How and to what extent does the built environment influence emotions, behaviour and performance of groups of people in populated areas?

I. Introduction

Architecture is at the core of our modern lifestyle: it provides a setting for our daily activities; it shapes our daily travels; it creates bubbles into which we exist and develop. See architecture as a mould and ourselves as clay. We can move within it, but to a certain extent, it affects us. It is not our only defining factor as individuals, but a society composed of greater masses of people will fill the mould and be shaped by it, and consequentially this society will influence individuals in return.
This can be observed in groups of people that are all tied to a certain type of space: schools, cities, entire cultural groups. In this essay, I will investigate and evaluate how this phenomenon comes to life and where we can look for it in our daily lives. Further knowledge on this has the potential to affect the way we behave, and indirectly the way we feel, by solving social issues and helping become a more efficient society.
I myself feel personally the effects of the built environment of my concentration, my daily activities and my moods in school, town centre, in my own home, all of which have changed for me through the years or on a daily basis as I navigate between these built spaces, and feel they influence my life.
To identify how architecture comes into play in society, I will start backwards by picking apart evidence of the general state of these larger groups of people and tracing it back to its base factors. Case studies of the cultural and physical background of a space give insight and context to the effects and applications of architecture, in addition to adding a human element that numbers and statistics cannot provide, because we are looking at a human lead experience and reaction to the environment. The behaviour of entire societies may vary on a myriad of factors, which means that in order to observe the way architecture could influence a person, there must be consistent proof that it does have a strong influence on the societies’ mechanisms directly, so that we can imply it also does indirectly and have a wider reach. A link between the built environment and people’s behaviour is easy to find, much more challenging is evidence of the direction of the link: does architecture influence society, or does society influence architecture alone? Could it go both ways? Could that link exist because of correlation or causation?

II. Extent of its influence

The most universal measure of the quality of life in a country measured is the Happiness Index, which does not solely rely on GDP, economic growth or healthcare. “The definition of the Happiness Index originates from the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness Index. In 1972, Bhutan started prioritizing happiness over other factors such as wealth, comfort and economic growth. They created an indexation for happiness based on multiple measurable factors, and have kept track of this index ever since.” (Huijer, 2018). An article by Tracking Happiness(1), clearly explains how through the years this index has developed to better reflect the opportunities a community feels it has to aid their own happiness rather than where it is today. Such measure today gives a greater picture and insight about the power to enable someone to take their lives into their own hands. Bhutan’s government can do so much to listen to its inhabitants and better their condition to get where they need to be, but that’s all it can do: enable. You can’t gift people with happiness, but you can give them all the tools needed so that they can do it themselves. This is a defining feature of architecture too. It can enable communities, but at the end of the day, it does not command a person’s actions.

This concept is further explored in “Architecture of Happiness”(2), by rightfully reflecting on how “Architecture may well possess moral messages; it simply has no power to enforce them.” And deduce “It offers suggestions instead of making laws. It invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse.” De Botton offers a resolution, that “We can all fall into a petty argument … in a building by Geoffrey Bawa or Louis Kahn”, and therefore architecture is prone to inconsistencies when it comes to generating happiness. There is evidence of that all around, wars beginning in fashionably furbished rooms, insensitivity to others’ suffering within the perimeter of Versailles’ beautiful gardens. Yet such claims are made from a purely philosophical point of view, personal experience, observation, and deduction.

I’ve encountered two contrasting studies on the extent of the effect trauma and children’s environment may influence children’s development of moral sensitivity, which may further our understanding of how environments could influence our emotions and behaviour. The first(3)2, a review and analysis of nine previous studies, concludes a hostile environment has the power to inhibit sensitivity to one’s environment, which does align with a theory of de Botton’s in “Architecture of Happiness”. The second(4), a study led by multiple psychiatrists, comes with a different resolution, that children that were more affected by natural disasters developed moral responsibility faster than their peers. Despite the contrasting conclusions and differing methods, there’s a possibility these two resolutions could coexist, when considering the fight and flight response. The first study confirms my suspicions, that oneself takes advantage of a situation or defends themselves from their environment in an attempt to thrive or survive, and eventually to shield in themselves in the latter, develop an insensitivity to their environment to maintain reasonable mental health, and eventually shuts off visual beauty around too, as prevention, regardless of the nature of the environment. As for the second study, it provides the alternate outcome to the fight or flight, one where the person becomes more hyperaware of their surroundings as a result of a hostile environment. In this instance, a person could thrive in a beautiful built environment and perceive it with higher sensitivity, as for the latter, architecture has little to no power to impact people’s lives.

