The landscape of the modern city hub is a far cry from the natural flowing lines of nature; instead, the design of our cities follows a more linear route, drawing on sharp lines and heavy use of repetition. While this is something you likely pay little attention to, new research has suggested that it may in fact be affecting our health, particularly for those working in busy city-centre offices.

The study, conducted by a team comprised of scientists from the Universities of Essex and St Andrews and published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, sought to determine the extent of the issue and the underlying mechanisms responsible.

It turns out the problem is a direct result of how natural forms and shapes differ from man-made constructs, and the aesthetic touches we opt to put in place when designing modern professional buildings.

Think of each scene you see as being made up of a series of striped patterns of differing size, orientation, position, and colour; together these patterns are known as the Fourier components.

The thing is, nature has a way of balancing itself out that our own design efforts often do not. A general rule for natural forms is that components with low spatial frequency, i.e. large stripes, have a high contrast, whereas those with a high frequency, i.e. small stripes, have a low contrast. This difference, known as the rule of nature, allows the scene as a whole to balance, causing less strain on our eyes and brain as a result.

The concrete jungles differs from the natural in this regard, frequently using squared shapes, defined lines, repeating patterns and various other visual details not commonly seen in nature. This makes the image more difficult for our minds to process, causing additional strain and related health complaints, such as the aforementioned headaches or even epileptic seizures. This comes into play not only when looking at the architectural themes present, but also in small features such as doormats and escalators, which often feature a linear design.

The researchers’ conclusions stem from an analysis of the efficiency with which the brain is able to process images of natural and urban scenes, measured via the use of various computer models designed to assess how nerve cells make sense of visual cues. Two specific models were used in this particular research project; one built by Paul Hibbard (University of Essex) and Louise O'Hare (University of Lincoln), and the other by Olivier Penacchio and his colleagues at the University of St Andrews. Both models gave clear indication that when the brain processes images that depart from the rule of nature, the activity of the nerve cells is increased. This serves as evidence of the increased effort required to process such images.

The team also made use of a third computer model designed to ascertain just how well images adhere to the rule of nature. From this the team were able to conclude that departure from the rule of nature does in fact predict just how uncomfortable a person may find it to look at any given image.

While predicting the stress and strain caused by such design elements is certainly important, more so is finding ways to combat such potentially-damaging trends. In our increasingly health-conscious world where wellbeing is fast emerging at the forefront of office design, developers may have to start incorporating the rule of nature into their plans in an effort to combat the negative health effects associated with the squared aesthetic of much of modern architecture.


Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.
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