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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

What is Environmental Psychology and how can it inform spatial design?

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

This article will introduce the field of Environmental Psychology broadly from the perspective of spatial design. It is divided into sections covering the definition of Environmental Psychology, a brief overview of the field’s history, popular focus areas in academic research, practice-based applications, and examples of seminal research that has influenced the way physical space is designed and thought about. Links are also provided to more detailed articles on each section topic.


As you can probably guess there is a lot to cover in this article, so I would recommend grabbing a cup of your favourite drink and finding a cosy spot before continuing. Enjoy!


Photo by Luca Bravo via Unsplash


Over the past few centuries, we have experienced an extraordinary transformation of our built environment, as rapid urbanisation and population growth have continued to create the need for building bigger, faster and in larger quantities to accommodate the ever-changing spatial demands of city-dwellers. Contemporary engineering and city planning reflect this trend through the construction of highly efficient, though often impersonal, mega-structures that respond to the increasing urban sprawl, environmental challenges and economic factors of the times. These principles also extend across multiple spatial scales, from urban planning to product design, creating an overactive environment of competing interests and sensations in an attempt to accommodate the vast amount of information and tasks that need to be dealt with daily (Montgomery, 2015).


Despite the recent (re)emerging trends around design for wellbeing, it is surprising to realise how rarely the psychological impact of these decisions is being considered (Sommer, 1974) especially by the wider construction industry. While lifestyle is undoubtedly the main contributing factor to a variety of challenges that are usually categorised under the spectrum of medical fields (Halpern, 1995), a number of studies indicate that our buildings are also to be held accountable, though not exclusively responsible, for these conditions. Gary Evans, Professor of Human Ecology at Cornell University, relates the built environment to several factors that affect mental health. As he mentions, “the physical environment may influence mental health by altering psychosocial processes with known mental health sequelae. Personal control, socially supportive relationships, and restoration from stress and fatigue are all affected by properties of the built environment” (Evans, 2003, p.536).


These topics, and many more, are often the focus of research in the field of Environmental Psychology.


So, what is Environmental Psychology?


In the words of Robert Gifford, Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria:


Environmental Psychology is “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).

In short, Environmental Psychology is an interdisciplinary field that investigates the complex, reciprocal relationships between people and their environment. This may include both natural and constructed environments, as well as virtual environments, extreme environments and environments outside the bounds of this planet (e.g. outer space). Different populations are also studied across multiple scales, ranging from individual behaviour and cognition, to groups of people with various characteristics (e.g. gender, age, disability, culture etc.).


In the context of Architecture, and other spatial design disciplines such as Interior Design, Landscape Design and Urban Planning, Environmental Psychology often contributes to understanding the effects of natural and man-made environments on the inhabitants and vice versa, oftentimes with the aim to improve or alter them through specific design interventions.


Field Evolution and Development.


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 the field 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 contemporary issues of climate change and sustainability (Steg & De Groot, 2019) that remain a central topic in both practice and research to this day.


If you would like to learn more about the history of environmental psychology from the 1900 to the present day, please refer to the following article for a brief overview:

The “Name Thing”


Over the years, various terms have been used to describe this field and the study of human-environment relationships more broadly. Some of the most well-known ones, in relation to Architecture, include Architectural Psychology, Social Ecology, Psychology of Space, Environment–Behaviour Studies and Environmental Design Research. This may be partially due to the newness of this field, and the various areas of research it spans across because of its interdisciplinary nature. Nonetheless, it has been suggested (Gifford, 2013) that use of a single term, ideally "Environmental Psychology", as a widely accepted “brand” for the field is preferable to help avoid disciplinary fragmentation (Balietti et al., 2015) that may eventually lead to its disappearance.


If you are interested in learning more about the many names, sub-fields and areas within environmental psychology, please refer to the following article:


Academic Research & Practice Applications.


As for many other fields that span across academia and practice, both fundamental and applied research are crucial parts of Environmental Psychology. This section will briefly outline the focus of Environmental Psychology as an academic discipline alongside its applications in practice.


Areas of Academic Research.