By applying this logic, architecture would have an outcome on most people, whatever the outcome, only provided there is a receptive attitude to the environment and the right base conditions to achieve such. Happiness encompasses a range of factors in one’s mind, the main being satisfaction with their life, which the built environment could theoretically aid by incentivising a series of actions and behaviours to achieve such. This theory can only cover the possibility of the built environment having a profound impact on people, but does leave out the certainty that it could have an impact in practicality and what different outcomes it could lead to.

Both studies contextualised these outcomes to apply in years of development and are not the only ones to claim the significance of children’s environment to have a long-lasting impact on their behaviour later in life. The Architecture Concept Book(5) claims the built environment is responsible for forging a strong link between children’s memory and itself. The more intricate and unexpected is a space, the more memorable it becomes and by consequence so will be the actions in that space. This logic has sound foundations, often schoolteachers preach the importance of active learning, because it forces our minds to actively work instead of retrieving repeated action. A stimulating and unpredicted environment forces you to adapt to a situation to respond accordingly instead of acting by reflex. This theory could be backed up by another educational theory, ELT (Experiential Learning Theory), which is wildly popular as a revision method and relies on the idea that one must avoid acclimatisation to the material but learns as a result of “conflict, differences and disagreement”(6) something that forces the mind to actively adapt as something driving the learning. Based on this reasoning it doesn’t have to be disagreeable conflict, but a stimulus forcing the mind to constantly adapt, the way Tait theorises. This theory also links to the benefits of outdoor learning(7). The outdoor would provide the diversity in shapes and textures that could actively inform kids on spatial coordination.
Architecture is a matter that is inevitably prone to bias and subjectivity, it is after all the discipline that meets the arts and humanities and STEM midway, it has roots in both human experiences for purpose and the sciences for its creation. However, there is no clear line of where one end and the other begins, in some areas of architecture they co-exist. Throughout my research, I have applied both the human, the biased and rooted experiences of architects and the sustained, unbiased and objective evidence to determine if there is a real foundation to believe buildings have a role in our lives beyond that of structuring our life and path during our day. For every experiential opinion from an architect or social commentator, I have found significant scientific and logical explanations necessary to believe there is enough ground evidence to entertain the idea that the built environment has the power to influence the way we behave in social settings and our emotions as either a primary or secondary knock-off effect. 

1 (Huijer, 2018)
2 (de Botton, 2006)
3 (Stapert, 2010)
4 (Goenjian A, 1999)
5 (Tait, 2018)
6 (Kolb, 2005)
7 (Sisson, 2017)

III. The complex in Urban and Human

Professor of Urban Studies Richard Sennett1 argues on the benefits of complexities in urban environments. His idea of the urban splits into two: the “ville” and the “cité", which encompass the physical and the “collective consciousness of a place”. He debates that in order to correspond, the “ville” should match and work with the complexities of the diversity the city offers, rather than simplifying its elements. As the “citè” is composed of the most human element within a city, it is highly subjected to and is at the same time responsible for the making of the “ville”. Such is a similar link to that between an architect and the concept of their brief. The architect is the concept maker and has the power to change the environment (like the ville), but the brief, and therefore its concept, is central to how an architect builds a concept to serve a function (similar to the cité). Reconciling the “ville” and the “citè” is vital to constructing an “open” society, one in which the built environment matches the diversity of the population and satisfies its needs. Through such logic I deduce a simplification of the making of the city could lead to a restrain and stifling of the diversity of its community, and as such would oppose the modernist movement that came in the 20th century, whose influence is still greatly felt today. For that movement is mainly responsible the Bauhaus, which developed in Germany in the 20s(9), urbanisation most larger cities in the western world experience today. A clear example of a post WW1 habitation that has failed to consider the people it was designed for in the name of simplification is “Villa Savoye”, which has famously been designed by early 20th-century architect Le Corbusier. In his ambition, he forgot who the villa was for and the environment the brief was going to be in, so that when it was built and the family moved in, a member of the family fell severely ill due to the constant leakage and humidity in the house, which was caused by the flat-shaped roof. This is an example of how modern architecture often disregards the purpose and meaning of its buildings in the pursuit of simplification of life that doesn't need to be, but rather needs to be worked with. Then the buildings cross the line between shielding us from the weather, to shielding us from living. This style simplicity just isn't compatible with the way of people: we learn, and we grow from the different subtleties in our life. 

