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Biologist Works to Merge Science, Architecture

Friday, July 27, 2018

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University of California, Los Angeles biologist and researcher Noa Pinter-Wollman has started inquiring into the impact spaces—both built and natural—have on behavior, launching a new field of study and collaboration.

A new, special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B., published this month, takes a look at work such as Pinter-Wollman's, analyzing the impact of the physical environment, which includes things like buildings and nests, on the collective behavior of people and animals.

The Impact of Space on Behavior

Pinter-Wollman was first inspired when studying harvester ants in Southern California called Veromessor andrei; colonies of these creatures move between different nest sites, and Pinter-Wollman found that behavior varied between nests. Eventually she encountered both environmental psychologists and a social scientist asking similar questions about the impact of environment on human behavior.

© iStock.com / Sean Pavone

Spaces for public engagement—parks and community centers—as well as easy access to nature both reduce stress and provide a boost in positive mental health.

Currently, researchers call the field “architecture and collective behavior.” What this field may be able to uncover has implications for health, disease, collective behavior and teamwork.

One of the articles that Pinter-Wollman lead-authored delves into an argument that the environment plays important roles in health and disease. For example: Cul-de-sacs in developments discourage walking, whereas offices that provide space to park bikes and leave gym clothes encourage greater physical activity. Spaces for public engagement—parks and community centers—as well as easy access to nature both reduce stress and provide a boost in positive mental health. Mega-cities have also been linked with epidemics, implying a connection between the physical environment and chronic disease. 

In another article, which includes includes research led by Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, one company removed its cubicles, opening up the floor plan. What resulted was that face-to-face interaction decreased, and a reliance on email to communicate increased.

Field of Study

Though this new field of study looks promising, bringing researchers together to establish a common vocabulary with which to discuss their work is proving to be challenging, though it is doable.

"Not everything can be translated from ants to humans, but there are some parallels, and identifying those parallels is a worthwhile goal," Pinter-Wollman said. "There are definitely things to consider when designing buildings that might not apply to animals. People need privacy, and emotions influence their well-being.”

Pinter-Wollman draws from field studies, computer simulations, laboratory research and theoretical work for her researching, sourcing material from biology and other disciplines. When asked for her thoughts on where to put the new café for the redesign of UCLA’s botany building—which she is on the advisory committee for—she said she was inspired by her research on ants to help determine where interactions are most likely to occur, so she recommended placing the coffee area close to an exit.

"I hope we can create new space designs inspired from animals, but not replicating what they do; there's a middle ground," she said.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Color + Design; Design

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