Larch 498 Autumn 2002

Introduction to Environmental Psychology
Department of Landscape Architecture

  Peer Essays


Example 1

Example 2


Example 1

Essays Week 1: The Nature and Scope of Environmental Psychology

1. Environmental psychology is the study of the complex interrelationships between people and their environment. Gifford explains that it differs from the main branch of psychology in that it is concerned with the everyday physical environment. Included are larger issues of environment including social, political, economic and cultural forces. I believe that environmental psychology’s greatest strength lies in its interdisciplinary approach and acknowledgement of the complex nature of behavior and environment. Environmental psychology does not artificially simplify situations. Instead, it provides a framework of viewpoints, research and theories that help lead us to a better understanding of how humans and the environment interact. Though there are no black and white answers, as professionals we can pull bits and pieces from the body of work in the hope that we may better design for human needs. Proshansky’s paper, The Role of Environmental Psychology for the Design Professions, best summarizes this by explaining that “the fundamental significance of environmental psychology for the design professions lies in its potential capacity to provide a body of knowledge—conceptual and empirical—for understanding the relationships between human behavior and experience in the built environment.” He explains that environmental psychology does not provide a “behavior handbook” as many would like, but a “backdrop against which (the design professional) can at least make educated guesses in the attempt to resolve design problems of make design decisions.” I especially agree with Proshansky’s support of post-construction evaluations. I believe these evaluations are some of the best tools for design professionals. If we understand what worked or didn’t work in the past, we are better prepared to design more appropriately in the future.

2. Of the various theories that Gifford identifies I am most compelled by the Control Theories. My interest is sparked in part by a book I read years ago titled Body Politics. This book focused on the issue of identity of women in a world where decisions and physical actions—for example, doors held open, cars driven and even walk guided by a hand on the back—are repeatedly done for them. The book explained that these seemingly inconsequential events build up to give women a sense of helplessness and dependency on men. The book was written at a time when women were seeking to recognize this and gain control over their lives. While some of the issues covered are less relevant for women in 2002 than they were when the book was published, the importance placed on an individual’s control of her environment still resonates. I am fascinated that the theories raised in Body Politics can be applied to feelings of self-value and efficacy for both men and women in the physical environment as well. An example is from Pruet Igo, a high-rise housing development in St. Louis where residents were not able to control the thermostats. In this case, they rebelled against the lack of control and vandalized the control boxes. The control theories help me to see that environment plays an integral role in shaping a sense of self-worth and empowerment for individuals and groups.

3. In Gifford’s essay, “Making a Difference: Some Ways That Environmental Psychology Has Improved the World” he identifies a series of applied research that attempts to solve real-world issues. I am most struck by his examples under the heading “Better Living Through Environmental Psychology,” and in particular in the theories on defensible space worked on by Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman. Gifford explains, “Defensible space theory predicts that certain changes in residential design that reduce apparently non-owned space…and increase naturally occurring surveillance and a sense of ownership by the residents will reduce crime.” Gifford cites neighborhoods and housing developments in Ohio and New York where crime rates fell and neighborhood pride rose after redesigning areas to allow for more defensible space. I am interested in how perceived ownership can play such a significant role in our streets, neighborhoods and parks. An article that I read a while back comes to mind. The article wrote about a park in the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle where the residents living around the park took it upon themselves to care for it. The city maintains it to an extent, but the citizens take an active role in removing noxious weeds, clearing paths, and watching over the well-being of the place. The park is a safe, pleasant place to go because the neighbors keep a watch on it. They think of it as their own. Similar community involvement occurs in my own neighborhood in Wallingford. The residents on many of the streets have joined together to fight for a traffic circle for the intersections of streets. These circles slow traffic and, in effect, give street ownership to the residents. Many of the circles are planted and maintained with care, reflecting the sense of ownership and responsibility that the residents have. It strikes me that the more ownership and responsibility that individuals feel they have over their surroundings, the stronger our communities will be.

4. In Upton’s essay “Seen, Unseen, and Scene” he asks, “What is the relation between the seen and the unseen in landscape?” He explains that peoples’ interpretations of landscape go beyond the “scene,” or the physical form of the place. Rather, our interpretations are a result of the “seen,” what we as individuals at a particular time or place see for ourselves as well as the “unseen,” other intangible ways that we interpret landscape. He states “Seeing is not always believing because we experience landscape through other organs than our eyes and because we have stories to apply to the landscape other than those it may tell us.” For example, our individual experiences and viewpoints unrelated to the scene impact how we see the landscape. Scene, unseen and seen are intertwined in that they all contribute to an overall impression of a place. Upton’s main point is that we must understand the role of the seen and unseen in landscape if we are to understand the human experience and how perceptions are framed.

