The University of Arizona

UA Institute to Explore Link Between Physical Environment, Health

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | January 31, 2013

The interdisciplinary Institute for Place and Wellbeing will focus on research and education about human reactions to physical space.

Studies have shown that windows, natural light and views of green spaces can positively impact human health and well-being. The UA's Institute for Place and Wellbeing will build on that type of research and help put it into practice.
Studies have shown that windows, natural light and views of green spaces can positively impact human health and well-being. The UA's Institute for Place and Wellbeing will build on that type of research and help put it into practice.
Esther Sternberg
Esther Sternberg
Eve Edelstein
Eve Edelstein

A new interdisciplinary institute in development at the University of Arizona will explore the connection between human health and well-being and the physical environment.

The Institute for Place and Wellbeing – a joint venture of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in the UA College of Medicine; the UA College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture; and the UA Institute of the Environment – will engage in research to measure the effects of the built and green environment on human health, emotions and spirituality, while training professionals in the health-care and architecture fields to consider the place and well-being connection in their work.

The institute will be led by Dr. Esther Sternberg, who joined the UA in the fall as director of research for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, and Eve Edelstein, a neuroscientist and architect who has joined the UA College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture as an associate professor.

Edelstein is teaching a new course at the UA this semester, "Neuro-Architecture: Brains, Bodies and the Biosphere," designed to introduce students from all majors and professional backgrounds to the type of work the institute will do.

Quantifying human responses to environment

Ample evidence exists to suggest that one's physical environment can impact his or her health and well-being. The connection has been studied seriously for more than 20 years, since landmark research in 1984 found that patients recovering from gall bladder surgery healed on average one day sooner when their hospital rooms had a view of a grove of trees as opposed to a view of a brick wall.

Studies have since examined how physical space and building design elements – like windows, lighting and navigability – can impact people's stress levels and health.

Most of the data is qualitative, based on feelings reported by individuals, and much of the work has focused on hospital settings, where health of the building's residents is the primary concern.

The Institute for Place and Wellbeing will focus on getting more quantitative measures of human responses to environment – collecting data using tools like heart rate monitors, EEG, biosensors and virtual reality models – and applying that data in a variety of design settings, such as offices, schools and residential buildings, in addition to hospitals.

The institute's research plan grows out of Sternberg's previously published quantitative research on the effects of office space on the brain's stress response.

"The concept is to develop a toolbox of noninvasive, sensitive, quantitative methods to measure people's emotional, physiological, immune behavioral and health responses to the physical environment, whether it’s the green environment or the built environment," said Sternberg, who is world-renowned for her discoveries in the science of mind-body interaction. "In order to understand how the physical environment affects health, you also have to understand how the physical environment affects emotions, which in turn affect health."

Sternberg, whose work has resulted in several publications, including the book "Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Wellbeing," and a PBS special, "The Science of Healing: Understanding the Mind Body Connection," hopes to see her research taken to the next level at the UA.

"We need the evidence. We need the ammunition to show that, in fact, changes in the built environment do reduce stress and improve health and healing and emotional well-being as well," she said.

"This is a natural next step for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine," said Dr. Victoria Maizes, executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. "We have long taught that environment matters to health. This ranges from the invisible environmental chemicals we are exposed to from building materials to the beautiful vistas of the mountains we glimpse from our windows. We are delighted to collaborate with the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture to create this new institute in which we will explore the mechanisms by which health is impacted."

Advancing the design professions

Research by the Institute for Place and Wellbeing has the potential to transform the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning, said Jan Cervelli, dean of the UA College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture, or CAPLA.

The one-credit neuro-architecture course offered by CAPLA this semester is just the tip of the iceberg of the college’s planned curriculum around place and well-being, which is expected to eventually include a certificate, master's degree and even a doctoral program, Cervelli said.

"One of the objectives of the certificate program will be to recruit not just design professionals, but health professionals," she said. "If we can transform the thinking of CEOs of hospital corporations and presidents of hospitals and show them that this is important for their operations and success, it can serve both fields."

Designing spaces with human responses in mind is not only a healthy decision, but a financially sound one, Cervelli said. Anecdotal evidence suggests, for example, that employees who work in offices with ample windows and natural light are more productive and take fewer sick days, thus saving the company money.

The institute’s research will make it easier to quantify return on investment, Cervelli said.

"It's transformational to the professions. In today's world of built environment, being able to have value added to your professions and being able to bring something that’s this transformative to the environment is huge," she said.

Edelstein, who has for years worked with Sternberg through the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, said that as design students learn about the connection between place and well-being, they eventually will be able to test their own design concepts in the UA's AZ-LIVE virtual reality lab, where they can isolate distinct design elements and human responses to them.

"Using technology, we can start to pull apart the elements of the built environment and correlate them with elements of human responses, and we've not been able to do that before," she said. "With AZ-LIVE, we can mock up and model different environments before the first brick is laid."

Edelstein and Sternberg said the goal is for the Institute for Place and Wellbeing to serve as a resource for researchers and design practitioners across campus, across institutions and across the globe.

"This is unique, to create an institute with the goal to educate, inform, develop curricula on place and well-being and at the same time to do research and gather the data that’s needed to implement these principles into practice," Sternberg said. "It's unique, and it’s very exciting."