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Social Sustainability in Context: rediscovering Ingrid Gehl's Bo-Miljø

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Psychological needs and human wellbeing are aspects of sustainability that urgently need to be reconsidered in architecture. Too often, the concept of sustainability is connected to quantitative building performance, without enough consideration of how people use and enjoy spaces and how their wellbeing is influenced by their environment. This paper introduces the report Bo-miljø or Living Environment, written by Danish environmental psychologist Ingrid Gehl in 1971, into the current social sustainability discourse in architectural design as a way of gaining perspective into psychological wellbeing. The report is particularly relevant for considering the human dimension in housing design and identifies eight basic psychological needs that people have in relation to their living environments. The analysis of this report, and the synthesis of the findings with newer studies and definitions of social sustainability offer a framework for rethinking social sustainability. This essay analyses the findings from Gehl's report and contextualises it within current interdisciplinary research in this area. Critically analysing leading definitions and concepts in social sustainability and wellbeing, this essay offers an architectural perspective on design for social sustainability and wellbeing.
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The current ways of discussing and evaluating the
multidisciplinary concept of sustainability in design
tend to rely on the three-pillar model of
environment, economy, and society. Of these, the
social pillar has been largely neglected and remains
poorly defined as the wider debate has prioritised
environmental concerns (energy use, climate
change) and economic considerations (cost savings,
speed of construction, short life spans for
buildings).1, 2 While all aspects sustainability can be
considered in their impacts on people, social
sustainability is often relegated to a default position,
describing those aspects not easily quantifiable as
economic or environmental.
In architecture, a growing number of researchers
are critical of how energy efficiency has dominated
the way that sustainability is measured, calling for a
fundamental shift towards more critical, interpretive,
participative, and pragmatic approaches that
encourage a wider range of site-specific responses.3
Better engagement with the social side of
sustainability offers a chance to integrate
architectural perspectives and reconnect people,
places, community, experiences, and spatial quality
into the concept and practice of sustainability.
Social sustainability can be defined in relation to
architecture as
[...] a process for creating sustainable, successful places
that promote well-being, by understanding what people
need from the places they live and work. Social
sustainability combines design of the physical realm
with design of the social world – infrastructure to
environment arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 371
The article analyses findings from Bo-miljø and connects them to
current research, offering an architectural perspective on design
for social sustainability and wellbeing.
Social sustainability in context:
rediscovering Ingrid Gehl’s Bo-miljø
Terri Peters
arq (2016), 20.4, 371–380. © Cambridge University Press 2017
1 Diagram connecting
the eight basic
psychological needs
for living environments
to findings from
research and concepts
illustrating social
sustainability and
arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 environment
Terri Peters Social sustainability in context
Bo-miljø is entirely about people and buildings. The
book offers principles and cross-disciplinary
references largely in environmental psychology and
also to a lesser extent psychology, sociology, and
geography, relating to aspects of what we now call
‘social sustainability’.
‘Living Environment’ pursues three objects:
1. to provide a better basis for planning and evaluating
living environments by giving an account of some of the
most important needs of psychological nature which
should be satisfied for man in his living environment,
2. to contribute towards an intensified discussion of living
environments today, and
3. to give a survey and evaluation of the existing
knowledge with regard to attitudes and behaviour in
living environments.9
Bo-miljø was intended to be a provocation, to
encourage debate and discourse about social needs
and values. The book is written for a
multidisciplinary, non-specialist audience. Most of
the images are photographs of people, with
buildings as a secondary aspect, supporting the
Danish Welfare State concept that housing should
be the safe, secure, quality backdrop to family life.
Gehl focused largely on how people experience
exterior public and semi-public spaces and building
facades but also included a small selection of
photographs of interior environments. However,
there are few truly private spaces pictured or
discussed. The book had no photographs of
support social and cultural life, social amenities,
systems for citizen engagement and space for people
and places to evolve.4
Central to this definition is the concept of wellbeing,
which has no fixed definition and can therefore be
difficult to objectively measure.5 Hetan Shah and
Nic Marks argue that a robust definition is necessary
to aid in policy development, and define wellbeing
as more than just happiness. As well as feeling
satisfied and happy, wellbeing means ‘developing as
a person, being fulfilled, and making a contribution
to the community’.6
Design principles for social sustainability
and wellbeing
Based on these concepts and definitions, principles
of social sustainability and wellbeing that apply to
design can be characterised in five ways. Firstly,
design interventions need to be carried out with
local knowledge and strategies, based on the
concepts of specific communities. Secondly, these
initiatives must be planned and designed, they do
not happen on their own. Certain design features
and amenities can encourage people to partake in
wellbeing-promoting behaviours such as
participating in culture and having contact with
others. Thirdly, the design needs to be flexible to
allow for people to customise their environments
and allow spontaneity, new ideas, and the inclusion
of varied participants. Fourthly, design for social
sustainability should operate at multiple scales and
fifthly, initiatives must be integrated into the overall
environment, and not be discrete or detached from
the overall community in order to be most effective.7
Social sustainability is an inherently
interdisciplinary topic, it cannot be claimed by one
field of study. Currently, many aspects relevant to
sustainable architecture are being effectively
examined from outside of architecture, and
this article mines the work of environmental
psychologist Ingrid Gehl for insights. In this article,
principles of Bo-miljø are summarised, analysed in
relation to current research in this area, connected
to the concept of wellbeing in social sustainability,
and discussed in relation to architectural
applications [1].
