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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Environmental Psychology Concepts, Theories and Studies Architects are most familiar with.

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

When it comes to describing the overall impact of a field, people usually refer to how it has affected the world and the way it is thought about. Nonetheless, identifying specific topics to discuss is always a challenge, and even more so when it comes to a vast field such as this one. In the context of this overview, I have selected a few classic works that are immediately relevant to the built environment, and which may already be familiar to Architects and other spatial designers due to their applications.

This article will be updated as I continue my discussions with colleagues to better understand their understanding and level of exposure to the field of Environmental Psychology. This is an interesting exercise for me as the origins of various concepts, terms and ideas are often blurred during architectural education, and through the influences of multi-disciplinary practice, contemporary discussions, and popular media, altering people's perception on their intended purpose and utility.

1. Roger Ulrich’s research on the effects of natural views on recovery

Roger Ulrich is a Professor of Architecture at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden (The Center for Health Design, 2022). His work focuses on evidence-based design for healthcare and includes one of the most cited studies of all time in the field of Environmental Psychology, with over 6700 citations to date, entitled “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery”. In his study Ulrich assessed the records of patients recovering from cholecystectomy in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981. Out of those patients, 23 were assigned to rooms with a window view of a natural setting and 23 to rooms with views of a brick wall.

The study concluded that “the patients with the tree view had shorter postoperative hospital stays, had fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, took fewer moderate and strong analgesic doses, and had slightly lower scores for minor postsurgical complications” (Ulrich, 1984, p.421) demonstrating the effects of views to green space on human health. The study has since been cited and replicated numerous times with most recent research investigating the positive effects of exposure to green spaces on mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic (Pouso et al., 2021).

2. Kevin Lynch’s “Image of the City” on mental mapping and urban navigation

Kevin Lynch was an American Urban Planner and former Professor of Urban Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His widely acclaimed work on mental mapping contributed to our understanding of how people navigate cities. The key idea of his seminal book “Image of the City” (1960) is that of legibility, also known as imageability or visibility, which refers to the level of readability of a city based on a number of identifiable patterns.

Lynch proposed that these patterns consist of five elements including:

1. Paths - routes along which people and good move through a city,

2. Edges - boundaries or other types of borders that define parts of the urban fabric,

3. Districts - wider areas with common cultural or physical characteristics the boundaries of which may be fuzzy and vary slightly depending on who is asked to describe them;

4. Nodes - junctions where different activities or paths intersect, and

5. Landmarks - distinctive or easily identifiable objects that serve as points of orientation.

Although Lynch proposed these elements speculatively, subsequent studies have confirmed the validity of this approach using experimental methods, namely cluster analysis, which concluded to very similar results (Magana Velazquez, 1978, Aragones & Arredondo, 1985). Although Lynch's work is taught in architecture schools, its connections with the field of Environmental Psychology are often not investigated in great detail.

3. Edward Wilson’s and Stephen Kellert’s Biophilia Hypothesis

Edward Wilson was an evolutionary biologist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. In his book “Biophillia” (1984) he used Erich Fromm’s terms to describe people’s tendency to associate with nature and other life forms, something that according to Wilson has a genetic basis. Stephen Kellert, Professor of Social Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, then co-edited “The Biophilia Hypothesis” alongside Wilson in 1993, exploring a number of perspectives including different views of technology and the relationship between natural and man-made environments.

Ideas based on the biophilia hypothesis have been adapted by Kellert and his colleagues to inform design (Heerwagen et al., 2011) through a number of outlined elements and attributes of biophilic design including:

  • Environmental features (e.g. colour, water, air, sunlight)

  • Natural shapes and forms (e.g. natural motifs, biomorphy, biomimicry)

  • Natural patterns and processes (e.g. sensory variability, information richness, fractals)

  • Light and space (e.g. natural light, light and shadow, reflected light)

  • Place-based relationships (e.g. geographical, historical and ecological connections to place), and

  • Evolved human-nature relationships (e.g. prospect and refuge, order and complexity, security and protection)

Biophilic design is exceedingly popular in architecture. Although the evidence which suggests that humans are innately attracted to nature is anecdotal, a number of studies indicate that spending time in nature has a positive impact on human health. The principles of biophilic design provide a practical framework for architects to build these ideas into their design process and conceptualisation. If you would like to learn more about biophilic design, please refer to the following article for a brief overview:

4. Edward Hall’s work on Proxemic Behaviour and Personal Space

Edward Hall was an American anthropologist and researcher known for his work on human use of space and the introduction of the concept of proxemics. In his book “The Hidden Dimension” (1966) he discusses how use of space can affect interpersonal relationships, cross-cultural exchanges, architecture, city planning, and urban renewal.

Hall’s ideas inspired further research on this topic by various seminal authors in Environmental Psychology, including Robert Sommer (1969, 1974), Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, who explored small group ecology, territoriality, privacy and other topics in relation to personal space in the context of design for a mental hospitals, learning environments, leisure setting and college dormitories. As a side note, this was my point of entry to the field of Environmental Psychology during my masters studies in Architecture as I was interested in spatial selection for different tasks and the influences of individual differences on spatial preference.


Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.


Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.




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