Building a pre-planned city is as close as we came to creating a world of our dreams. Or somebody’s dreams, anyway. That’s why I see those places as very stimulating for environmental psychologists. It makes you wonder how people respond to such environments. At first glance, the wholeness of a single vision transferred into reality is just impressive. One can assume that pre-planned communities feel very comforting and safe due to their high levels of order, coherence and predictability.
Masdar City, UAE; photo by iied.org
Take a look at some of the futuristic dreams coming true at the moment – Tianjin in China, the zero-carbon, zero-waste Masdar in United Arab Emirates, or few others from all over the world. Not surprisingly, emphasis on sustainability is the key feature in all cities of the future mentioned above – green is a must at the moment. With good reason.
However, any project aiming to predict and satisfy the needs of inhabitants in a city that’s yet to be built (as well as considering the environment) is an ambitious one. What happens when this vision of the future goes out of fashion? As it happened so many times before, our predictions about future might turn out to be either amazingly true, or desperately ridiculous. Some potential shortcomings of the ecocities have already been identified by their critics, such as this one, calling them sustainable prisons of the future. Whatever the one great idea pervading the vision of future life may be, it’s always at risk of becoming a not so great idea.
Masdar Institute, construction site in 2010; photo by trevor.patt
The other thing about detailed plans (for anything) is that such predestination suppresses the feeling of freedom which can be kind of upsetting. A spontaneity-free Orwell meets Walden 2 utopia instantly comes to my mind. Yet I’m not writing this to provide some actual information about effects pre-planned communities have on people (not this time at least), but to convey the potential they have for studying relations between people and environment .
Masdar city poster; photo by GDS Infographics
As it can be expected that futuristic sustainable mirages will continue to spring out of the desert (and elsewhere), one can hope they’ll become fountains of knowledge for environmental psychologists (and, more importantly, fertile grounds for fulfilled life of their inhabitants). Since I don’t know whether ecocities plan to establish grad schools for environmental psychologists (which would be great!), I found two places with established PhD programs based in pre-planned cities, that seem to be very promising for potential researchers:
Brasilia; photo by ANDREA ALBERT
1. Brasilia, Brasil – University of Brasília
Brasilia is not the only pre-planned capital. Others include the well-known Washington D.C., Canberra and New Delhi, but also Belmopan, Abuja, Naypyidaw, Astana and Islamabad. However, with a population of about 2,5 million (3,7 million in the metropolitan area), Brasil’s capital is the largest city in the world built in the 20th century and the only one among them to be awarded the status of Historical and Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The city was planned and developed in 1956 with Lúcio Costa as the principal urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer as the principal architect.
Palacio Itamaraty – Foreign Ministry, Brasilia; photo by chris.diewald
The main campus of the University of Brasília (named Darcy Ribeiro) was designed by Niemeyer in his recognizable modernist style. It’s interesting that one of the obstacles constructors had to overcome during 1960s was University’s proximity to the Esplanade of the Ministries – the authorities were concerned about students interfering in the political life of the city. It’s an environmental psychology issue per se even before the city was there – politicians were intimidated by the master plan! Today UnB (as they call it) has 3 additional campuses outside the city and is one of the largest and most prestigious Brazilian public universities.
photo by chris.diewald
Research topics in Environmental psychology at UnB are divided into 4 subgroups: urban environment, environmental behavior, human and urban development and traffic and transportation. You can learn more about it from this very informative web-site (written in both Portuguese and English) and a blog in making.
University of Brasília; photo by Frank van Leersum
This willingness to spread the word about what researchers do at UnB is what impressed me the most. To many academics, the importance of their work is self-explanatory so they don’t put much effort into promoting it. Since I belive that environmental psychology can benefit from promotion, I consider the effort of environmental psychologists at UnB to be a rare and valuable example. Apart from that, a beautiful city and one of the world’s most beautiful languages are something to look forward if you are lucky enough to study there.
Langson Library designed by William L. Pereira,
University of California, Irvine, US; photo by askpang
2. Irvine, California, US – University of California
Irvine in Orange County, California, US, is a suburban planned city with a population of about 200,000. It was mainly developed by the Irvine Company since the 1960s. The layout of Irvine was designed by Los Angeles architect William Pereira and Irvine Company employee Raymond Watson, and is nominally divided into townships called villages. Each of the villages was initially planned to have a distinct architectural theme, such as Spanish, Tuscan, French country, California modern etc. It sounds like Disneyland a bit, doesn’t it?
North Lake and Woodbridge, a neighbourhood inspired by Atlantic coast architecture, Irvine; photo by saturnism
The first buildings for the University were designed by a team of architects led by William Pereira in a style which he called “California Brutalist”, while more recent buildings feature postmodern (1980s and 1990s) and contextualist (the most recent) architectural styles.
Humanities Hall (Murray Krieger Hall) in Brutalist style, Irvine; photo by askpang
You can get a PhD in environmental psychology at School of social ecology (social ecology being the broader field which includes environmental psychology). Apart from University’s web-site, I’d recommend visiting prof. Daniel Stokols site (take a look at his links!) and YouTube playlist of his lectures (which are freshly published and a pleasant surprise for me).
Social Science Tower, Irvine; photo by askpang
Much like their Brazilian colleges, Irvine environmental psychologists make their knowledge available to broader audience and their web content is among best available. Even though it’s crucial, the quality of research alone doesn’t determine development of the environmental psychology. Much of it depends on how other people perceive it (starting from whether they’ve heard of it at all) and see value in what it has to offer to the world. This sensibility for those interested in University’s research, combined with the fact it’s based in southern California, makes a great first impression for any prospective student.
Postmodern Ayala Science Library, Irvine; photo by askpang
There’s something about the quality of life that seems to be elusive and impossible to pin down to. That might be the reason why so many projects possessing all the ingredients for a great neighbourhood at the end feel like they’re missing the very essence of it. So, with lots of knowledge and effort already accumulated in making of the pre-planned communities, there’s still so much more to learn from them.
Coming up next: Getting a PhD in environmental psychology in big cities/ the World’s crossroads.