Essays Week 2: The Relationship to Place: Attachment and Identity

1. Place attachment is a mutual care-taking bond between a person and a beloved place. It is the meaning we find in a place that we are greatly familiar with. Place identity is the dimension of self that develops in relation to the physical environment. In many ways these seem to blur together. Often we gain a sense of self from the places we are attached to. Arguably, as our place attachment develops over time, so too does a sense of place identity. However, as I interpret the two, their distinction lies in the level of self that each involves. Place identity seems to concern a level of self that place attachment does not. Place attachment and place identity may be mutually exclusive. For instance, I feel great attachment to my childhood home, but feel that I identify with my dad’s hometown in Montana more. It is with the physical town as well as mental idea of the place that I identify with.

I think peoples’ emotional bonds to place dramatically affect their lives. For me, my emotional bonds ground me in identity, not necessarily in time and space. My attachments to place give me a sense of history and belonging. I cannot think of a place I have ever lived that I haven’t felt attached to. It seems that I develop attachment as a process of getting to know a place. I identify, however, with a few select places. These places impacted, and continue to impact, me in dramatic ways. They give me a sense of independence, stability, and as being a part of something greater than myself. They give me a continuing sense of self and identity.

2. According to Clare Cooper-Marcus environmental memories influence our lives in a number of ways. They provide a sense of continuity with our past, a sense of control and self-determination, and a sense of identity—who we are and where we came from. She writes about the environmental memories of her students and how they shape their current lives. She explains that the childhood settings that we remember most years later are “settings of significant emotional experiences critical to the process of growing up.” I am most interested in memories that involve manipulating ones environment. Cooper-Marcus writes that this need starts in childhood and continues through our lives and is linked with our feelings of self and empowerment. Interestingly, this overlaps with the Control Theories that Gifford outlined—people, children or adults, seek control over their environments. A lack of control may result in a feeling of helplessness or disempowerment. Cooper-Marcus references the recurring theme of adults placing value in their ability as children to manipulate their environment. For example, many of her students reported that they constructed their own “forts.” One student even explained that when his dad constructed a built fort he was no longer interested in it. Once he didn’t have control over his environment he was disappointed. I see similarities in my own childhood. I have a strong sense of self-determination and independence. I feel that my childhood of making forts, experimenting with new ways to make things (wood-block boats, bows and arrows, or even wild contraptions to close my door while laying in bed) contributed to my sense of control over my own life that I feel today.

3. In Hester’s essay “Sacred Structures in Everyday Life: A Return to Manteo, North Carolina” he explains the process he led to “develop a plan to bring new economic purpose and prosperity to (Manteo), yet not sacrifice traditional lifestyles and traditional landscapes.” He was concerned with the precedent in many communities of replacing an indigenous culture with more marketable ones simply for the sake of tourism. Instead, he conducted a thorough analysis of community place attachment in order to maintain the core places and values of the community. Through a grass-roots community process he compiled surveys that asked residents what places they valued most. Hester found that the places residents most valued often lacked architectural merit. They included an old diner and a parking lot next to the post office where residents would bump into each other. Place identity and attachment were not a result of the “scene”, to use Upton’s language, but a result of the stories and interactions that the residents experienced. Using the community feedback, Hester was able to compile a list of “Sacred Structures” that would remain after development. These were the places that the residents simply would not sacrifice. This list guided the redevelopment efforts and helped maintain the culture and spirit of Manteo.

Essays Week 3: Relationships to Nature

1. Mitchell et al. argue that public land managers must address both the utilitarian value of land as well as its value as an object of emotional attachment. They explain that in order to do this, managers must understand the different ways people view and interact with the land. They cite research from studies done at the Chiwawa River drainage in Washington that found that “visitors viewed the setting in one of two ways: as a place that supported their activities—use orientation—or as a place to which they were attached to emotionally—attachment orientation.” While use oriented visitors valued the environment for its ability to support an activity like fishing or biking, attachment oriented visitors valued the place for more intangible reasons such as memories or time spent there.

