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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Why are there so many terms that describe the study of human-environment relationships?

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

“Environmental Psychology”, “NeuroArchitecture”, “Environmental Design Research”, "EcoPsychology". If you are just starting to discover the field of Environmental Psychology or have followed its evolution through the past few decades, you may have come across various terms used to describe the study of several kinds of human-environment relationships. Depending on your reading, background, and “point of entry” to this field, you may be more familiar with terms that are thematically closer to Psychology, Architecture, Environmental Science, Urban Design and so on.

Throughout my journey of discovering Environmental Psychology, I have been equally puzzled and intrigued to know why this level of variation exists and what the differences are between the many terms I have come across. As a result, in this article I will (do my best to) provide a brief overview of the terms I have explored so far, along with some reasoning around why they came to existence and how they are used.

A (working) list of terms and definitions.

Some of the terms that describe the study of relationships between humans and their environment are outlined below; likely in addition to others which I have yet to come across! Before going through the list however, please keep in mind that some of these terms are being used to describe the field as a whole, are defined as separate fields with similar thematic focus, or represent various areas and subfields within existing fields that are related to Environmental Psychology. As Altman & Christensen mention, this field is “interdisciplinary by nature, and spanning several social science and environmental design fields” (1990, p.2), therefore the boundaries between these terms often overlap, and opinions about what should and should not be included within their definitions and scope may differ.

  • 'Environmental Psychology / Person–Environment Studies / People–Environment Studies / Human-Environment Studies' | The term “Environmental Psychology” is considered one of the more recent and well-known ways to describe this field. However, there are various definitions of this and similar terms, with slight differences in focus depending on the time of use (e.g. 1980s vs today), and the physical location, philosophical background and specific focus area of different authors. Environmental Psychology can be defined as “the study of transactions between individuals and their physical settings. In these transactions, individuals change the environment, and their behaviours and experiences are changed by the environment” (Gifford, 2013, p.2). The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2022) defines it as “the scientific study of the transactions and interrelationships between people and their surroundings (including built, social, natural and virtual environments, the use and abuse of nature and natural resources, and sustainability-related behavior)”. Similarly, the International Association for People-Environment Studies, also known as IAPS (2022) defines “People-environment studies” as the study of “the transactions and interactions between people and their socio-physical surroundings”.

  • 'Environment–Behavior Studies / Environment and Behaviour' | The above terms are also used interchangeably and alongside the term “Environmental Psychology”, though they focus a bit more on the specific aspect of behaviour. The Environment and Behaviour (2022) journal therefore defines Environment-Behaviour Studies as “the relationships between human behavior and the natural and built environment”.

  • 'Applied Psychology / Applied Social Psychology' | Due to the applied nature of Environmental Psychology with the aim to solve real-world issues through research, some Environmental Psychologists choose to define their expertise under the banner of Applied Social Science, commonly under Applied Psychology or Applied Social Psychology. As such, the International Association of Applied Psychology (2022) Division 4: Environmental Psychology “examines the reciprocal relations between people and the environment considered at all scales”. IAAP Division 4 is also affiliated with the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

  • 'Environmental Design Research / Design Research' | Environmental Design Research “is concerned with the interrelationship between environments, society, culture, and human behavior.” (Demsky & Mack, 2008, p.271) and aims to improve the “understanding of the relationships among people, their built environments, and natural eco-systems” (EDRA, n.d.). This design-oriented definition was further popularised by ERDA, one of the five major international associations for Environmental Psychology; others being the IAPS, MERA, PaPER, and EBRA, that focus on the study of human-environment relationships.

  • 'Architectural Psychology / Spatial Psychology / Applied Psychology for Design / Design Psychology / Psychology of Space / Psychology of Place / Design and Behaviour' | Multiple terms have been used to describe the connections between spatial design and human experience over time. The term “Architectural Psychology” was a popular descriptor of the field in the 1950s-1970s, especially before the wider adoption of the term Environmental Psychology (Pol, 2007). The American Psychological Association (2022a) currently describes Architectural Psychology as “the study of the role of the built environment in human behavior, a major subarea in environmental psychology”. As an architect I sometimes use this term over Environmental Psychology to highlight the scope of my expertise in relation to the built environment.

  • 'Ecological Psychology' | Ecological Psychology can be defined as “the analysis of behavior settings with the aim of predicting patterns of behavior that occur within certain settings. The focus is on the role of the physical and social elements of the setting in producing the behavior” (APA, 2022). It is associated with the theoretical orientation of “an embodied, situated, and non-representational approach” that was devised by J. J. Gibson and E. J. Gibson as an alternative way to understand cognition (Lobo et al., 2018). Ecological Psychology is also considered by some a predecessor of Environmental Psychology (Smith & Hart, 2014).

