Designing for Wellbeing to Promote Safety and Security

By Lida Lewis on April 2, 2018

As we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy, creating a sense of wellbeing is foundational to creating our best environments, which in turn help us realize our best selves. In our schools and workplaces, a perception of safety allows us to concentrate, learn, teach and share, and it can even help us heal in our hospitals. In hospitality, stadiums and other entertainment venues, a feeling of safety can help us fully engage with the experience. But these environments can also be full of stressors that compromise our feelings of safety and wellbeing. In today’s world, how do we balance security needs without creating a jailhouse feel?

It begins by acknowledging that isolation, fear and trauma persist in everyday life, and loneliness is more common and damaging than you might realize. Bullying and harassment are still common at both work and in schools. Noise assaults our senses, and a lack of a connection to nature robs us of a prime grounding influence. Worries about climate change, terrorism, economic instability and more are communicated through the media and other sources. The societal cost of insecurity and uncertainty can be pervasive and providing opportunities for respite and recovery is the key to maintaining resilience.

To accomplish this goal, some advocate for lockdowns, bulletproof glass, prison-style entry systems, bunkers or armed guards. Some measure of physical security is sensible and advisable, but barriers must be permeable to support everyday function. Structures laden with physical security measures can quickly become impractical. With a barrier mindset, we lose much of what makes our buildings habitable, let alone beautiful.

It’s also important to keep in mind that how we communicate expectations through the built environment is a powerful message itself. Those with anxiety are highly attuned to threatening stimuli in their environment. If we demonstrate a cause for anxiety, depression and fear through design, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, we can structure the environment and the activities within them to increase reassurance.

Let’s not play to the lowest common denominator and restrict the lives of all in fear of the actions of a few. Instead, let’s try a different strategy.

Humans are instinctually predisposed toward open spaces with a sense of security and clear sight lines to potential threats. Rather than bulking up and buttoning down every aspect of a structure, we can instead look at opening and clarifying them. Clear wayfinding, spatial planning without dead ends and clear visibility to other occupants can assist in many types of events, even with everyday concerns such as school bullying or sexual harassment. As journalist Jane Jacobs told us long ago, “eyes on the street” are the best mechanism for improving safety.

We can utilize the biophilic principles of “refuge” and “prospect” to balance this design driver as well. While we have a natural affinity for the open spaces, these function best when areas for refuge provide a sense of security from which to enjoy the view. If we’re constantly exposed to distractors, particularly if we might be in an anxious mindset, our feelings of safety degrade through involuntary shifts in attention signals to the brain. We need calming areas for restoration of balance, and protected areas from which to view our connective vistas.




Incorporating more tangible interactions with nature can provide benefits as well. Interacting with nature alleviates depression and stress, cooling down anxiety and improving our wellbeing. In Japan, government ministries are using “shinrin-yoku,” the immersion of all the senses in nature, as a public health intervention against stress, while also engaging in careful research to measure its effects.

The effects can also be interpersonal. People who spend time in natural environments are more likely to demonstrate awareness of the needs of others. Even brief exposure is beneficial, with as little as five minutes providing demonstrable benefits. In our built environments, we can do much more to integrate everything from water and plant features to analogues of nature, which provide a less literal effect but can more deeply permeate our spaces.

Providing users with a sense of ownership and bringing a cultural presence to spaces can also improve safety. Abandoned and forgotten byways can be enlivened with artwork, activity spaces and more. Providing beauty in design—installations and moments whose only intent is to connect people with a place in an inspirational or aspirational way—can elevate and restore the spirit.

Even within high performing spaces, acoustics are one of the most high-profile problems, and its effects extend beyond mere inconvenience. We were built, evolutionarily speaking, to monitor ambient sound for threats. Disruptive noises, even simple background or low level ambient sounds, can spike stress levels and release cortisol; a hormone that can impair the function of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, reasoning and impulse control.

Noise is also tied to other stress related conditions like migraines, high blood pressure and coronary disease. Unfortunately, our ability to handle these stresses doesn’t improve with continued exposure, but actually worsen. We can use acoustic design to improve our environments by absorbing, blocking and covering what we can’t contain, reducing the stress on our psyche.

We can also use our built environment to strengthen connections between people. Excessive interaction through technology is creating virtual distance between us, which can degrade trust and distort our perceptions. To close the gap, a programmed and maintained community space is of paramount importance. In these spaces, we can focus on providing opportunities for free play and positive social skill building, not to mention simply spending time feeling happy.

Where we need strength the most is not in barricades of steel and concrete, but in activity programming, community connections and a push against the virtual distance of technology. Stressors are a part of life, but through clarified spaces, areas of refuge and respite, connections to nature, mitigation of unwanted noise, and engaging community spaces, we can use design as one tool to help us recharge. In this, we see that superlative design can help us begin the task of breaking down the isolation and anxiety so ubiquitous of our society. Instead of creating spaces that elevate our anxiety, let’s create connective places worth living in.

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