Words by Mark Bessoudo
An ancient town in northern Laos causes Mark Bessoudo to reflect on the limits of designing for the good life
The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with their human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.
The experience reminded me of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of existential experience can arise between building and individual.
It also got me thinking about what we, as designers of the built environment, are striving for when we say that our ultimate goal is to create “people-centric” buildings and cities that improve health and wellbeing. After all, Luang Prabang has been known to achieve just that, and yet the town was never specifically designed that way.
This paradox could perhaps be explained by our misunderstanding of what wellbeing is in the first place. The Ancient Greeks used the word eudaimonia to describe human flourishing and to explain how people could strive to live “the good life”. Aristotle, for example, believed that eudaimonia could be achieved with a certain kind of character (or virtue), in addition to external factors such as health, wealth and beauty. For the Stoics, however, virtue alone was sufficient; it is a person’s character and attitude towards external factors — not the external factors themselves — which ultimately contribute to the good life.
Modern science has come to somewhat of a hybrid conclusion. Researchers conducting a meta-analysis of the psychological literature found that wellbeing is influenced by the sum of three factors: 50% is based on a person’s setpoint (their baseline level of happiness); 40% is the result of intentional activity (actions, thoughts and routines); the remaining 10% is related to external circumstances (surrounding environment and possessions).
This means that wellbeing is modifiable and within a person’s control to improve through intentional activity. It also means that it can’t be significantly changed by environmental adjustments alone.
This seems to suggest that had I stayed in Luang Prabang for much longer, my initial exuberance at just being there probably would have worn off. Had I not made a conscious effort to continuously renew a positive outlook, I would have returned to my setpoint.
A similar reaction has been observed among people who work in green buildings. Researchers have found that occupant satisfaction in green-certified offices is at its peak in the first year and then declines over time. (They speculate that this could be avoided with better mechanisms for occupant feedback.)
The same would be true for anyone, anywhere, anytime. To improve wellbeing, it isn’t enough to work in a beautiful office, live in a walkable neighbourhood, have access to healthy food and be close to family and friends. A person must also cultivate (and continuously renew) a certain kind of positive attitude towards them. (It’s also why it’s entirely possible, though less likely, to have none of these things and yet still flourish.)
"How finely tuned or optimized should we try to make our buildings and cities if wellbeing largely depends on people’s own efforts?"
This certainly raises many important questions relating to urban design and city building: Is it possible for eudaimonia to be engineered? How finely tuned or optimized should we try to make our buildings and cities if wellbeing largely depends on people’s own efforts? Could an approach that integrates both topdown and bottom-up strategies lead to better outcomes?
On the one hand, we could simply incorporate a wider range of both quantitative and qualitative considerations into urban designs, and rather than use narrowly defined criteria, perhaps we could instead strive for a “good enough” baseline that allows for flexibility over time. Simply providing people with more adaptive opportunities — the ability to adjust the position of a window blind, for example, or access environmental controls — can greatly influence their psychological evaluation of comfort.
On the other hand, we should curb our enthusiasm and honestly acknowledge that while there are plenty of opportunities to improve wellbeing through design interventions, it has its limits. Creating a better baseline is a noble pursuit, but eudaimonia isn’t something that can be fully engineered from the outside, no matter how green the building or healthy the office.
It’s clear that the answers are neither simple nor obvious. But one thing is for certain: anyone who visits Luang Prabang will quickly appreciate the true meaning of eudaimonia.
Mark Bessoudo is a global research manager at WSP in London. He is also founder of platoforplumbers.com