Academic researchers in Environmental Psychology often come from various backgrounds including Psychology, Neuroscience, Environmental Science, Architecture, Urban Planning and more. They primarily focus on advancing the knowledge-base of the field through original research, journal publications, conference contributions, and teaching as university lecturers, professors and supervisors. As a result, Environmental Psychology as an academic field includes an equally diverse spectrum of focus areas. Division 34: Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology of the American Psychological Association, outlines four broad “topics of interest” including the following:

  • Human behaviour and well-being related to the design of built spaces, landscapes and natural environments

  • Conservation of wildlife and other species

  • Synergies between human mental health and the ecology of the natural environment

  • The psychological consequences of high population density


When looking more specifically for the most current areas of research within the field, it is most appropriate to refer to the “Journal of Environmental Psychology” and “Environment and Behaviour” as they are two publications at the forefront of contemporary academic research. Collectively they include the following research areas that are considered relevant and acceptable for publication:


  • Perception and attitudes towards the built and natural environment including social, psychological and behavioural processes related to particular settings (e.g. neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools, hospitals, extreme or restorative environments)

  • Effects of the above settings on human cognition, physical and mental health (e.g. effects of noise and ambient conditions, health impact of walkable neighbourhoods)

  • Environmental feelings, attachment, and identity (e.g. theories of place, place attachment, place identity)

  • Research on pro-environmental behaviour, behavioural change and attitudes related to climate change (e.g. environmental grief) as well as society-level predictors related to sustainability policy and design

  • Aspects of resource management in crisis situations

  • Specific areas related to cognitive mapping, spatial and environmental cognition, navigation, wayfinding, spatial perception, environmental risk, risk perception, risk management and relevant behaviours

  • Social use of space, (e.g. privacy, territoriality and personal space) and environmental problems (e.g. fear, stress, and crowding)

  • Research on particular groups of people (e.g. children, elderly, people with disabilities) in relation to their behaviour in different settings

  • Design and experience of physical settings including workplaces, schools, residences, public buildings, public space and effects of design on behaviour

  • Methodological approaches and processes related to the study of spatial behaviour

Although the above may currently be the most researched areas in academic literature, the range of research conducted on human-environment relationships more broadly is not limited to the above topics. Articles are often also accepted from the fields of Anthropology, Architecture, Business, Design, Education, Geography, Health Science, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, Urban Planning, Neuroscience and more, as well as from researchers working for relevant government agencies and organisations that investigate these topics in practice.

Environmental Psychology in practice.


As an applied field, Environmental Psychology aims to integrate theory and practice towards real-world change. Environmental Psychology practitioners, therefore “apply psychological knowledge and practice to improve interactions between humans and our natural and built environments” (APA, 2020). They may be employed as Consultants, Strategists (e.g. workplace strategists), Researchers, Applied Researchers, or Design Researchers, among other titles, both in public and private sectors. Their expertise is often needed in the context of Architecture, Planning, Interior and Landscape design, as part of nonprofit organisations, government agencies, businesses and nongovernmental organisations (APA, 2014) where they focus on environmental challenges and management, improving wellbeing and elements of psychological growth, providing supporting evidence for design (e.g. for workspaces, homes, cities), promoting environmental awareness and more. This process may involve the recording and analysis of behaviours, preferences, perceptions etc. related to a diverse range of settings under various circumstances, and the subsequent development of guidelines or recommendations (e.g. for design or policy). As a result, Environmental Psychologists often work in teams with other professionals including Architects, Economics, Designers, Planners, and Policy Makers. Many academics are also consulted in practice by various organisations on their specific areas of expertise.


Impact: Concepts, Theories and Seminal Studies.


Environmental Psychology has crossed paths with architecture on multiple occasions and continues to influence our understanding and approach to design. When it comes to describing the overall impact of a field, it is difficult to identify specific topics to discuss, even more so when it comes to a vast area such as this one. However, some key ideas, concepts and approaches that stem from, or are related to Environmental Psychology, have been assimilated into the way architecture is taught and practiced. These include but are not limited to, evidence-based design which was adapted from evidence-based practice in healthcare and psychology (The Center for Health Design, 2022), aspects related to mental mapping, way-finding and navigation in cities, biophilic design and the effects of natural environments on wellbeing (Ulrich, 1984, Kellert & Wilson, 1995), effects of different textures, materials and shapes on human comfort (Sommer, 1969), pinch points and opportunities for enabling or inhibiting behaviour through design, aspects related to levels of privacy and crowding, and more.


If you are interested in learning more about these topics, please refer to the following article:

Summary.


To summarise, Environmental Psychology is a young and evolving field that investigates the complex, reciprocal relationships between people and their environment. It has been known by a number of names throughout its history due to the various thematic focal points and paradigmatic shifts that have happened since it was first established as an independent field in the 1960s. Both fundamental and applied research is crucial for Environmental Psychology, with researchers and practitioners originating from various fields including architecture, psychology, urban design, anthropology and more. This research has led to some well known concepts for architects and designers including research on the effects of natural environments on people, navigation in cities and human use of space.


 

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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