  • 'Cognitive Ergonomics' | Although Ergonomics is a similar but separate area to Environmental Psychology, looking more specifically into “human abilities and limitations drawn from physiology, biomechanics, anthropometry, and other areas to the design of systems, equipment, and processes for safe and efficient performance” (APA, 2022d), a specialty area within the field, called Cognitive Ergonomics has closer connections with Environmental Psychology. The area “seeks to understand the cognitive processes and representations involved in human performance. Cognitive ergonomics studies the combined effect of information-processing characteristics, task constraints, and task environment on human performance and applies the results of such studies to the design and evaluation of work systems.” (APA, 2022b)

  • 'Human Factors Psychology' | Is “a branch of psychology that studies the role of human factors in operating systems, with the aim of redesigning environments, equipment, and processes to fit human abilities and characteristics.” (APA, 2022e) Both Cognitive Ergonomics and Human Factors Psychology are closely associated with workplace design and workplace environments more generally.

  • 'Neuroarchitecture / Neuroscience for Architecture' | Focuses on “[a]pplying the insights of neuroscience to architecture [...] to deliver buildings and spaces that measurably promote well-being and create healthier or more effective environments for specific activities.” (Ritchie, 2020, p.1). The term “Neuroarchitecture” seems to be trending again in the Architecture world over the past few years, but the specific area in the intersection between Neuroscience and Architecture has had a long term following with established organisations such as the The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, which has been active since 2002 (ANFA, n.d.). Some researchers also avoid using the term "Neuroarchitecture" altogether due to its meaning in Health Sciences that define it as the structure of systems and interconnections between neurons in the brain.

  • 'Neurourbanism' | Similarly to Neuroarchitecture, “Neurourbanism aims to investigate the effect of built and social environments of cities on mental health [...] spanning neuroscience and the urban disciplines including urban planning, architecture, and sociology” (Adli et al., 2017).

  • 'Human Ecology / Social Ecology' | Human Ecology can be defined “as the study of the development and the form of communal structure as it occurs in varying environmental contexts” (Hawley, 1944, p. 404). Similarly, Social Ecology can be defined as “the study of communities from interdisciplinary perspectives, reflecting multiple scales and levels of analysis, and more deeply incorporating psychological, cultural, and institutional contexts of human–environment relations than the earlier human ecology research” (Lejano & Stokols, 2013, p.1).

  • 'Urban Ecology' | Urban ecology is in some ways similar to Human and Social Ecology but primarily focuses on the study of the urban phenomenon. It can therefore be defined as “the study of the dynamics and organisation of city life, particularly in relation to population density and the nature of the city environment. Urban ecology is based on principles derived from biology, sociology, psychology, and environmental science.” (APA, 2022f)

  • 'Cognitive Ecology / Cognitive Environmental Research' | Cognitive Ecology “is the study of cognitive phenomena in context” (Hutchins, 2010, p.705) following a deeply ecological approach to cognition. Cognitive Environmental research is associated with Kevin Lynch’s cognitive mapping approach especially in the context of urban planning. This type of research “engages issues such as the need for equitable access, codes and rules that create good urban form, planning data and information systems, and participatory planning imbued with local knowledge and civic engagement.” (Mondschein & Moga, 2018, p.263)

  • 'Behavioural Geography' | Behavioural geography is part of Human Geography. The approach “attempts to understand human activity in space, place, and environment by studying it at the disaggregate level of analysis—at the level of the individual person.” (Montello, 2013)

  • 'Conservation Psychology / Climate Psychology' | Conservation Psychology research “is directly oriented toward the goal of environmental sustainability” with the aims to motivate people to “act in more environmentally-friendly ways” and “to care about the natural world and their role in it” (Saunders, 2003, 137). Similarly, Climate Psychology investigates the psychological effects and processes that occur in response to climate change and environmental destruction (Hoggett, 2019).

  • 'EcoPsychology' | EcoPsychology “promotes a less egocentric mode of thinking in favor of a more ecocentric one. By encouraging humans to rethink their position in the natural world, some psychologists believe they can influence people to be more responsible stewards of nature.” (APA, 2022c)

  • 'Geopsyche / Geopsychology' | Early term originating from Willy Hugo Hellpach’s work between 1910s-1930s, used to describe the study of the effects of various environments on people including “climatic and geographical effects at the macro, mezzo and micro levels” (Pol, 2006).

  • 'Environics' | David Canter’s (2013) naming suggestion for the field. :)

(I think that is all I have for now!)

Why are there so many terms?