I find it hard to completely identify with either of these two categories of users. First and foremost I feel attached to places in the wilderness, but if suddenly I am unable to hike, canoe or sit and look over nature do I become use-oriented visitor? I see myself as a combination of the two. I contend that there is a much broader spectrum of users than fit into the two categories defined by Mitchell et al. Still, while I think that they have greatly simplified the types of users, I believe that their conclusions are solid. I agree with their statement “the ‘felt’ perception of the forests are as real and as important as “scientific facts.” Too often place attachments have not been valued in land management. Perhaps this is because attachments are often intangible it is simply easier to quantify the amount of fishing or boating that occurs in a place.

While I was reading this article I thought back to a debate that a group of friends and I had last year while backpacking in the Southwest. Our debate centered on the management of Lake Powell. We thought that with boating so dominant on the lake many people experienced the area at the expense of a smaller group of hikers and nature-lovers. We debated the role of management—is it better to manage places to appeal to the needs of many or a few? It seems we can apply the use-oriented vs. attachment-oriented thesis to the Lake Powell scenario. If managers understand the two groups and their needs, they will be better prepared to make decisions that balance the wants of the masses (often it seems the use-oriented users) with the wants of the attachment-oriented users. Mitchell et al. simply seek to give voice to a group of users so easily overlooked. Unfortunately, it appears that at Lake Powell the masses have won (and Los Angeles, but that’s another story).

2. In McNaughten and Urry’s essay “Rethinking Nature and Society” they argue, “There is no singular nature as such, but a diversity of contested natures.” By this they mean that there is no one specific Nature, but a multitude of natures constructed from our socio-cultural fabric. Essentially, our notion of nature is not an entity in and of itself, but a construction influenced by history, geography and society. Therefore, it is impossible to distill all views of nature into one singular nature.

McNaughten and Urry seem to be muddying up the waters a bit. Many would argue that by emphasizing culturally relative views of nature, we hinder our ability to protect nature or care for it. If there is no one Nature, where do we go from here? If nature and culture are inseparable how are the sciences impacted? How are our values impacted? While many questions are raised, I believe that there is immense value in the discussion. Through an interdisciplinary approach, McNaughten and Urry provide a much richer palate for looking at nature. Like much of environmental psychology, this discussion may offer more questions than answers, but the process itself helps lead our minds in new, much needed directions. Hopefully, this process will result in a more holistic understanding.

My agreement with McNaughten and Urry’s argument is influenced in part by my experiences as an undergraduate student in anthropology. In college, I had the opportunity to live in a small village in the Himalayas. While I was there it became clear to me that my view of nature was a relative one. The village seemed to be in nature. The hills, streams and trees seemed to be in a wild state. This couldn’t have been further from the truth—fields were terraced into the sides of hills and even places where it seemed people did not tread were grazing areas for yaks. While I looked upon the scene as nature as compared to Kathmandu or Seattle, the villagers simply saw it as their home. There was no “leaving the city” or “getting outside” for them. Their lives revolved around gathering wood, looking after yaks and cultivating potatoes. Where I saw this small village and its surroundings as Nature and as worthy of protection from deforestation and pollution, the villagers saw this area as their home first and foremost. They had no need to construct an abstract Nature as opposed to where they lived. These cultural and geographical differences highlight the points made in the essay. If we are to have meaningful dialogue on the environment and nature we must understand the different viewpoints we all come from.

3. I loved Grampp’s essay, “Social Meaning of Residential Gardens.” Most of all I enjoyed matching the people and gardens I know to his three types. Gardens kept coming to mind that fit his categories—the well-tempered garden on the way to Magnuson Park where the owner carefully trims his hedges, my parent’s back patio that is the perfect place for a summer dinner, and the crazy garden in my dad’s hometown in Montana with hundreds of pink flamingos dotted throughout. Still though, I cannot relate my own garden to any of these. So, if I were to add a category, I would call it something like “the student renter who likes barbecues, flowers and veggies, but doesn’t want to sink too much money or time into a temporary garden.” In all seriousness, I think that there are people who enjoy their gardens immensely without spending significant time on aesthetics. They value the garden for its food production or for its ability to house a gathering. I know many people (students and otherwise) who fit into this category. We entertain, plant flowers and cultivate vegetable gardens, but the space itself is not designed or pruned. The garden is a utilitarian space with verve. Flowers grow for bouquets. Vegetables grow for salads. Tables, chairs, barbecues, etc, are arranged for people. It is a garden for living, but not necessarily one for looking at.

