Australian landscape architect Wil Whitfeld upgraded his design expertise by getting a Master’s Degree in environmental psychology at University of Surrey last year. Back in Sydney, where he recently started working at Oculus design studio, Wil eagerly accepted my proposition to do an interview about his study experience and the new insights it gave him. He also discusses his poetically titled dissertation research “Walking with your head in the clouds: The influence of pathway design on mindfulness, recall and affective state”, which he is presenting at this year’s EDRA conference in Los Angeles in less than a month.
Wil, could you please give us some background on how you became interested in environmental psychology?
I was first introduced to environmental psychology when a lecturer in my landscape architecture program explained the use of prospect and refuge theory in design. Though a limited introduction, this piqued my curiosity in the natural influence of spatial design on psychological and behavioral phenomena.
I had no idea what this area of thinking was until I took an elective built environment class where I first heard the term environmental psychology and another class exploring field data collection methods such as observations and behaviour mapping. I thought these were fundamental ways to analyse a space and its users and use this information to create amazing places.
University of Surrey, photo by Tim Sheerman-Chase
Many readers come here looking for resources about studying environmental psychology. Can you tell us about your experience at Surrey?
Studying at Surrey was a great experience. Unlike most psychology courses, the majority of students enrolled in the environmental psychology program do not have an academic background in psychology. The course is structured and delivered well to suit both psychology and design based students. Electives and academic core subjects are mixed with other psychology streams, so there are often opportunities to learn and work with students from areas of organisational, social, health, and forensic psychology, as well as Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy.
As a core component of the course, we were given full control over our thesis topic and study design. David Uzzell and Birgitta Gatersleben’s were able to provide guidance in both experimental and field based studies.
Surrey’s strong support for international students and the course’s reputation attracted people from all over the world and a wide range of professional backgrounds. Students were from America, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Spain, the UK and Romania with backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, planning, sociology and psychology. This vibrant mix gave discussions and collaborations an endless supply of interesting and globally relevant perspectives from various levels of experience.
Guildford High Street; photo by Marty Portier
You moved far away from home. What are your impressions of the physical setting itself, Guildford, London and the UK? I believe it’s something that could be interesting for people who are considering studying there – assuming they are sensitive to their surroundings (physical, cultural and social) and they know it.
Guildford is an amazingly picturesque English town only 30 minutes by train from central London. Bisected by the Wey River, part of the still working canal network of southern England, it provides a great place to get away from studying and explore national heritage walking trails.
River Wey in Guildford; photo by Nicolas Massé
The University of Surrey campus is set just outside the town centre below the Guildford Cathedral. Ironically the confusing and complex layout of buildings is an often-discussed irony of the campus amongst the environmental psychology cohort. However, this can quickly be overcome with some practice. The university campus itself is equals the towns beauty across the seasons with cherry blossoms and golden daffodils that stay hidden year round until blooming.
Apart from great scenery, Guildford’s proximity to London made getting to talks and events easy enough to be done after lectures. There is always something going on in London, and we were lucky enough to attend architecture studio talks, built environment design workshops, and a documentary film screening presented by Jan Gehl.
Making the most of your time off during study is key to enjoying the experience. Only an hour flight away, three classmates and myself were able to get away to Portugal. An amazing trip we spent exploring the vibrant streets of Lisbon, castles of Sintra, and beaches of Cascais. Seeing two very different cultures and countries when learning about the effects these factors have on our behaviours and quality of life helps to provide real world context to the theories and concepts in environmental psychology.
Having classmates from different countries must give some insight at the main opportunities and challenges for environmental psychologists in different parts of the world. What kind of work can one find these days?
I think we have all experienced the similar problems when it comes to the industry knowledge around environmental psychology and the hesitant designer or client willing to adopt new ways of thinking. However, there is a growing concern for people and evidence based-design that I think will provide new and exciting opportunities for collaboration.
I have found most students with design backgrounds return to their design field with a new perspective. Environmental psychology also allows those without the design background to branch into design fields as two colleagues have done with interior design and public art.
I think when we look at what kind of work opportunities can be found today for environmental psychologists and evidence based-designers it is a matter of looking innovatively at both research and industry to find unique collaborations. These areas of collaboration continue to grow as the environmental interest among corporate and governmental bodies for sustainable behaviours and practices grows.
You carried out research about pathway design and its effect on mindfulness, recall and affective state. What were your main findings?
Professors and tutors in my landscape architecture design studios often stated if you want people to slow down and take notice of their surroundings, put in a meandering path; if you want them to move quickly through the space, create straight paths. This inspired my research to test, what were essentially design hypotheses for pathways.
The phenomenon of mindfulness was the key theory underpinning the research. Testing how much people pay attention to their surrounding based on their movement through a space. We have all experienced mindlessness, probably after we finish reading a page or paragraph, only to realise at the end we were thinking about what we were having for dinner, and have no idea what the text said. So how does this concept manifest when experiencing an environment?
Both the environment and path type was key to the experience. A walk down a straight path caused people to drift into a deeper state of mindlessness than a meandering path, supporting my landscape architecture professors design suggestions. While the path type we walk down may influence the experience, the environment surrounding the path is just as important. Urban environments were able to keep people focused on their surroundings but these complex, and often over stimulating places, reduced how much people could remember from their walk. So what does this mean for our Sunday morning walk?
Meandring path, Surrey; photo by Leimenide
It could be time to find a new path, being mindful plays an important role in well-being and mental health. Being more mindful can help to reduce stress and anxiety; this may be aided by walking down a meandering path in an interesting but not overwhelming environment.
Academically, the findings may offer mindfulness as a meaningful concept in environmental psychology and provide some insight into how walking or sitting may differ in experiencing a space.
For design, this offers some insight for designers as to how their spaces are experienced and how to better their designs, from healthcare and restorative gardens to memorials and exhibitions.
What are your expectations about the future of environmental psychology? What can be done about its development as an interdisciplinary field?
I believe environmental psychology will continue to increase its role in applied areas. We are fortunate to have organisations, such as EDRA, that encourage the dialogue between academia and industry. Universities should be looking to introduce this discussion at the undergraduate level of built environment studies, not necessarily pushing an environmental psychology deterministic approach, but providing students the tools and methodologies to explore humans as the design driver.
And as for Wil’s near future, not only is he attending EDRA conference in L.A., but he also kindly offered to be our special correspondent from there and do a story about the event. Everything about the conference seems interesting, from its setting, the Westin Bonaventure hotel (check out this famous reflection on it), to the focus on the intersections with neuroscience, as revealed by its title „brainSTORM: Dynamic Interactions of Environment-Behavior and Neuroscience“ and its impressive itinerary. Have a great time Wil, and we’re looking forward to hearing from you soon!