Should there be more colours in public spaces?
The effect of public artistic expression on wellbeing
(peer-reviewed by Isil Bastug)
30 September 2023
Our world is home to countless cultures representing the ideas, customs, and social behaviours of different populations. Along with language, religion, literature, poetry, philosophy, architecture and music, cultures can also differ from one another through their interpretations and expressions of art. In addition to differences in the expressed art, and the way of expressing it, the spaces used for artistic expression strongly vary from one culture to another. While some cultures encourage artistic expression in public spaces, others might prevent it. A contributing factor to that variance can be the political system the culture is framed by.
A great example of that is the Wall of Berlin built in 1961 during the Cold War. The west side of the wall standing in an independent democratic capitalist state was a great space for artistic expression and was colourfully painted, while the east side belonging to a socialist state remained grey and untouched. In 1989, along with the wall, disparities between east and west of Germany started to disappear. However, differences in the relationship to artistic expression in public spaces remain between other parts of the world today.
In Medellin, Colombia, the Communa 13 which was long known as the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world (Ferrari et al., 2018), specifically welcomes artistic expression in public spaces and uses it to wash away its dark past. Financial and material donations allowed houses to be brightly painted to give the area a new image. Furthermore, a number of arts-based community education initiatives focusing primarily on street-art lessons were set up to provide kids with alternative opportunities to gang involvement or crime. Both led to colourful murals and graffiti splashed walls across the Communa.
Guatapé, another city in Colombia, also welcomes artistic expression in public spaces and is known as one of the world’s most colourful cities. The tradition of bright coloured houses and colourful ornaments today is mostly kept alive for financial reasons as it attracts many tourists and serves as a great income source for the region.
In contrast to above mentioned colourful cities where artistic expression is welcomed in public spaces, other regions of the world may limit or regulate it. For example, in many parts of Europe municipalities specify what colour the facade and roof of a house need to have in the respective building regulations and thus regulate artistic expression with the aim to preserve a homogenous city or townscape.
These different relationships to artistic expression in public spaces have led to very different cityscapes with the main difference between them being the colourfulness and variability. In this article, we will investigate the effect of colour and variability on mental health to evaluate wether these components should be integrated into the cityscape of regions lacking of it.
Variability in the physical surroundings, also known as environmental enrichment, has been shown to lead to enhanced sensory, cognitive, and motor stimulation (Nithianantharajah & Hannan, 2006). It is estimated that we spend 90% of our time in a humanly built environments which have a lower degree of environmental enrichment compared to naturalistic environments. A reduced environmental enrichment is associated with adverse effects on mental health including a higher risk of mood lability, anxiety symptoms and irritability (Amerio et al., 2021). Variations in colour across the built environment increase variability of our physical environment and thus can increase wellbeing (Bower et al., 2022). This suggests more colours should be implemented into our built environment.
In addition to increasing variability, colour can enhance wellbeing by generating positive emotional responses. Colour is perceived by the eye in the form of light and is further processed by the brain where it can evoke different emotions and feelings also referred to ‘colour emotions’ (Davidson, 1982). Many years of research in the field of colour emotion have shown that different colours and specific combinations of colours can convey particular emotions and thus affect mood and wellbeing (Bower et al., 2022; Zhang et al., 2023).
Colours can be separated into achromatic colours which have lightness but no hue or saturation (e.g., white, grey and black) and chromatic colours which have a characterising hue and saturation and can be referred to as colourful. In several experiments investigating the effect of chromatic and achromatic colours on mental health, it was found that chromatic colours compared to achromatic colours had a positive effect on wellbeing (Bower et al., 2022; Zhang et al., 2023). Yet, most of our built environment wears achromatic colours. Thus, more chromatic colours should be integrated into our cityscapes.
Chromatic colours can be further separated by their intensity. Intensity (also called chroma or saturation) is the brightness or dullness of a colour. The way a colour is represented on a colour wheel is at full intensity (bright). When a colour is mixed with an achromatic colour it becomes dull. Dull colours are associated with negative emotions and brighter colours with positive emotions (Van Paasschen et al., 2014). This suggests that the presence of bright colours in an individual’s environment can positively affect it’s wellbeing.
Furthermore, chromatic colours can be separated into cold and warm colours depending on their hue and saturation. In an experiment using a living room coloured in warm and cold colours, it was shown that the two categories of chromatic colours had varying effects on emotions. Warm colours (orange, red, yellow) led to stronger arousal, excitement and stimulation while cold colours (green, blue) led to calming, spacious, restful and peaceful emotions. This suggests that in addition to general mood enhancement, chromatic colours can also evoke specific emotional responses depending on their warmth (Yildirim et al., 2011).
As a conclusion, bright chromatic colours can evoke positive emotions and increase variability of the built environment, both of which can have a positive effect on mental health. Different bright chromatic colours can evoke different kinds of positive emotions. Instead of simply being an uplifting aesthetic choice, colours could be chosen depending on the specific emotions they evoke and the purpose of the environment they are used in to further support the space’s function. In that way, it could be better for people to mediate performance and wellbeing, which could lead to major health and economic benefits for society.
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1986 picture of the Berlin Wall in Bethaniendamm,
the West Berlin side brightly painted, by Noir
Comuna 13 & Le Street Art,
by Blog de Voyage, Tutoriels Photos & Lifestyle
Communa 13, Medellin, Street art,
by Get Your Guide
Guatape, by Jess