The Shaping of Us

The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behavior, and Well-Being
Lily Bernheimer
Trinity University Press, August 2019

Hardcover | 6 x 9 inches | 336 pages | 37 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-1595348722 | $26.95

Publisher Description:
The spaces we inhabit– from homes and workspaces to city streets—mediate community, creativity, and our very identity. Using insights from environmental psychology, design, and architecture, The Shaping of Us shows how the built and natural worlds subtly influence our behavior, health, and personality. Exploring ideas such as “ruin porn” and “ninja-proof seating,” mysteries of how we interact with the physical spaces around us are revealed. From caves and cathedrals to our current housing crisis and the dreaded open-plan office, Lily Bernheimer demonstrates that, for our well-being, we must reconnect with the power to shape our spaces.

Have you ever wondered why we adorn our doorframes with moldings? What does Wikipedia’s open-source technology have to teach us about the history and future of urban housing? What does your desk say about your personality? From savannahs and skyscrapers to co-working spaces,
The Shaping of Us shows that the built environment supports our well-being best when it echoes our natural habitats in some way. In attempting to restore this natural quality to human environments, we often look to other species for inspiration. The real secret to building for well-being, Bernheimer argues, is to reconnect humans with the power to shape our surroundings. When people are involved in forming and nurturing their environments, they feel a greater sense of agency, community, and pride, or “collective efficacy.” And when communities have high rates of collective efficacy, they tend to have less litter, vandalism, and violent crime.
dDAB Commentary:
A couple years ago, when I reviewed Sarah Williams Goldhagen's excellent Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, I mentioned the strong environment-behavior studies at Kansas State University, where I got my Bachelor of Architecture degree in the 1990s. I'm bringing that time up once again because Lily Bernheimer's The Shaping of Us treads some of the same ground as Goldhagen's 2017 book (Bernheimer's book actually came out the same year, but in the UK only) as well as the areas of my undergraduate education. Bernheimer is an environmental psychology consultant, and she must be one of the few — if not the only one! For a brief period in grad school one decade after architecture school, I actually entertained going for an Environmental Psychology doctorate, which is offered at CUNY Graduate Center, with the goal of applying the lessons from that field to architectural practice rather than teaching, the norm for people with PhDs. That obviously didn't happen, but every now and then I delve into the subject, as in the article "Tracing the Deep Roots of Design" at Houzz, or come across books such as Goldhagen's and Bernheimer's, which capture my attention but also illustrate that the ideas of environmental psychology are seeing a resurgence decades after they first made their way into academia — in that all-too-brief period between the decline of Modernism and the rise of Postmodernism, when architects still believed their designs could affect social change, not just express a style.

Simply put, environmental psychology applies the scientific principles of psychology to the settings of our lives: the buildings, landscapes, cities, and spaces we occupy. The variability of those environments is the main reason environmental psychology is much more difficult than the studies of individuals in controlled situations. But the findings have the possibility of being much more dramatic than traditional psychology, especially in terms of changing the way the built environment is designed. Across eight chapters of highly accessible prose, Bernheimer shows how we are shaped by the spaces where we live, be it streets, offices, our homes, or even large chunks of cities or landscapes. There are many commendable examples used to illustrate just how this happens, as well as many references to studies and literature that embrace environmental psychology. Yet I wish Bernheimer went one step further and included a bibliography. Personally I'm curious about contemporary writings on environmental psychology, considering that the books from my college days (e.g., Edward Relph's Place and Placelessness, Jon Lang's Creating Architectural Theory: The Role of the Behavioral Sciences in Environmental Design, and Charles J Holahan's Environmental Psychology) are well out of date. There must be lessons learned in the ensuing decades; for now, The Shaping of Us is a great place to start.

Author Bio:
Lily Bernheimer is an environmental psychology consultant, writer, and researcher. She is the founding director of Space Works Consulting, where she strategizes to make workspaces, dwellings, and urban environments work for the people and purposes they serve.
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