With the Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously approving the final design for the McMillan redevelopment plan, it looks like the District is going to see yet another pre-planned neighborhood spring up from out of nowhere. And like the previous pre-fab neighborhood, NoMa, it looks like the city has fumbled another opportunity to create something that’s not, well, boring.
Look at the McMillan renderings and you’ll see the familiar rectangular big-box-style mixed-use buildings that have become ubiquitous in every new development project. They’ve slapped some flair onto the facades, but it’s a textbook example of putting a pig in a dress; they’re not fooling anyone. These monolithic superblock-style buildings used to be found mainly in the far suburbs, but in the past decades they’ve crept into the city itself, as developers sought to maximize square footage (i.e. dollars); first they appeared downtown, where people didn’t (and still don’t, really) live, and then in Chinatown, where they were intended as, and remain, temporary rental housing for mostly young professionals who are putting in three to five years before either moving elsewhere or marrying up and buying elsewhere. It wasn’t until relatively recently that these kinds of buildings have been built in village-style communities that are intended to be primarily residential. This is a bad idea.
You might be thinking, who cares if a building is boring? Blank areas like NoMa or McMillan need buildings, people need housing, so why not let developers do their jobs? The thing is, more and more research has come out that buildings of this type are actually bad for your health. Like, really bad.
A psychologist named Colin Ellard conducted an experiment in 2012 in which he had people wearing biological monitors walk on boring blocks (he used the massive rectangular superblock-style Whole Foods in Manhattan) and then walk on more eclectic blocks that had organically developed. The biological monitors found that people walking on the boring blocks experienced lower levels of nervous system activity – the boring architecture literally, physically depressed them. This was confirmed in post-experiment interviews, when the subjects described their moods as “bland” and “monotonous.” When subjects walked past down more eclectic streets, the monitors recorded higher levels of arousal, which the interviews confirmed; exciting blocks literally excited them.
What really complicates these findings is that researchers have found that boredom is actually a stress state. We think of being bored as being blank and inert, but biologically, when you’re bored, your body is flooded with the same stress hormones (cortisol, mainly) as it is when you’re threatened or unhappy. With stress being linked to everything from cancer to obesity, the implications are clear; living in a boring neighborhood could literally kill you. I mean it probably won’t but it could.
There are social and psychological implications too. Boring buildings have been proven to make people walk faster and look around less, and even induce anti-social behavior. An experiment in Seattle sent a fake “lost tourist” up to strangers to ask for help; the subjects on interesting or “messy” blocks were several times more likely to help the tourist than the subjects on boring, monolithic blocks. A branch of psychology called “information theory” supposes this happens because human beings have an inborn need for a constant flow of information (in this case, simple visual stimulation), and that when our brains don’t get that, it becomes distorted in disturbing ways. And the disturbances go much farther than being unfriendly to strangers. Research on attention deficit disorder has shown that children and adults who live in visually unstimulating environments are much more likely to show symptoms of ADD. Live somewhere boring long enough and your brain becomes like a hungry person in a grocery store, frantic but unable to decide on anything.
So how do we solve this? Well, Ellard thinks we need more “messy” blocks; complex facades, buildings of various sizes and shapes. (He also says this is why vacationing in old European cities is enjoyable.) Since these boring superblock monoliths are motivated by profit, it’ll be up to the city, through the zoning board and other regulations, to mandate more aesthetic variety, something that will be easier to do as more research on the health impacts of boring buildings emerges. Considering how forward-thinking the District has been about so much urban planning, this will probably happen at some point; unfortunately, it won’t happen soon enough to save McMillan.