Architecture shapes behaviour: principles of Bo-miljø
In 1971, Danish environmental psychologist Ingrid
Gehl wrote Bo-miljø (Living Environment) as part of the
influential Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut (Danish
Building Research Institute) SBi series of
publications. Ingrid Gehl is the wife of noted
urbanist and founder of Gehl Architects, Jan Gehl,
and they published their dissertations, hers on
environmental psychology and his on urban design,
almost simultaneously in 19701. Jan Gehl’s book
Livet Melem Husen (Life Between Buildings) was widely
circulated, translated into fifteen languages, and is
now in its sixth English language edition.8 However,
Ingrid Gehl’s book was not translated or reprinted,
perhaps because of her choice to publish it in a series
on building research, outside of her primary area of
expertise. While not an architectural text per se,
2 The cover of Bo-miljø
shows Modern
housing from a
child’s perspective.
Gehl used this to
reinforce her
argument that
young children have
particular needs in a
living environment
(taken from
Bo-miljø, p. 106).
environment arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 373
Social sustainability in context Terri Pe ters
anticipate people growing up and older; design
interventions were considered at multiple scales;
and in some respects consideration was given for
how the housing would integrate into the
community. However, the important concept being
locally specific and drawing on the existing
community, important aspects of what we now call
social sustainability are lacking. It is stated that the
town design should ‘stimulate a certain community
spirit’ but it is hard to design this in the abstract.
The challenge of building a new town meant that
there is no existing community to tie into, so
Albertslund did not have a lot of social context to
foreground. Additionally, the concept of site
specific, locally relevant architecture was missing as
a design focus in most examples of this kind of
Welfare State housing and this has contributed to
the difficulties with social sustainability and
wellbeing in the renovations.12
Basic needs and minimum standards for
psychological comfort
Bo-miljø documents and classifies the basic human
needs for housing in order to suggest how housing
should be designed in future, advocating future
‘intensified discussions’ and design guides of
formalised standards and rules. Gehl argued that the
primary needs people have relate to health and
survival, then safety and comfort, and then
psychological wellbeing. Standards for health,
survival, safety and comfort were well covered by
existing building codes, but people and human
needs were being sidelined.13 Gehl considered the
living environment as a varied and changing
reflection of society, and highly subjective. Many of
these concepts hold true today. Building codes and
regulations ensure buildings and sites are safe and
meet people’s basic needs in relation to size and
services. As well, the eight territories of
psychological wellbeing that Gehl outlined are at
least partially covered by current design guides,
architectural expertise, and design research.
Gehl summarised in text, and illustrated through
photographs of people interacting, how rapidly
changing social values, such as gender roles, family
structures, attitudes to children and childhood,
were changing how people use public and semi-
public spaces in housing estates. Rather than
making a checklist for designers, she wanted to
highlight needs people have – to create an intensified
discussion of living environments todayand then to
suggest that designers take the freedom to address
these in different ways for each project. She argued
that in order to create better living environments,
to an ambitious minimum standard, all
consumers, politicians and planners should
articulate the human values that they are designing
for, and that are being promoted, so that designers
could have more freedom to experiment formally
and technologically.14 She called for more
transparency and accountability. The minimum
standards for psychological health she proposed
were designed to help designers, not to change
their design processes.
kitchens or bathrooms or bedrooms, but there are
living rooms and communal areas like
laundromats. To gain some insight into Gehl’s
approach, a brief explanation of the context in
which she was working is necessary and summarised
here in relation to her choice of cover image.
The front cover of the book [2] is an eye-level view
from the perspective of two children, who are
looking at the new social housing estate in the new
town of Albertslund, Denmark. The scale seems
appropriate to their small forms and their play space
is separated from cars. Albertslund was considered
both then and now as a utopian experimental and
influential social housing experiment. Its position
and treatment on the front cover shows the
optimism and political and social sympathy Gehl
had for these developments. The new town of
Albertslund was built in 1963, the first big project in
the new Copenhagen Regional Development Plan
and it quickly became a good example of social
progress and equality in Welfare State living.
Albertslund was one of the first developments to
articulate in the design brief a need for ‘family
housing’. The term was new because previously
families lived in the same kinds of buildings as
everyone else but with new developments like
Albertslund, there was a chance to create a purpose
built family-friendly development. A contemporary
architectural critic explained that family housing
needed to be designed differently both in terms of
the house, and the context:
This type of family needs a spacious dwelling with, on
average, three bedrooms. It needs outdoor facilities,
preferably in the form of a small garden. Playground
facilities must be satisfactory both for small children in
the immediate vicinity of the houses and for older
children at a somewhat greater distance. Adequate
provision must be made for crèches and kindergartens.