Figure 1, Montse Zamorano, 2013, Ville Savoye LE CORBUSIER, Poissy, France, viewed 27/01/2022 

De Botton remarked “Life may have to show itself to us in some of its authentically tragic colours before we can begin to grow properly visually responsive to its subtler of offerings.” we have to experience the whole spectrum of being human in order to appreciate the more sought after feelings like contentment, On this string of thought, simplifying the environment we live in does not help us truly appreciate the more refined elements that surround us in nature and the man-made. Therefore, the bulk of modern architecture inhibits our sensitivity to the environment we live in. We are social creatures and thrive when connected to the environment and the people that surround us. This state of inhibition could potentially also diminish our social interactions and our possibilities to build an interconnected community.
It all goes back to the richness of possibilities. This has to do with creating an environment capable of fully enabling its residents to lead a life that feels right to them(10) without stifling our capabilities to do so. There always will be limitations in creating an “open”(11) society in a populated environment: physical, moral, legal, because no architect is aware of the true extent of diversity of spaces required to satisfy whole societies. However, architects have a duty to make the most of these limitations to cater to as many people as possible with diversity in mind, because architecture reflects the morals and ideals sought after by a community. For the outcome of that is responsible the building industry’s dexterity in achieving that.

8 (Sennett, 2019)
9 (Moore, 2019)
10 (Huijer, 2018)
11 (Sennett, 2019)

IV. Applying the human

Now that we’ve outlined the power and limitation of architecture to shape our society, it could be beneficial to explore how this is applied out in the world and how this knowledge can help us increase general happiness in a community.

Observing the Happiest

The World Happiness Report(12,13,14,15,16) has consistently ranked at 4 Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland) in the top 5 happiest in the past 5 years. This report consisted of GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption, and other residual explanations. The main points I've recognised architecture could give a helping hand to, are “freedom to make life choices” and “generosity”, which relate back to the Bhutan report and “Architecture of Happiness” respectively. The report is the product of the collaboration of a range of universities all around the world, generated from the suggestion of the Bhutanese Government, which was looking to give importance to “happiness and wellbeing to in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development.”(17) The true impact of the social measure becomes noticeable when this report is put side to side with GDP per capita, which shows to be fairly inconsistent with the WHR (World Happiness Ranking) when it comes to Nordic Countries, with Norway ranked as 10th, Denmark as 13th, Iceland as 15th, Sweden as 18th, and Finland as 21st. On the other end of the spectrum, Singapore only ranks 34th in the WHR but is 14th in GDP. This shows that the Nordic Countries have significant strength in social development, which is why I’d like to pull apart their values and find reflections of them in their architecture.
In a summary of Nordic Values(18), openness and trust stand out for the purpose of the project from these five points:

  • Openness and a belief in everyone's right to express their opinions.
  • Trust in each other and also, because of proximity to power, trust in leaders in society.
  • New ways of thinking, focusing, creativity and innovations.
  • Sustainable management of the environment and development of natural resources.
  • Compassion, tolerance, and conviction about equal value of all people.” (19)

Openness is described by the Nordics as a form of self-expression similarly to how De Botton described an open society as one where the “ville” becomes an extension of the “cité”(20) and a form of expression of it. In this case, openness will be essential in preserving a diverse society. Despite there being little evidence of openness being a possible effect from the built environment, we can see openness being displayed in architecture, through an array of ranging visual elements being a proof of self-expression being exercised by diverse representation. By exercising inclusivity, architecture can be a testament to openness in society. This is because architecture acts as a piece of art and media, rather than just physical shelter. Just like art, architecture is evidence and interpretation of the world around us, and because it is an interpretation, not all architecture is fit for all tastes. In the case of art in general, this is just restricted to taste, but in architecture this can expand to everyday life. Our interpretation of space defines the way we interact with it. Therefore, there must be a freedom and diversity to spaces and the people they are designed by, to allow a truly diverse population to have the freedom to express themselves in it.

In an article exploring the phenomenon of elevated openness in Nordic countries (in this case about disclosing personal data online) Stephen Robinson interprets openness to be “demonstrated by an individual’s willingness to try new things, and naturally be curious”(21). This is a marginally alternative interpretation to openness which is worth exploring in the context of architecture. Curiosity is a quality that is often attributed to children but isn’t unique to them. One thing that is strictly connected to curiosity is awareness of one’s surrounding space. As explored earlier in I. Extent of its influence, there’s a possibility one’s environment could affect their ability to be receptive to their space. Someone who’s had negative experiences in an environment or has reason to not trust it is likely to cut off their desire to be open and explore their environment. By prioritising wellbeing and safety, a community of people is at a better chance of being open and critical of their space, which is vital to positively contributing to it, whether artistically or practically in facilities.


