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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

History of Environmental Psychology: A brief overview

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Environmental Psychology is a relatively young field, only established formally in the early 1960s (Canter & Craik, 1981). As a result, its scope and focus have undergone a fair few changes in the past decades while it developed in response to various contemporary influences. This includes a focus on architectural settings under the banner of “Architectural Psychology” in the late 1950s to 1980s, and a more recent focus, on pressing global challenges of climate change and sustainability (Steg & De Groot, 2019) that remain a central topic in both practice and research to this day.

Enric Pol, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Barcelona, in his two-article series the “Blueprints for a History of Environmental Psychology” (2006, 2007), divides the development of the field into four stages; though the boundaries between them are rather fuzzy and intertwined:

1. First Environmental Psychology (1900s-1930s)

Describes the study of the relationship between people and their environment, originating primarily from Germany in the 1900. This stage focuses on a variety of topics including rural and urban environments, child behaviour, urban microclimates, crowding, overstimulation, work environments and more, with influences from Gestalt Psychology.

2. The American Transition (1930s-1950s)

Focuses on the development of the field primarily in the US, during WWII, with influences from the Chicago School of Sociology. Research during this period draws inspiration, methods and themes from ecological theories of perception and cognitive mapping, and lays the foundations for the development of Architectural Psychology in the next decades.

3. Architectural Psychology (1950s-1980s)

Environmental Psychology was formally established as an independent field of research in the 1960s under the banner of Architectural Psychology. The focus of the field at that time was on environment and behaviour in relation to built surroundings, topics that were mainly derived from architectural and environmental-ecological challenges. Seminal work of this era includes research on spatial behaviour in psychiatric centres and hospitals, proxemics and personal space. The first university courses, textbooks, conferences and related organisations were also established around the globe during that time.

The Shift

Between 1988 and 1992 a shift within the field started to become more pressing leading to two dominant strands of environmental psychology with a focus on “social” and “green” perspectives of the field respectively. Contradictions between programmatic and factual, and theoretical and empirical, led to frustrations and unmet expectations that created a break in interdisciplinary work between psychologists and architects. Those who were interested in the more social side of environmental psychology adopted themes and approaches from social psychology with more focus on experiential and symbolic topics, utilising applied social research among others. The “green” environmental psychology which adopted approaches from cognitive psychology and environmental science became a dominant perspective during that time, with a focus on ecological challenges, environmental management, attitudes and behaviours in relation to environmental resources etc.

4. Environmental Psychology for Sustainability (1980s-present)

Since the 1980s and 1990s There is a more general shift towards environmental matters in society as a whole, something that is also reflected in the core topics discussed in environmental psychology. Key areas revolve around attitudes and values associated with organisational and social structures, technology, production, political and social decisions in relation to environmental factors. Nonetheless, the author calls for an integrated environmental psychology that includes both built and natural environments as “environmental management is above all the management of human and social behaviour”, therefore the previous aspirations around the contribution of environmental psychology to the improvement of quality of life has to be revised to reflect growth limitations in relation to sustainable development, contemporary indicators related to social value parameters etc. There are of course still challenges in achieving that integration which are currently being addressed as the field continues to develop and flourish.

author's own based on Pol (2006, 2007) description of the history of environmental psychology over the past decades from Germany to the rest of the world


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.


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