Essays Week 4: Environmental Attitudes, Assessments and Preferences

1. Environmental concern is a tough concept to pin down. The difficulty in establishing factors that influence concern and levels of concern seems largely due to methodological challenges. Simply asking people if they are concerned is not adequate—who wouldn’t be concerned? It is a value-laden question that begs for a positive answer. In addition, it turns out that many of the findings contradict each other. Despite the challenges, Gifford explains that there are some studies that report similar findings. These studies have found that a number of factors seem to influence concern. They include: gender, age and childhood experiences, religion, politics, social class, nationality, culture, ethnicity, urban-rural differences, morals and values, education, activities, and proximity and threat from problem sites.

Gifford notes, however, that concern does not necessarily lead to action. Instead, actual behavior is often linked to convenience rather than levels of concern. This is due in part to the fact that pro-environmental behavior does not have immediate consequences. Since there is no immediate reward—perhaps not even one within one’s lifetime—environmental behavior is an abstract concept that many have a hard time acting on. People have difficulty visualizing water flowing into streams from the city gutters or their car impacting the quality of the air. Environmental concern may be widespread, but it appears that it is often not as deep or committed enough to lead to action.

Enter environmental education! Again, like much of environmental psychology, there is no one theory, concept, or ace-in-the-hole, but education appears to be a way to tackle the issue of environmental concern and action. The task of environmental education is not simply to raise concern, but to guide that concern to action. A number of programs have tried to do just this, but with varying success. Gradually we are building a knowledge base from which to pull the best practices. Gifford cites a few guidelines studies have found to be effective in environmental education programs’ abilities to effect change. These include offering hands-on experience of repairing damaged land, explaining both sides of the issue, instilling a sense of responsibility and personal control, and appropriately tailoring the program to the students level.

I feel I gained tremendously from environmental education in high school. I still have much to learn, but the curriculum in high school raised my awareness and set a tone for further learning and behavior. Graduation requirements included at least one week on an outdoor trip, community service spent on environmental restoration, and a number of science and humanities courses that helped further develop exploration of environmental issues. Most of all, during high school the environment became something tangible, something that I grew to love and something worth protecting. These seeds planted in high school continue to grow. If the environment is to become tangible for people we must address it through an educational process.

3. The New Seattle Library, The Experience Music Project, 9 Trees in Downtown Seattle—all projects that elicit dramatically different responses. Some rave while others shutter. I contend that some of the disparity might be attributed to the differences in assessment between those with expertise in a particular area and those of the general population. The Expert Paradigm, Gifford explains, is when experts assess a setting using principals from their own field. For instance, an artist may be more influenced by form and balance while an ecologist may be more concerned with the natural processes and environmental health of a site. Since these experts distill the site based upon their particular field of knowledge, their assessments may be out of sync with the general public.

I recall a conversation I overheard on the bus not long ago between two passengers. They both agreed that the Frank Gehry’s EMP was “hideous.” Overhearing this as well, two architects sitting behind me interrupted their conversation to whisper, “poor Frank” and then went on to talk about how “revolutionary” it was. Clearly the people in front of me did not value the qualities of the design that the architects did. Another example of the disparity between expert assessments and those of the general public may be seen in the responses to the selected design for Downsview Park in Toronto. There, judges from the Museum of Modern Art evaluated designs from five teams competing to redesign the site into a park. The design that won received rave reviews from the arts community but more critical response from ecologists and the greater population. One article ranted about spending millions of dollars on a few trees, grass and paths.

The implications of the expert paradigm are serious. If designers cannot design places that the general population values, issues of ownership, care, and identity are raised. I believe the best way to mitigate these disparities between experts and non-experts is to involve the public in the design debate. This is not to say that every design will have the support of all—in fact it would be a dull world if we didn’t have lively debate. Instead, designers will be better prepared to design for those who will live in or around the site if members of the community are pulled into the design process early on.

Essays Week 5: Environmental Perception and Cognition

Environmental Perception:
1. Optical illusions and research into object perception tell us a number of things. First, we learn that we have a heavy reliance on vision. Often we see what we think we should see based on the context of the image. For instance, an object can look bigger than another simply because of placement on the page, not actual size differences. We also learn that we can only see one image at a time. This phenomenon is experienced with the classic figure-ground optical illusion of the vase or two faces. We see one or the other, but never both at the same time. Also we learn that when we are familiar with something we notice less. For instance, we may not notice that pieces are missing from an image because we have filled in the holes to make figures, numbers or letters that we expect to see. After the class where we looked at an assortment of optical illusions, I was left to conclude that often our perceptions just aren’t that good. We see things inaccurately a good part of the time. But it seems that this is actually by design—perceptions are a result of our experience in the world and we perceive things based on this. They help us organize what we see.