Trust is an inherently human quality, as is mistrust. A way architecture could participate in building trust is by building ways for people to connect and transparency. An interconnected city, school or any space that agglomerates people, would allow its residents to explore and get to know the space and the people living in it. Instead, a highly divisive space inhibits opportunities for the people navigating it to get to know each other and risks building mistrust between communities and people of power through ignorance. Within the context of a city, one can build connections by increasing social areas, increasing the quality of city centres by creating “permeable spaces”(22).

These are spaces that encourage people to coexist and communicate, and at the same time promote business in the form of cafes, restaurants, markets, and parks. This is something that social commentator James Kunstler debates for in his books and TED talk. In a rather overblown language for emphasis, his message is clear: many countries in the post-industrial era have failed to maintain a sense of community. Suburbia is responsible for the deterioration of such a sense of community in urban areas, as it separates and cuts off opportunities for communication between residents. I would agree on that note to a certain extent. Apathy between neighbours could be an eventual effect of separation, and a mixed environment when it comes to the purpose of space often equals a vibrant, interconnected community, but I would not rush to condemn it without examining a few benefits as well. Division in spaces by purpose can prove to be a good technique to compartmentalise work and personal life, and as such provide an emotional, as well as physical shelter. Therefore, purposeful planning and connecting of spaces outside of habitation is the crucial area of architecture where one can make the most of to create “opportunity for presence” to “meet and engage with other people” which is vital to building trust in communities.

Learning from the Unhappy

“In 2018, 39.3% of the population lived in the cities, 31.6% lived in towns and suburbs, and 29.1% lived in rural areas.”(23) These are the urban to rural population statistics in Europe. Meanwhile, as of 2020, 75% of Bulgarians lived in urban areas (24), and its capital counts a population of over 1 million out of the under 7 million Bulgarians currently living in the country, over one-sixth. Its cities are lively, “permeable”. Outdoor markets dot the map, musical and cultural events dot the calendar. Yet Bulgarians are among the least happy in Europe, they’re ranked 88 in the WHR in 2021(25). When the social areas of the cities are thriving, it is clear they may be neglecting the private space. Such, in Bulgaria, takes the shape of residual soviet housing. Large flat blocks make it impossible to recognize one city from the other. It is defined by a very distinct shape and material. This type of housing is an array of copy-pasted concrete blocks, all equal and sometimes later revisited to add floors. The material and neglect make it so they are hardly places Bulgarians want to spend their days in, which could explain the makeup of public space. Regardless of whether the focus on public space is a result of the tourist sector, the far greater appeal of occupying this type of space would easily encourage an outdoor and socially active culture. The Bulgarian major cities are also of a fairly biophilic nature. As previously stated, nature is deemed vital for development in children by pedagogists and the mental well being of people (26). These are all features that may partially counteract the negative effects of the poorly diverse, neglected, and unoriginal residential architecture, however, as recent times have proved, the freedom to personally seek comfort from poorly designed space is not always a luxury and should not be something that people should need to seek to maintain physical and mental wellbeing. It is however true that this poor architecture could possibly have had a domino effect on Bulgarians that has resulted on an active lifestyle.

This kind of architecture clearly opposes the architecture that Kunstler criticises for American residential areas. The typical American home may reside in a suburb for most middle-class families, whereas that is less likely in Bulgaria, which holds most of its housing in concrete flat blocks. Most Bulgarians are a short walk away from a park, café, or any space in which they could communicate and interact with friends. However, this would not be the case for someone who lives in a suburb as they would have to employ a car and face possible traffic to reach a sociable destination. On the other hand, one would be forced to interact with neighbours to make up for this. These housing features are both sources of undesirable Effects, but the chain of effects dot are secondary to those are much more complex two-track as they are interlinked with social, environmental, and economic factors that an individual would have to face on daily basis. 