Children must be able to move about without being
endangered by vehicular traffic. The town should be so
designed as to simulate a certain community spirit with
the necessary premises for joint activities of young
people and adults outside their homes. The town should
have pleasing and interesting environmental features
but should, at the same time, provide for a simple and
uncomplicated traffic pattern.10
Social sustainability needs a site
The development at Albertslund was considered an
important example of Danish Welfare State
Modernism, ‘where all claims have been met’.11
Today it remains a celebrated example of Danish
Welfare State suburban development, and is
frequently used as an example of how not all 1960s
and 1970s housing estates have poor social contexts,
and attract residents with no other options. As
described above, when designed, Albertslund
considered some of the five design principles for
socially sustainable environments set out earlier in
this article. In particular, the environment was
purposefully designed for ‘family needs’, which are
described and seem to meet many ideas of what we
now call ‘social sustainability’; the housing and
common areas were designed to be flexible and
arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 environment
Terri Peters Social sustainability in context
Gehl aimed to provoke intensified discussion of
living environments today, and this article is written
in the same spirit. The intent is to elaborate upon
and amend her initial conceptualisation as it
pertains to current the discourses of social
sustainability and wellness, and to tailor the
discussion to an architectural design context. In this
article, the ‘evidence’ for Gehl’s eight needs, into the
measurable impacts of the built environment on
people, is not intended to imply that these
summarise of all relevant research in these areas but
rather to offer points of intensified discussions that
can be expanded in future research.
Human contact
The first basic needs Gehl outlined is that of human
contact, and she argued that in a residential setting,
people meet when they are carrying out the practical
and functional activities of residential life.16 She
illustrated this section with images of people
meeting informally in courtyards, sitting on
benches, perched on edges of play structures, and
carrying out daily life, eating, sunbathing, and
watching children play. The location, size, and
qualities of shared elements such as pool decks,
patios, and courtyards need to be designed to
support people being social and meeting one
another. Play areas offer opportunities, because it is
where people meet others of different ages, abilities,
and personalities by chance.
There are studies that show that human contact
improves wellbeing and designing living
environments to encourage socialising amongst
residents could have measurable benefits.
A framework for living environments
Gehl wished to provide a basis for formulating
requirements for living requirements. In part two of
the report, she identified eight environmental
psychological requirements that all living spaces
should address if the aim is for people to have a
satisfying and humane living environment: (1) the
need for human contact, to see and meet others; (2)
the need for privacy; (3) the need for varied
experiences; (4) the need for purposefulness; (5) the
need for play; (6) the need for structure and
orientation within the environment; (7) the need for
a sense of ownership and identification with the
community and environment; and (8) the need for
aesthetics and beauty. She illustrated each of these
principles with photographs of people interacting
with buildings. There are no statistics or charts or
diagrams, just photographs of people and spaces –
for example, walking between buildings, leaning out
of facades, next to buildings and in neighbourhoods
– as evidence of the impact of design on how we
experience our environment. She devoted about ten
pages, half photographs and half text, to each of the
needs, and on each page gave references to sociology,
psychology, architecture, and planning research.
Her central argument was that good or bad
housing estates do not just happen, they are the
product of a connected series of design decisions that
impact on how people perceive the spaces. She
argued that if an estate is unsafe, uncomfortable, or
alienating then it is at least partially the
architecture’s fault. She advocated for the power of
architecture to frame our perspectives of ourselves,
and our built and natural surroundings. She argued
that architecture shapes behaviour.
In the following section of this article, the eight
psychological needs are analysed and supported with
relevant scientific evidence and examples. The social
sustainability framework described above provides a
bridge between psychological needs and wellbeing.
Researchers have defined a basic need, whether
physiological or psychological, is ‘an energising state
that if satisfied, conduces toward health and
wellbeing, but if not satisfied, contributes to
pathology and ill-being’.15 Here, Gehl’s work is
interpreted to formulate a more architecturally-
relevant discussion and architectural
conceptualisation of social sustainability.
Extending Bo-miljø
In many ways, Gehl’s assertions about
psychologically healthy living environments did not
go far enough – the arguments would have been
stronger if they had referenced more specific
scientific, peer-reviewed studies of psychology to
underline each of the main points, driving home the
impact of design on human behaviour and wellness.
The section of her book that outlines the eight needs
has twenty-nine references, but of these there are
very few sources that link the needs to her area of
expertise, to peer-reviewed studies or experiences of
buildings relating to environmental psychology.
Gehl’s eight needs offer a starting point for
discussion of select architecturally relevant research.
3 Photograph showing
residents interacting
by leaning out of
their apartments in a
way that was not
necessarily imagined
by the designers.
Gehl used this image
as one of many that
shows people’s
fundamental need
for human contact
(taken from
Bo-miljø, p. 26).
environment arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 375
Social sustainability in context Terri Pe ters
physical realms and social worlds, in particular that
allow people to change and evolve. This concept is
relevant to changing needs in privacy in housing.
