Book Review: Places of the Heart

By Colin Ellard. Bellevue Literary Press, 2015

Colin Ellard’s Places of the Heart makes a powerful argument for the paramount importance of our daily surroundings. Through the lens of neuroscientific research, Ellard explores how architecture and landscape affect the human body and brain—and how environments can be fashioned that are more stimulating and joyful for people.

The book opens with the author’s childhood memory of visiting Stonehenge with his father. Ellard had a “deliciously creepy feeling” about the monument when he was six; he narrates the shift from his childhood emotional response to a critical response as an adult. Now, as an experimental psychologist, Ellard believes that “ observing the intricate relationships between our lived experiences and the places that contain them” is key to building better environments.

At its core, the book focuses on how places can impact our emotional well-being. Ellard analyzes the kind of world we are building: ranging from places of affection to places of awe, and even delving into virtual reality.

A comprehensive overview of environmental psychology unfolds through a series of case studies and observational investigations, from the biological implications of habitat selection by the black-throated warbler to the convoluted design of modern-day casinos.

Technology plays a dual role in Ellard’s analysis. While virtual reality can be misused to displace the side effects of places on us, technology can also help manage cities’ shrinking resources to improve the performance of buildings. A new generation of emotion-sensing technology could even be used to design buildings that adapt to our feelings.

Overall, this book offers readers a deeper appreciation of how architectural and environmental design can affect human well-being. Ellard provides the scientific backing to affirm what we intuitively know: that designing and building better surroundings can have tangible effects on our health and happiness.

Mohammed Maxwel Hasan is studying architectural technology at Humber College.