If we were to take a family or individual in an American suburb as an example, they could face an economic struggle to travel from a suburb area to a city, where they would find a diverse environment that would stretch and challenge them subconsciously and build mental resilience that could aid them in future tasks. As a result, there's a high possibility they could adopt a more sedentary life, which is proven medically to be detrimental mentally and physically (27). However, due to the low density of population in suburban areas, they are more likely to develop a sense of community and a social life that is restricted geographically by distance. If we were to look at the other side of the world, an individual in Bulgaria in a typical city would not face the same struggle with transport to more social and lively areas within the city. Although, the lack of quality private space could inhibit the individual’s sense of security and stability revealing
forced to stay away from it most of the time. Whilst Bulgaria is fairly consistent in its GDP ranking compared to its WHR ranking (84th (28) to 88th (29) respectively), the United States rank inconsistently in GDP to WHR (5th (30) to 19th (31)) as of 2021, which could possibly suggest the aspiration of isolated living may not add the value to life quality that was the post-industrial revolution aim (32).

These chains of events described are a big leap from the primary logical effects from the architectural characteristics of these places, and they are only a small fraction of the different elements contributing to people’s lives, nevertheless, I believe they are fundamental and can be taken as case studies to start and think about is series of consequences that any space could have on us. Maybe individually, there is a small chance that these characteristics may pose problems on an individual depending on their own lifestyle economic and social upstanding, but these architectural characteristics are felt by thousands and millions of people who face commonalities in the spaces they daily exist in. For this, there is reason to believe a good proportion of the population as a total may be affected by such and secondarily affect the rest of the population and the space itself.

12 (Helliwell, 2017)
13 (Helliwell, 2018)
14 (Helliwell, 2019)
15 (Helliwell, 2020)
16 (Helliwell, 2021)
17 (Helliwell, 2021)
19 (The Nordics, n.d.)
20 (Sennett, 2019)
21 (Robinson, 2018)
22 (Kunstler, 2007)
23 (The World Bank, 2020)
24 (eurostat, 2020)
25 (Helliwell, 2021)
26 (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2010)
27 (WHO, 2002)
28 (The World Bank Group, 2020)
29 (Helliwell, 2021)
30 (Statistics Times, 2021)
31 (Helliwell, 2021)
32 (Kunstler, 2007)

V. Conclusion

The study of this topic is heavily dependent on the knowledge of our interactions with each other and external stimuli. To further expand on it, we need to keep assessing and observing what is that makes us tick, and the way that the world turns around, because at the end of the day architects are polymaths, they draw from a variety of disciplines to paint a physical reality to the “cité”. To cover this topic thoroughly, I’ve researched and provided a plenitude of thought and analysis of factors that trigger and incentivise different behaviour, from architects, social commentators, and scientists, but mainly sources that allowed opinion to show through. Opinion poses a significant risk for bias but directly relates to the focus of this research: people. To diminish this risk, I’ve attempted to cover a broad and diverse range of sources from which the opinions originate.

These sources on logical thought conclude that architecture and the built environment do have a significant impact on our behaviour, our daily performance, and secondarily feeling about ourselves and our live. This is in part because we can deduce, we as humans are deeply affected by all experiences as we sample and model our world based on them. Architecture specifically may have an impact that either sets boundaries (physical as well as mental) or greater freedom in the space we regularly occupy and carry out our lives in. The direction of this outcome is often heavily dependent on the compatibility the space has with the lives we would like to live. It will also make us all behave differently based on our aptitude in responding to stimuli, our curiosity and awareness of our surroundings. This makes it so that there is no one formula that will achieve the same goal in how an environment could aid a person in planning how to better themselves and their lives. However, one can deduce what are the aptitudes of most people will be depending on the contexts. It will be easier to design and cater for a specialised school rather than a multipurpose space for example. But in the instances of spaces with a clear purpose, if the concept of an environment’s existence is thoroughly identified, we could greatly benefit from further study of our relationship to the built environment.

This is an invite for architects and scientists to observe this phenomenon so that we can make the most of it. The research in this report only acts as a crude beginning and base for me to carry out further research in the future, as this topic encloses a multitude of areas that no one specialty can cover by itself. Learning by observing case studies on the matter has been useful in testing theories in existing scenarios and identifying patterns, as well as anomalies in respect to previous hypotheses. For instance, the case of Bulgarian post-soviet habitations identifies how architecture that may be detrimental on one facet of people’s lives, but is still capable of being a cause of positive impact in the form of an active lifestyle. The same could be said about the United States’ suburban culture, which detrimentally isolates communities, but at the same time strengthens relationships between neighbourhoods.

Something that this research has highlighted to me is the rising need for a diverse makeup of people in the building sector. By emphasising the purpose and impact behind the planning of the built environment, it becomes clear there’s a level of empathy and experience required to carry projects whose recipients are people. This is why as communities become more diverse and complex through the years, the best way to cater for everyone’s needs is for the people who design space to match the diversity of the recipients of the space.


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