The existence of subfields and specific areas of study is essential for any field as variations in research inspire new perspectives that often help bring about necessary changes in direction and focus to address contemporary challenges. The science of Psychology has benefited greatly from this with multiple historical examples outlining the development of methods and approaches (e.g. CBT) that significantly enhanced our lives. Nevertheless, this process usually includes a number of paradigm shifts and often clashes of ideologies. A notable example of this is the tensions between Behaviourism and Cognitivism during the 20th century (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013) that led to some revolutionary ideas in our understanding of psychopathology, approaches to treatment, and use of the scientific method within the field. In the context of Environmental Psychology, I believe that the current variations in terminology mainly stem from two characteristics:

1. the newness of this field of research which has only recently adopted the term “Environmental Psychology” as a contemporary descriptor (Pol, 2007), and,

2. the numerous hues and variations within its diverse spectrum of areas with different focus (Altman & Christensen, 1990) including the built environment, pro-environmental behaviour, healing effects of restorative settings etc.

With regards to its history, Environmental Psychology has already evolved through various stages since the 1960s, with contemporary influences shaping its scope and subsequently affecting its terminology and various definitions over the past few decades. This is common for any newly-established field especially before it gains a substantial following, coordinated research clusters across universities, and a knowledge-base of studies and findings to support its credibility. For Environmental Psychology we see this happen in a more concentrated way since the 1960s when it was first recognised as its own field. Two major themes, including a focus on architectural settings under the banner of “Architectural Psychology” in the late 1950s and 60s (Pol, 2007), and a more recent focus, on pressing challenges around climate change, and sustainability (Steg & De Groot, 2019) appear to be dominant and developing in parallel to each other towards the form of Environmental Psychology we know today. Since then a field has continued to evolve, change and refine its boundaries while addressing some fundamental challenges around its philosophy and methods (Gifford, 2013).

If you are interested in the history of Environmental Psychology, please refer to the following article:

With regards to the variations in focus areas, as I have mentioned in other articles, Environmental Psychology is an “interdisciplinary” field. This means that knowledge and methods from various other disciplines are integrated as part of it in order to address complex challenges spanning across multiple scales (Stember, 1991). Consequently, the people involved in relevant research and practice often come from very different backgrounds and have diverse points of entry into the field, often being keen to highlight their discipline’s contribution (Heberlein, 1988), or define a specific perspective on the subject by introducing new sub-fields, areas of study and alternative terms. As described above, this is natural especially given how broad this field is, but it also creates some confusion around logistics and semantics.

The following article describes the differences between various disciplinary relationships:

Which term should I use?

Technically, any of the above terms can be used as long as it is representative of one’s work or approach. However, this statement comes with some challenges. On the one hand, the demonstrated variety corresponds to the diversity of areas with different subject matters within this field. A distinction between schools of thought through appropriate language is therefore preferred, as it is seen as necessary to approach the logistics of specialising or studying various topics. On the other hand, despite these differences, it can be argued that there is a common underlying theme being investigated in its essence; namely the relationship between people and various environments. From that point of view, it is reasonable to argue for the existence of an all-encompassing term; though in practice, it can sometimes be difficult to achieve unanimous agreement.

Robert Gifford (2016), Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, suggests that a single term, preferably “Environmental Psychology”, should be used to describe this field as a whole. This is because having a widely accepted “brand” will help it develop and avoid disciplinary fragmentation (Balietti et al., 2015) that may otherwise lead to its disappearance. He also argues that the term “Environmental Psychology”, in particular, comes the closest to describing the essence of the field without excluding major aspects of it; such as in the case of “Environment and Behaviour” which excludes areas related to attitudes, values and norms, or “Neurourbanism” which only includes the specific area in the intersection of Neuroscience and Urbanism / Urban Environment Studies.

Personally, I agree with the view that there is virtue in maintaining an umbrella term in order to retain a sense of continuity, so I try to use “Environmental Psychology” where possible. At the same time “human-environment studies” and “human-environment relationships” seem to come very naturally as more general descriptors, not specific to Psychology, when talking about relevant topics in the context of Architecture and Design. With regards to focus areas, my background, interests and experience could fall anywhere between "Architectural Psychology" and "Environmental Design Research", which are terms I also use in the way I have approached this discussion so far.

Some Closing Thoughts.

Aspects of the field of Environmental Psychology have been described in multiple ways over the years with various terms spanning from general overarching representations of the field’s themes, to very specific areas within it. This may be both due to the newness of the field, and the vast range of focus areas within it that stem from its interdisciplinary nature. It has been suggested that the use of a single term may be best, as a widely accepted “brand” could help avoid disciplinary fragmentation. However, arguments have been made to support the utility of more specificity. So which approach do you agree with? And, is there a term I have missed from this list? I would really love to know.


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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