We humans are matchless in the way we create environments in which we live and work. Sure, birds build nests and other animals burrow dens in the ground, but man is unique in the infinite variety of habitats we make that reflect not only varying purposes, but also styles and tastes.

One of my favorite quotes on the subject, which I first saw on the wall of an architect’s office: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” – Winston Churchill.

I firmly believe this. How we behave and interact with others is often influenced by the buildings, the common areas and the streets we are in. It is one of the reasons people like to travel, because new environments engender new thinking and approaches. It is also why we are drawn to well-planned communities like Savannah or environments like Disney, because there is a sense of beauty and balance, not thoughtless utilitarian use that often results in urban blight and sprawl. 

Interestingly, in the case of the earlier quote, Churchill was not just waxing eloquently about a given subject (which he was more than capable of doing) or of buildings in general. He was speaking of a particular structure — The House of Commons. This seat of British government and symbol of England’s people and history was being restored following the bombings of World War II, and there was lively debate about how it should be rebuilt.

I would describe Churchill as an innovative traditionalist. He did not believe in holding on to things because of the mindset that says, “That is the way we have always done it.” He championed causes that shocked his conservative Tory party members, campaigned for the mass production of tanks before WWI and was even credited by some as a co-inventor, all the while being ridiculed by his cavalry officer peers. He also was credited with modernizing the fossilized Royal Navy leading up to the same war, an act that probably saved England from certain defeat. Yet, he was guided by the principle John F. Kennedy would ascribe to G. K. Chesterton, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.”

In the case of the House of Commons, Churchill felt the building’s simple and rather cramped quarters forced a kind of collegium, even among fierce political rivals. Hence, the House shaped the Members of Parliament. In the same way, Wal-Mart’s austere facilities in Bentonville, Arkansas reflect the thrifty, price-conscious values of its customers around the world.

Here are some environmental facts I have learned:

1. Places that are cared for cause people to care. It has been demonstrated that in areas full of litter, people tend to add their own litter. A “They don’t care, why should I” attitude is propagated. This is why I admire people like Ben Hoyer, who started his urban renewal efforts by every week going and picking up trash in less seemly neighborhoods.

2. Beautiful spaces engender creative thinking. The most valuable asset of our businesses is not our buildings, but the people who inhabit them. And where do they spend the majority of their waking hours? Studies of prison inmates demonstrate the mental and creative depletion that occurs in bleak surroundings where the inhabitant has no ability to shape or control it.

In simple or in sometimes profound ways, we all have the opportunity to shape our environments and therefore the attitudes, the perspectives and the fulfillment of the people who are in them.