Chermayeff and Alexander link privacy to modesty,
and argue that privacy must be sometimes sought
both against neighbours and also other members of
the family: ‘the individual requires barriers against
the sounds and sight of innumerable visitors
including the disembodied visitors of TV and radio
selected by one or another members of the family’.23
Designing for social sustainability needs to allow
people to customise their spaces to allow for
changing needs, to balance the needs to connect to
people, and to keep their modesty and dignity.
Varied experiences
Gehl identifies the need for varied experiences in
living environment, and this could mean
incorporating nature, designing buildings with a
mix of uses and amenities, and offering residents
Researchers have found links between wellbeing and
walkability, due to the opportunities for social
contact, and sense of community.17 Studies have
shown that people perceive small-scale buildings and
cul-de-sacs as being more social than open areas.18
Spaces that encourage shared activity promote
feelings of security. Jane Jacobs observed that
‘sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a
city’s wealth of public life may grow’.19 Each site’s
physical environment and social context is unique,
and site-specific strategies are important in
implementing design for people’s psychological
needs in an architectural context. This relates to the
process of figuring out what needs people have from
the places where they live and work. Architectural
considerations for psychological health should focus
on designing places for human contact at multiple
scales, including design details of the public realm,
walkability, and human-scaled buildings [3].
The thresholds between inside and outside are
important for maintaining a sense of privacy and
calm. The balance between social contact and
privacy needs to be supportive of people’s changing
needs. Gehl explains this basic need using a quote
from Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander
(1963) about the importance of privacy. In Community
and Privacy they argue: ‘only through the restored
opportunity for first hand experience that privacy
gives can health and sanity be brought back to the
world of the mass culture’.20
Privacy is hard to come by in overcrowded housing
conditions. Research has linked room sizes and
proportions to reported feelings of wellness, in
particular relating to overcrowding as a measure of
substandard housing and health issues such as
infectious and chronic diseases.21 The impacts of
noise on mood and wellbeing tend to be studied in
relation to workplace design, but researchers have
also analysed noise in relation to wellbeing and
mood in residential environments but this seems
rather understudied given that choice of materials,
proportion, orientation, adjacencies, and other
architectural design decisions have great impact in
this area. Studies have shown that residents with a
bedroom or living room facing the street report
higher levels of annoyance22 and hearing unwanted
noise has been proven to raise blood pressure and
increase stress in other environments.
For privacy, architecturally relevant elements
could include the provision of a mix of dwelling sizes
in a building, including some very large ones, so that
people can have growing families without having to
decide between moving away from their
communities and living in overcrowded conditions.
The availability of different spaces for relaxation and
privacy are important, and having a mix of public
and private amenities like private balconies and
public courtyards, and choosing materials to reduce
noise can improve people’s comfort and
psychological wellbeing.
The definition of social sustainability includes the
need to design environments that connect the
4 Photograph showing
women socialising in
common areas. Gehl
identified the
importance of spaces
such as these where
people can gather
and use as they
please (taken from
Bo-miljø, p. 32).
arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 environment
Terri Peters Social sustainability in context
not just children, need play.30 She rightly
differentiates between play and physical exercise
although she advocates physical play that involves
the senses. Play involves giving people choices in
how they behave, and freedom to experiment. It can
be linked to happiness and satisfaction, both key
components of wellbeing.31, 32
It has been shown that how play is framed and
introduced impacts on people’s attitudes and
enthusiasm for the activity. This means that play
should be considered a design problem. The relative
lack of architectural studies and theories on play
and spaces for play offers the opportunity for spatial
and sensory experimentation with designing areas
for play. Since Gehl’s work in 1971, there has been a
shift in cultural attitudes and perceived risks
associated with playing. For example, studies from
the US show that children are being banned from
playing in many residential environments. Gayle
Souter-Brown notes: ‘forty-seven million Americans
now live with covenants prohibiting children from
playing outside. That means local rules against
treehouses, climbing trees, skateboards, basketball
net, even sidewalk chalk, and in some places
children hanging out with their friends on the
street outside their home.’33 In terms of design
strategies, studies have found that designing play
structures is not enough to actually encourage play,
with Rob Wheway’s 2015 paper concluding: ‘Play
strategies which concentrate on the provision of
play facilities are flawed because increased provision
cannot compensate for the reduction in children’s
freedom to play caused by the domination of the car
in residential roads.’34
The design for play includes more than just swings
or slides, it needs to be designed into the concept of
the housing. This concept of play being a need is
important and must be protected and fully
integrated into the environment. If play can be
linked to elevated moods, then it follows that play
could be linked to wellness and health outcomes
with lowered stress and blood pressure levels. The
provocation of integrating play, rather than adding a
dedicated and discreet children’s play area into an
existing design, could offer important co-benefits for
psychological wellbeing and physical fitness. Design
strategies in this area could offer productive links to
the social sustainability concept of integrating the
physical and social realms.