Environmental perception differs from traditional perception research in a number of ways. First it differs in the size and complexity of the stimuli used. Traditional perception research is concerned with simple stimuli—brightness, color or depth—whereas environmental perception is concerned with large-scale scenes treated as a whole. A second difference is that in environmental perception research the perceiver is part of the scene, not simply a detached onlooker. Perceivers are often moving around and viewing the place from many angles. Gifford explains that a third difference “is that the perceiver often is connected to the environmental display by a clear goal or purpose.” The perceiver is often doing something—for example watching signs or looking for a road. Essentially, environmental perception seems to have a larger, less specific scope than traditional research. While this may complicate specific findings, I believe it allows for a broader understanding of actual perception. We do not perceive in a vacuum and perception studies are better formulated if they tackle this complexity.

Environmental Cognition:
1. Environmental cognition concerns how we think, process, store and recall information about the physical environment. It includes both spatial cognition, thinking processes that helps us navigate through our environment, and non-spatial cognition, environmental memories and mental models. The concept of cognitive maps is under the umbrella of spatial cognition, and conversely, environmental cognition. Gifford explains that cognitive maps are the “pictorial and semantic images in our heads of how places are arranged.” Cognitive maps can tell us a number of things about our environment. Through inclusions, omissions, distortions and simplifications we may learn how people see their environment and what elements are important. Cognitive maps tell us that we do not necessarily store information like a map. Instead, we learn to store information to serve our own needs, often in an abstract way. We pull bits and pieces of information as we need them. We may simplify, distort or omit information, but it is all in order to serve our personal needs. For instance, in class one student said that her map was very distorted and inaccurate, but that she “got around just fine.”

2. Lynch’s notion of legibility concerns the ease with which a setting may be recognized and ordered by people. Lynch suggested five elements that contribute to legibility. These include: paths, linear elements of environments along which we move; edges, demarcated boundaries; districts, larger areas with their own unique identity; landmarks, points of reference; and nodes, focal points. A particularly legible place for me is Green Lake Park. The path around its edge is clearly marked and distinct. There is one main path with all other short ones branching from it to the road. The street offers a clear edge for the boundary of the park. The lake is a landmark that you can easily see from far up the hill. Points along Green Lake’s shores are specific nodes where people converge—the boathouse on the south-west side, the beach on the east side, the Bathhouse Theatre on the north side. The entire area is a distinct district in its own right. These elements allow for easy navigation through the park even on a first-time visit.

Example 2

Essay Questions Week 1: The Nature and Scope of Environmental Psychology.

1. Gifford defines environmental psychology as “the study of transactions between individuals and their physical settings.” Although it is clear and concise, I find this definition lacking in a few subtle but very important ways. As Gifford discusses later in the chapter, the word “transaction” (vs. interaction) does imply that people and the environment are part of an inclusive whole. However, using the word “interrelationships” in place of “transactions,” as we did in the definition we used in class, conveys much more clearly the holistic nature of these exchanges. I also wonder what motivates the choice of “individuals” instead of “people.” It would seem to me that, although some branches of environmental psychology are concerned with individual perceptions and interactions with the environment, the plural “people” acknowledges that the relationships between and among groups and their environment(s) are at least equally important. In addition, the word “setting” has passive connotations, implying that the environment is a stage upon which human dramas are performed. “Setting” de-emphasizes the fundamental and vital way in which the environment shapes, and is shaped by, the activities of people. I also think it’s helpful to call-out, as we did in class, both the physical (built and “natural”) and the unseen components of what we call the environment. Gifford mentions in his introduction to the field of environmental psychology that it was once identified as “ecological psychology.” I’m sure that there are semantic and theoretical reasons for the change in terminology that I’m not familiar with, but the word ecological used in the name for the field would seem to emphasize the interconnectedness of people and the “environment”, whereas “environment” still implies that the physical world is a separate entity. Wouldn’t “ecological psychology” better embody the fundamental philosophy of the field?
My opinions of what’s unique about the field of environmental psychology are based on very limited experience, but one of the things that most impresses me is that research in this area almost always maintains the ultimate goal of being applied to improve human existence. I know that all social scientists must struggle to find a balance between objective research and subjective motivations. Opinions mean very little without at least some objective basis, but it’s delusional to think that we can come to conclusions that don’t reflect our subjective bias. I would much prefer to know where a person’s bias lies and be able to take that into account as I form my own opinions than to have them hide behind the scientific veil of objectivity. Many of the environmental psychologists whose work we’ve studied so far seem willing to state clearly that their goal is to apply their research for positive social change, yet they still manage to maintain enough scientific validity to give their conclusions a solid footing. I think this proactive, real-world perspective is one of the greatest strengths of the field.

