When you walk into a building, have you ever noticed that sometimes your mood changes? Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, says being in a poorly designed building can make you feel lost, confused, even depressed or hostile. Take hospitals.
"Hospitals are there supposedly there for us to get better, but they are one of the most alienating environments you can imagine. It's like walking into and inhabiting a big machine," says Fisher. "Frequently the patient experience is that you're in this rabbit warren of rooms and hallways. There's no view out, lots of fluorescent lights, lots of beeping and machinery everywhere. Who wants to be in that kind of environment? It's scary!"
Fisher says, with a little work, hospitals could change themselves into places where patients feel psychologically as well as physically healed.
With better lighting, more greenery and scenic views out the window, the building itself could become a part of the healing process. People would start feeling better as soon as they entered the building, instead of feeling worse.
Fisher says major hospitals across the country, including the Mayo Clinic and the U of M Medical Center, have recognized this and are working to redesign themselves accordingly.
Now, take that same idea and apply it to an entire city. While few of us are well educated about design, we still, at a gut level, know when a place makes us feel better, worse or indifferent. And we make decisions based on those gut reactions. Fisher says people are increasingly choosing to live in well-designed communities because it feels better.
To illustrate the point, Star Tribune editorialist Steve Berg, who writes regularly about city design, takes us to two places in the Twin Cities -- one that he feels was well designed and then to another that's poorly designed.
Our first stop: Rice Park in St. Paul. The four sides of the little park are enclosed by the Landmark Center, the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, the James J. Hill Library and the St. Paul Hotel.
"We're sitting in probably the most beautiful spot in the Twin Cities," says Berg. "What really makes this a well-designed place and a pleasing place to me, is what intervenes between all these buildings, between here and the St. Paul Hotel across the street. We see a number of spruce trees. It's pleasing to the eye, it's colorful, it looks cheerful on a day like this, doesn't it?"
A jogger runs by the bench where we're sitting and stirs up a flock of pigeons. This is obviously a park, not a place of industry. I ask Berg if it's possible to take this sort of design and expand it citywide.
He says not only can we, we must.
"Global forces -- global warming, energy prices and energy availability, sprawl and the cost of sprawl -- all of these things are forcing us to think about our cities in new ways," says Berg. "And certainly making our cities more walkable, more enjoyable, more open for all kinds of people to live in ... the cities that are going to make it, that are going to be competitive economically are going to provide that choice for people."
We move on from the peaceful open park to Marquette Ave. in downtown Minneapolis. It's late afternoon and there's a lot of traffic, which makes it hard for us to hear each other. The remaining sunlight is blocked by the skyscrapers, dwarfing the people on the sidewalks below. Even though this spot is only a few miles from Rice Park, it's much colder here.
"It's certainly a lot less peaceful," says Berg. "One of the things design-wise I think you notice right away is there's not a tree or a shrub for about a mile along this street. It's just concrete. Pretty bleak."
People dash across the wide streets to make it to the other side before the light changes. Commuters huddle in clusters at bus stops. There are no benches here, no invitation to linger. Berg says it's a place you want to get through as quickly as possible.
The few windows at eye level either have the blinds pulled or are empty, with "For Lease" signs. Because of this, Berg says it's much easier for a thief to mug someone and get away with it. In this case, poor design has created a public safety problem.
"I think it gives off the impression that nobody cares about the human experience of walking down a street, of being a pedestrian," says Berg. "Where we were, with Rice Park, somebody obviously cares about that deeply, keeps it up. You don't get that impression here."
Berg says the design of Marquette is straight out of the 1950s, when downtowns were eight-hour cities that shut down when everyone went home.
Dean Tom Fisher says cities were planned and created by a few people with no expertise in design.
"A lot of our physical environment has been designed by lawyers," he says. "There are a lot of people who are writing zoning codes -- determining the widths of streets, the setbacks of houses, the size of things, where things are located -- that have no idea what this would be actually like to live in."
Fisher says cities have learned they can anticipate design problems, and sidestep them, by first turning to the public for input.
The City Council of St. Louis Park certainly believes in public input. City Manager Tom Harmening has watched as St. Louis Park transformed its identity from a bland suburb to a vibrant community with its own downtown.
Excelsior and Grand is a mix of housing and shopping, with storefronts at the ground level and condominiums above. There are wide sidewalks, lots of greenery and lightposts hung with colorful banners designed by St. Louis Park school children.
Harmening says this area has become the heart of the city. It happened, he says, because the City Council asked its residents to think about what they wanted their city to look like in 10, 15, 20 years. That was 10 years ago.
"One thing I would say about the people who live in St. Louis Park and work here -- they're very well educated, they're very progressive and they have high expectations for their city," says Harmening. "The feeling was, in order for us to have a community that we really want to live in and invest in as homeowners or businesses, we really need to have a long-term plan for where we want to go. So it really came from the grass roots."
Creating a downtown was not the only project to come from this involvement. There are new initiatives for the public school system and for attracting new businesses.
Harmening says listening to and acting upon the desires of constituents has paid off. A recent survey found that 97 percent of residents rated the quality of life in St. Louis Park as good or excellent. There's been a substantial reinvestment in the community, with record-breaking development money coming in.
But that doesn't mean the city leadership can take it easy from here on out. Harmening says this summer it will complete the installation of a citywide wireless network. And the city has gone back to its residents to ask what else they need.
"What we're really hearing loud and clear from our constituency that we didn't hear 10 years ago is their interest in the environment, from a variety of perspectives," says Harmening. "So as this goes on, I think we're going to be talking more about how this community can be better stewards of the environment."
It's already happening. The new wireless network? It's solar-powered.