Structure and orientation
There is a need for structure and organisation in
living environments. This means designing
environmental strategies for wayfinding and visual
and sensory cues. Gehl shows photographs of
personalised door signs, distinctive doorbells,
exterior light fixtures, potted plants, and painted
signs that people use to create small landmarks and
find their way in housing estates.
The purposeful design of hierarchy and scale in
buildings and environments leads to impacts upon
wellbeing [5]. Feelings of autonomy and perceived
quality of life have been linked in studies of
particular residential environments specific to
choices of various modes of transport.24 Even though
the Danish housing estates that Gehl used to
illustrate Bo-miljø were intentionally designed as
mono-use, residential environments, there are some
aspects of urban life that she references and
celebrates. She shows old and young people living
together, chance meetings of people in courtyards
and sidewalks, a range of building sizes (even though
these would not likely have been found all on one
estate), and she often highlights seasonal and
temporary structures in courtyards and shared
spaces like sheds, umbrellas, picnic tables, lemonade
stands, and flower pots [4].
In designing for social sustainability it is necessary
that the process is purposeful and intentional. The
careful design and curation of buildings with mixed
uses, building sizes, and varied materials can make
an urban experience more enjoyable. Studies have
shown what people intuitively know, that varied
work and breaks from work improve performance.
Nature has proven restorative benefits25 and mixed
modes of transport can contribute to more easily
navigable cities. Designing variety in living
environment is not an easy task, due to the nature of
architectural time scales and the process of working
with clients and site boundaries and regulatory
constraints. Adding a mix of uses, such as
commercial, cultural, and educational uses in a
residential environment could be a strategy for
providing a desirable mix and variety, while also
potentially reducing the need for commuting,
bringing new people to the area, and improving a
sense of community.
Gehl argued that purposefulness is a psychological
need in living environments.26 This could be
answered by participating in hobbies and clubs, light
building maintenance or working in the garden, or
pursuing learning. There needs to be meaningful
ways for people feel a sense of purpose and self-
realisation. This is fundamental to concepts of
wellbeing, as defined by Shah and Marks in relation
to the need for fulfilment and contribution to the
Having a fulfilling life with meaning is a part of
wellness, and researchers have found that that
eudaimonic wellbeing, based on Aristotle’s principles
of virtuous living, focuses on meaning in terms of the
degree to which a person is fully functioning.28
Architecture can offer ways for people to contribute,
take on responsibilities, and feel a sense of purpose.
Studies have shown that seniors who volunteer
regularly are in better health, including a lower blood
pressure.29 Providing attractive spaces for gardening,
dedicated areas for volunteers and community groups
to meet are ways that architecture can provide this
sense of purposefulness.
The need for play can be formal or informal but it
should involve sensory perception, motor activity
and it should take place in multidimensional
creative environment. Gehl argued that all people,
environment arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 377
Social sustainability in context Terri Pe ters
spatial organisation in people with dementia in
nursing homes.35 Cues such as visual signage, feeling
the breeze of an open door, or hearing people taking
near a social space can all contribute to positive
experience of an environment. Well-designed
environments with clear layouts where spaces are
easy to find influence people’s experiences of a space.
A recent study showed that study respondents
preferred warmer colours and bright lighting to feel
a sense of spatial satisfaction.36 A sense of spatial
legibility can be linked to feeling safe and secure and
can contribute to wellbeing.
Ownership and identification
The feeling of being able to personalise a space, have
a say in how it is organised, and the ability to control
one’s own environment all lead to a sense of
ownership and identification. This is a key part of
the Danish Welfare state philosophy that was
ingrained in the construction of the housing used to
illustrate Bo-miljø and it remains a deeply held tenant
in contemporary Denmark. The tenant democratic
system in Denmark is structured so that tenants have
significant control over how the housing is
maintained and renovated.
Happiness and wellbeing are linked to control and
influence in the environment. Studies have shown
that high levels of democracy at both a systems and
local level make people feel satisfied.37 A sense of
control over one’s immediate surroundings has been
positively linked to wellbeing and health.38 Designing
spaces that are customisable with aspects that can be
personalised with colour or furnishings, with local
environmental controls such as operable windows,
are ways that design can influence wellbeing.
Aesthetics and beauty
Gehl identifies order, variation, and harmony as
important needs people have in their
environmental, and argues that these should be
multisensory and accessible. Considerations of
aesthetics are included in all measures of
architectural design. Gehl illustrates this section
with patterns of facades, public art, minimal
interiors, and circular patterns and forms. There are
no detailed photographs, such as paving patterns in
a courtyard or on a path, or compositions of material
finishes such as wood or ceramic. There are also no
images of nature, such as trees or landscape.
Many architecturally relevant studies of aesthetics
and wellbeing focus on greenery and nature. Rachel
Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, in their The Experience of
Nature: A Psychological Perspective (1989) extensively
studied the positive links between exposure to
nature and reported wellbeing.39 Order and
uncluttered environments, which could be
considered aesthetics, are often indicators of
housing quality. Researchers have found that
uncleanliness and clutter are not just visually
dissatisfactory, they can also be linked to children’s
socio-emotional health.40 Gehl’s specific mention of
ease of access to the experience of aesthetics and
beauty is important for designers. All people need to
benefit from aesthetics and beauty at various scales.
