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.
Even though small towns and pre-planned communities I wrote about before offer an interesting context for any environmental psychologist, the appeal of big cities is undeniable. That’s why I’ll research options for a PhD in environmental psychology in two capitals of the world – one traditional and one contemporary – Rome and New York.
Rome panorama; photo by Giampaolo Macorig
It’s hard not to feel like a fragile creature with short expiration date while walking amid stone edifices that stood as silent witnesses of human history for over 2 thousand years. That’s just my experience of the historic center of Rome (listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site), anyway. The feeling is not bad, though. Even without tour guides and guide books, just being there feels like an incredibly enriching learning experience. An experience that is beyond words, for after all, buildings don’t speak in words. Yet somehow, they might be telling us more about mankind than you’d learn from psychology books.
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.
Interesting fact No.1: Genome-wise, modern humans are very closely related. Any two modern humans, from anywhere on the globe, possess greater genetic similarity than do any two chimpanzees; even those selected from neighbouring groups in Africa (Davies, 2001; Ridley, 2000; Wells, 2002; according to Falk and Balling 2010).
African savanna during an unusually wet period; photo by Martin_Heigan
Interesting fact No.2: A broad survey of art preferences (Wypijewski 1997, according to Dutton, 2003) of people living in ten countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas found “an odd cross-cultural uniformity” – respondents in all countries expressed a liking for realistic representative paintings including water, trees and other plants, human beings, and animals, especially large mammals. Two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who hired professionals to conduct this survey in the first place, produced a favourite painting for each country using the statistical preferences as a guide. The paintings turned out to be very similar — they all looked like ordinary European landscape calendar art. An influential art critic Arthur Danto claimed that this findings demonstrate the power of the international calendar industry to influence taste away from indigenous values and towards European conventions. Was Danto right?
In a paper titled “Is there a place for children in a city?” Arza Churchman (2003) asks the following question: Does the city, through its design and planning, and through the attitudes and behaviour of adults, transmit the message to the children that they are welcome, that they are an equal part of the society in the city? Just think of all the limitations children are faced with due to (reasonable!) safety concerns of their parents, limitations that become more and more constraining with each new generation. With significantly less privacy and freedom then before, constantly supervised by adults (unless they’re “babysat” by TV of PC), the children of today may be receiving the message that the environment we’ve created is not a friendly place for them.
photo by guilmay
There are little oases amid the noisy confusion of life though, that celebrate children’s most important activity – play. It has been stated that independent and diverse play and exploration is important to children’s development, specifically their motor skills and physical health, cognitive development, social relationships with peers and formations of connections with the natural world (Kyttä, 2004).
Break the monotony of straight lines, smooth surfaces and neutral colors of an urban environment with a simple fountain or a pond, and you’ll see a big change in people’s behaviour. Ignoring other aspects of their environment that stress the importance of order, rules, organization and schedule, people instantly become playful and spontaneous. Water tempts us to stop and look at it, touch it, throw stones in it.. and be a kid for a moment.
Courtyard of Somerset House, London; photo by Marxpix
While we all know that aquatic environments are appealing to us, the study by White et al. (2010) answers the question how appealing they are compared to natural and built non-aquatic environments, and probably more important – how can water in built environments improve urban experience?
Studies have consistently found that people prefer natural environments over urban environments, and they do so with a good reason – experience of nature can better provide physiological, emotional and attentional restoration than urban surroundings (according to Hartig et al., 2003). However, there must be some city-lovers out there who wonder if there are some conditions on which urban settings can be just as likable as scenes of nature, or even more.
Sleepless in Seattle; photo by James Marvin Phelps
Folloving the logic of an undeniable city-lover Woddy Allen, who used Manhattan skyline at night as an exciting and romantic setting for his movies, Nasar and Terzano (2010) wondered if city skylines after dark would upset the consistent pattern of preference for natural scenes over urban ones.
What is the key factor that makes some neighbourhoods friendly and social, and others alienated and detached? Is it the wealth of its inhabitants, or the size of the community? Is it impossible to create a strong sense of community in a big city or in wealthier neighbourhoods? I don’t think so, because there are some design features that can foster community attachment, facilitate social interaction, and create a sense of community identity.
Very similar houses in traditional suburbia (click to enlarge); photo by San Diego Shooter
When speaking of residential areas, people usually think of conventional suburban developments with very similar single family houses on large lots, isolated from commercial parts of town. From a bird’s perspective this tame environment looks like it would make a foundation for a very close-knit community. However, as it’s became evident throughout 20th century, high car dependence, one of the most prominent characteristics of suburbia, causes a number of problems – economical, environmental, health, and – social. People never get the chance to see their neighbours and develop a sense of community.