences, with studies showing that it can cause mental stress and even lead to crime and antisocial behavior.
By 2050, seven out of 10 people worldwide will live in a city. Yet, despite the modern world’s technological advances, we have continued to create soulless spaces that reflect none of this genius. Whether you’re in downtown Hong Kong, Paris’s financial district, or central Toronto, the human touch has vanished from urban design while social isolation is growing and people are feeling increasingly overwhelmed and burnt out.
However, I believe change is coming. Before, you could get away with thinking “less is more.” Now it’s becoming clear that emotion matters when designing buildings and urban spaces.
In 2023, cities will start waking up to the value of emotion. Architects and designers will begin to embrace the idea that the aesthetic quality and the diversity of buildings deeply affect our feelings and have the power to lift our spirits, engage, and connect us.
CEOs, retailers, developers, and architects will start to think more about how urban planning can entice, engage, and inspire. Boring will gradually cease to be competitive. Forward-thinking businesses will start to respond by changing how they commission new buildings. Examples have already begun appearing—from Leeds, where Acme Studio infused personality and breathed new life to a derelict industrial site, to Burkina Faso, where Kéré Architects created a soulful health center in the city of Leo.
The climate emergency will accelerate this change. Construction is one of the planet’s biggest polluters—38 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2018 were generated by the sector alone. Every year, an area equivalent to the size of Washington, DC is demolished in the US. In Britain, the average commercial building is sentenced to demolition before it even turns 40. In 2023, we will see increasing outrage at the wastefulness of this approach to urban planning.
Individual concerns for the health of the planet will play a part. This year’s heat waves have already resulted in calls to make our streets greener. In 2023, the global movement to plant more trees in cities will grow even stronger. Green infrastructure will be understood to be critical national infrastructure, just like energy and transport, and we will have a tree for each person in every city around the world.
In 2023, we will finally begin to join the dots between building places people love and protecting the planet. Passion for the places that surround us will become key to designing streets and buildings full of detail, invention, and three-dimensionality. These new and radically human spaces will be cherished and will serve each resident and visitor for many years to come, instead of joining the graveyard of drab structures that none of us ever really cared to care for.