Discussion and conclusions: psychological needs and
social sustainability
Concepts now called sustainability and social
sustainability have always been considered as a part
of good architecture but they are becoming
increasingly quantified and codified. When
designing for social sustainability, the concept of
wellness is an important consideration and it should
be considered by designers. The basic psychological
needs that people have in relation to their living
environment should be considered when developing
local, community focused design interventions at
many scales. Architect and social sustainability
theorist Jan Gehl professed that design should
prioritise ‘life, space, buildings, in that order’.41
Noted town planner and ecologist Patrick Geddes
argued priorities should be ‘place-folk-work’, and he
also had theories of urban design for people’s
‘primary human needs’.42 Revisiting reports such as
Bo-miljø can serve as an important reminder that
design has an enormous impact on how people
experience space.
Within architecture, practitioners and theorists
work to the assumption that the qualities and design
of spaces has a strong influence on the behaviour of
people that use those spaces. The Architectural
Institute of America (AIA) counsels its members that
‘as an architect, your everyday decisions, large and
small, can affect the mental and physical health of
everyone that comes into contact with your work’.43
Architects do not feel the need to ‘prove’ that
cluttered, cramped, unhygienic environments make
us feel anxious or that spacious, day lit, and varied
environments make us feel better. Architects assume
that we are able to impact the moods, desires, and
behaviours of people that inhabit the environments
we design.44
Gehl did not use the term ‘sustainable’ housing or
‘sustainable’ living environments in Bo-miljø. The
environmental examples she presented, and the
basic needs that she identified were not judged for
their efficiency, or cost, or energy use. A main
finding of the book is that housing and sites should
not only satisfy the brief in terms of large-scale
organisation, space metrics, or views, but should
respond to fundamental human needs. Designers
cannot know exactly what particular features that
people want in their homes, but they can know
certain basic needs that people have and they have a
duty to design for those. It is difficult for architects
to know for certain the specifics of how or if people
will enjoy and be inspired to connect with each other
in shared spaces, but by explicitly studying spaces
from that perspective and thinking about people’s
basic needs, there could be a process of better
decision making in terms of privacy, aesthetics, and
other needs. The intensified discussions Gehl
advocated could also lead to more support and
consensus within the design community and that
could lead to more effective and productive
discussions with clients to be able to reach out to
both intuition and experience as well as research
studies that show that there is value in designing
certain qualities and spaces.
arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 environment
Terri Peters Social sustainability in context
examples. Gehl could have photographed a number
of architecturally valuable historic or even 1930s
housing in and around Denmark, instead she
celebrated 1970s social housing that now is widely
regarded as non-socially sustainable because of many
reasons including the alienating scale, cheap
materials and poor connectivity to their wider
communities. In Denmark, the exact Welfare State
social housing that is illustrated throughout Bo-miljø
is currently undergoing its second main wave of
renovation and the focus is on regenerating the poor
reputation of these estates (often by replacing the
facades); and improving social relations and
attracting new tenants (with new balconies and
better landscaped courtyards).45 This type of housing
was built in many countries in North America,
Europe and elsewhere, and is generally regarded as
problematic and in need of renovation or
demolition. This book offers specific insight into the
design intentions of this kind of social housing, and
this could be explored in further study.
Design principles for social sustainability
Saffron Woodcraft et al.’s definition of social
sustainability46 and Shah and Marks’s definitions of
wellbeing47 were used throughout this article as a
framework to further discussion of how designers
can use these concepts and definitions in the design
of socially sustainable architecture. While the basic
needs for psychological comfort offer a starting
point, they cannot offer a ‘solution’, since they must
be translated into architecturally relevant concepts
Continuing relevance of Bo-miljø
Bo-miljø offers valuable perspectives for social
sustainability and wellbeing for several reasons.
Firstly, the eight needs offer a framework that
conceptualises and illustrates a people-oriented
approach to housing design, combining equal parts
environmental psychology principles and informal
photographic documentation of people in and
around buildings. The approach to the eight needs is
about space and people, making it highly relevant
for architects. This area remains understudied in
architecture. Secondly, the eight needs are offered to
suggest why and how people and their relationships
to buildings can be improved, bringing an important
environmental psychology perspective that is
relevant in architecture. People and their
preferences, moods, sense of comfort, and happiness
are typically not explicitly considered in minimum
standards for housing, although they are central to
architectural design, so perhaps this should be
reflected in standards. New standards for
environmental sustainability are increasing and
some are offering links to community and social
integration. There could be future standards that
focus specifically on social sustainability, and
interdisciplinary studies like Bo-miljø remain a useful
starting point.
