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Critique: The Shaping of Us
The Shaping of Us
How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behaviour, and Well-being
By Lily Bernheimer
As an environmental psychologist, Bernheimer brings an important perspective and engaging writing style to the dialogue about why our environments matter. “This is not a book about nature versus nurture. It’s about both,” says the author. “The Shaping of Us traces how our perceptual systems and preferences developed in relation to the environments we evolved in: How we developed shelters, aesthetics, and settlements in reaction to these inclinations. How we have slowly lost this basic ability to build and maintain environments we flourish in. And how we can get it back.”
The chapter titles are attention-grabbers such as “The Woonerf, the Stoplight, and the Roundabout,” “The Defeat of the Ninja-Proof Seat” and “Why We Dream About Houses and Cry About Wind Farms.” We journey through an understanding of key principles through real-world examples leading us to the conclusion: “To build a resilient future, we must take an active role in the shaping of our environments — the shaping of us.”
Setting the stage for “The Big Fix,” we see through the lens of environmental psychology what makes or breaks safe streets, the importance of providing refuge and prospects for productivity, the spatial density/distance where social connections founder, why biophilia is an important topic, how we can combat “learned helplessness, how fractal aesthetics leads to “Ruin Porn” and why architect and author Christopher Alexander’s work is timelessly relevant.
The concluding chapter, “The Shape of Things to Come,” discusses the twin forces of “collective efficacy” and “ordered complexity” as essential tools. Collective efficacy comes from shared issues that can be sparked by simple yet powerful disruptions such as parklets or the work of visionaries such as betterblock.org. Bernheimer argues that collective efficacy leads to ordered complexity, the richly diverse and layered solutions that separate a “real” city from cookie-cutter imitations. “We hold the power to reshape our lives, society, and well-being through the ordered complexity of our small, collective actions.”
Reviewed by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, a principal with BRW Architects.