The design and renovation of social housing is an
important area of architectural inquiry and it
remains understudied. This book offers insight into
the underlying principles of social housing design in
the 1970s as these buildings were the focus of Gehl’s
5 Photograph of a
person on a narrow
sidewalk near a large
housing estate in a
community. The
building is not
identified but it
appears to be the
social housing estate
Høj Gladsaxe near
Copenhagen (taken
from Bo-miljø, p. 44).
environment arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 379
Social sustainability in context Terri Pe ters
hospitals, housing estates, schools, and universities
that make up our built environment need urgent
renewal, especially with regard to energy
consumption, accessibility, and funding structures,
if we are to keep them in use for future generations.
Part of this multifaceted re-evaluation could include
formalised standards for social sustainability, in
keeping with the approach to environmental or
energy-focused standards.
In architecture, social sustainability deserves far
more of our attention, especially concerning life
cycle and renovation. The environmental,
economic, and social impacts of perceived failed
architecture and the process of tearing down and
rebuilding is tremendous, yet many of the reasons
for this process is due to difficult to quantify social
preferences and non-evidence based judgements
and opinions. For example, the case of 1970s
housing is discussed in this article, as examples of
an architectural style that has fallen out of favour
around the world, and is in danger of being written
off in some contexts such as the UK and Canada, as it
is too difficult to renovate. The inclusion of
architectural and psychological criteria presented
by Gehl can lead to a more holistic and relevant
interpretation of socially sustainable design that
can inspire the design of living environments to last
for future generations.
that can be applied in different ways depending on
the sites. Productive concepts for designers to
consider when designing are that designs should:
interpret social sustainability concepts to amplify
local opportunities and take advantage of locally
specific strategies; carefully plan and design social
sustainability from the outset; offer designed
initiatives that are flexible to allow for customisation
and future developments; design for social
sustainability at multiple scales; and integrate these
concepts into the overall design.
Future applications: renovating modern living
Architects today do not explicitly learn about the
psychological impacts of housing design on
residents, but we should, and this should be a part of
the sustainability discussion. The multidisciplinary
perspectives of wellbeing should extend to
discussions of healthy materials, climatic concerns,
and the social impacts of environmentally
sustainable architecture.
While Gehl’s research has been discussed here in
relation to Danish social housing renovation, her
work has architectural relevance in other contexts.
Globally, one of the most pressing challenges in
architectural design is what to do with the ageing
institutional built heritage of Modernism. The
1. Beate Littig and Erich Griessler,
‘Social Sustainability: A Catchword
between Political Pragmatism and
Social Theory’, International Journal
of Sustainable Development, 8 (2005),
2. Mark Davidson, ‘Social
Sustainability: A Potential for
Politics’, Local Environment, 14
(2009), 60719.
3. Simon Guy and Stephen Moore,
‘Introduction: The Paradoxes of
Sustainable Architecture’, in
Sustainable Architectures: Critical
Explorations of Green Building Practice
in Europe and North America, ed. by
Simon Guy and Stephen Moore
(New York: Spon Press, 2005), pp.
4. Saffron Woodcraft, Nicola Bacon,
Lucia Caistor-Arendar, Tricia
Hackett, ‘Design for Social
Sustainability: A Framework for
Creating Thriving New
Communities’ (Social Life/Young
Foundation, 2012), p. 16.
5. Jenna K. Gillett-Swan and Jonathon
Sargeant, ‘Wellbeing as a Process
of Accrual: Beyond Subjectivity
and Beyond the Moment’, Social
Indicators Research, 121 (2015), 135
6. Hetan Shah and Nic Marks, ‘A
Wellbeing Manifesto for a
Flourishing Society’ (London, UK:
The New Economics Foundation,
2004), p. 2.
7. Tom Dixon, ‘Putting the ‘S-Word’
Back into Sustainability: Can We
Be More ‘Social’?’ (Oxford, UK:
OISD/The Berkeley Group 2011), p.
8. Jan Gehl, Livet Mellem Husene
(Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag,
9. Ingrid Gehl, Bo-Miljø (København:
Statens Byggeforskningsinstititut
1971), p. 166.
10. O Nørgård, ‘Albertslund Syd’,
Arkitektur, 1 (1969), A36.
11. Ibid., 123.
12. Terri Peters, ‘Architectural
Strategies of Transformation to
Modern Housing: Qualitative
Parameters for the Analysis of
Sustainability in 1960s and 1970s
Multi-Story, Prefabricated
Concrete Housing in Denmark’
(Aarhus Architecture School, 2015),
pp. 6776.
13. Gehl, Bo-Miljø, p. 19.
14. Ibid., p. 6.
15. Richard M. Ryan, and Edward L.
Deci, ‘On Happiness and Human
Potentials: A Review of Research on
Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-
Being’, Annual Review of Psychology,
52 (2001), 14166.
16. Gehl, Bo-Miljø, p. 27.
17. Sarah French, Lisa Wood, Sarah
Alexandra Foster, Billie Giles-Corti,
Lawrence Frank, Vincent Lernihan,
‘Sense of Community and its
Association with the
Neighborhood Built
Environment’, Environment and
Behaviour, 46 (2014), 66797.
18. David Halpern, Mental Health and
the Built Environment: More Than
Bricks and Mortar? (New York:
Routledge, 1995), p. 121.
19. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of
Great American Cities (New York:
Vintage Books, 1961), p. 60.
20. Serge Chermayeff and
Christopher Alexander,
Community and Privacy: Toward a
New Architecture of Humanism (New
York Doubleday, 1963), p. 37.
21. James Higgins and Donna L.
Krieger, ‘Housing and Health:
Time Again for Public Health
Action’, American Journal of Public
Health, 92 (2002), 75868.
22. B. Jakovljevic, K. Paunovic, G.
Belojevic, ‘Road-Traffic Noise and
Factors Influencing Noise
Annoyance in an Urban
Population’, Environment
International, 35 (2009), 5526.
23. Chermayeff and Alexander,
Community and Privacy, p. 75.
24. Gehl, Bo-Miljø, p. 49.
25. Stephen Kaplan, ‘The Restorative
Benefits of Nature: Toward an
Integrative Framework’, Journal of
Environmental Psychology, 15 (1995),
26. Gehl, Bo-Miljø, p. 57.
27. Shah and Marks, ‘A Wellbeing
Manifesto for a Flourishing
Society’, pp. 23.
28. Ryan and Deci, ‘On Happiness
arq . vol 20 . no 4 . 2016 environment
Terri Peters Social sustainability in context
‘The Economics of Happiness’,
World Economics, 3 (2002), 117.
38. R. S. Ulrich, ‘Effects of Interior
Design on Wellness: Theory and
Recent Scientific Research’, Journal
of Health Care Interior Design, 3
(1991), 97109.
39. Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan,
The Experience of Nature: A
Psychological Perspective (Cambridge;
New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1989)
40. Gary W. Evans, ‘Housing Quality
and Children’s Socioemotional
Health’, Environment and Behaviour,
33 (2001), 38999.
41. Jan Gehl, Cities for People
(Washington: Island Press, 2010), p.
42. A. Geddes, ‘Introduction to Philip
Mairet’, in Pioneer of Sociology: The
Life and Letters of Patrick Geddes
(London, UK: Lund Humphries,
1957), p. xx.
43. American Institute of Architects,
‘Designing Communities, Shaping
Health’. Retrieved from London
(2013), pp. 12.
44. 3XN, Mind Your Behaviour: How
Architecture Shapes Behaviour
(Copenhagen: Danish Architecture
Centre, 2010), p. 15.
45. Terri Peters, ‘Architectural
Strategies of Transformation to
Modern Housing’, pp. 7794.
46. Woodcraft, Bacon, Caistor-Arendar,
Hackett, ‘Design for Social
and Human Potentials’, 14166.
29. Rodlescia S. Sneed and Sheldon
Cohen, ‘A Prospective Study of
Volunteerism and Hypertension
Risk in Older Adults’, Psychology
and Aging, June 2013 (2013), 578
30. Gehl, Bo-Miljø, p. 65.
31. Gillett-Swan and Sergeant,
‘Wellbeing as a Process of Accrual’,
32. Shah and Marks, ‘A Wellbeing
Manifesto for a Flourishing
Society’, p. 2.
33. Gayle Souter-Brown, Landscape and
Urban Design for Health and
Wellbeing (New York: Routledge,
2014), p. 105.
34. Rob Wheway, ‘Austerity as
Opportunity: Opportunities for
Free Play’, International Journal of
Play, 4 (2015), 2704.
35. Gesine Marquardt and Peter
Schmieg, ‘Dementia-Friendly
Architecture: Environments That
Facilitate Wayfinding in Nursing
Homes’, American Journal of
Alzheimer’s Disease & Other
Dementias, 24 (2009), 33340.
36. Lufti M. Hidayetoglu, Kemal
Yildirim, Aysu Akalin, ‘The Effects
of Color and Light on Indoor
Wayfinding and the Evaluation of
the Perceived Environment’,
Journal of Environmental Psychology,
32 (2012), 508.
37. Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer,
Sustainability: A Framework for
Creating Thriving New
Communities’, p. 16.
47. Shah and Marks, ‘A Wellbeing
Manifesto for a Flourishing
Society’, pp. 124.
Illustration credits
arq gratefully acknowledges:
Author, 1
Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut
(Sbi), Denmark, 2–5
This work was developed during the
author’s PhD research at Aarhus
Architecture School in Denmark
from 200915. The research was
supported by a PhD Studentship
from the Danish Ministry of Science,
Innovation, and Higher Education.
Author’s biography
Terri Peters recently completed her
PhD in Architecture from Aarhus
Architecture School in Denmark.
Her PhD investigated architectural
approaches to the sustainable
renovation of 1970s Modern
housing. She is a registered architect
in the UK and a newly appointed
postdoctoral researcher at the
University of Toronto, Canada.
Author’s address
Terri Peters
... 9). Some academics have been critical of the way in which this split has been institutionalised and also the manner in which the "wider debate has prioritised environmental concerns (energy use, climate change) and economic considerations (cost savings, speed of construction, short life spans for buildings)" [3] (p. 371). ...
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