Environmental psychology is obviously highly relevant my chosen profession of landscape architecture/urban planning. Of the countless implications that the field has for designers of the environment, there are two that seem especially essential to me at the moment. The first is incredibly obvious and, it would seem, far too often overlooked: we design for people. Through environmental psychology we can gain a better understanding of how people actually interact (transact?) with their environment and what their real needs and preferences are. I understand that environmental psychology can’t provide a simple blueprint for good people-centered design, but it can give us tools to find solutions for specific situations. The other fundamental lesson of environmental psychology that strikes me now is how important it is to bring to light the opinions and thought processes that we usually take for granted. Assumptions and generalizations are necessary tools without which we wouldn’t be able to process the world. It’s essential, though, to make the effort to become conscious of our particular assumptions and prejudices, at least enough to know that we have them. It’s also important to understand that our individual preferences are not shared by everyone else. Environmental psychology can help us break through the assumptions that limit our creativity and help us find innovative solutions to the real problems that we confront.

2. Of the theories that Gifford summarizes in the text, the category of integral theories most resonates with my own view of the world, specifically what he calls transactionalism and organismic theories. I think it’s important that we recognize that people and the environment are integral parts of a whole. We can’t understand one without the other. Integral theories strike a good balance between this philosophical perspective and real science without soaring quite as far into the ether as environment-centered approaches and ecopsychology do. I understand, though, that it’s easy to say that human/environment relationships form a dynamic, fascinating and complex system, to say, “everything’s connected.” It’s much harder to ask ourselves how things are interconnected and to explore these relationships in a meaningful, concrete way. I can see that, although integral theories might form the foundation of our understanding of environmental psychology, we might have to approach specific problems and research situations through some of the more simplistic theories in order to keep the problems we’re addressing at a manageable scale.
Behavior-setting theory also has interesting implications for the design profession. There’s a fine distinction between saying that a setting facilitates or enables a certain behavior and that it determines it. I obviously wouldn’t be an aspiring designer if I didn’t think that conscious improvement of the physical environment could improve people’s lives. However, it’s arrogant and dismissive of people’s individual creativity and free will to for a designer to think that she can impose a particular behavior pattern by creating the proper environment for it. The much-lamented suburbs are a case in point. It’s easy to say that lack of active public space (front porches, civic squares), access to the home primarily thorough the garage and a host of other design factors keep residents of the suburbs from interacting with each other the way people do in our idealized version of vital city neighborhoods. On one hand, some of these physical constraints to lifestyle are hard to overcome, but I’m sure there are many places built in the suburban pattern where there are strong relationships between neighbors. I would argue that you could transport an entire neighborhood of suburbanites into an impeccably planned new-urbanist community and they would still spend much of their time in their own living rooms following the same patterns that were established in the suburbs. At the very least it would take a long time for people to adapt their culture to the new environment and the environment would likely also adapt to their culture. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that behavior settings develop organically from continued use as much as they are consciously designed.

3. As a person with what has been called a poor sense of direction, I’m particularly interested in the aspects of environmental psychology that have to do with wayfinding. Many other areas of the field have probably done more to improve human life in general, but wayfinding processes are a huge part of our daily lives. Gifford discusses the example of essentially color-coding the floors of a hospital so that visitors and staff can quickly and intuitively identify where they are. Parking garages offer another good example of this technique. I can’t remember the last time I was in a multi-level parking garage that didn’t have some kind of color-coding or cute iconic image to help you remember where you had parked. I would imagine that the adoption of color and graphic images in lieu of simple numbers or letters must be due in part to environmental psychology research that identified them as far superior ways to aid human memory.

I still find Seattle difficult to navigate at times, even after having lived here for three years. One thing that makes it a bit more legible, though, is the visual distinctiveness of most of the neighborhoods in the core of the city. What would happen if you took a sample of people familiar with Seattle, blindfolded them, drove them to a particular block in Capitol Hill, Freemont, Wallingford, the I.D. or Ranier Valley (as just a few examples), removed the blindfold and asked them to identify the neighborhood they were in without looking at street signs or addresses? I would hypothesize that most people would be able to tell you where they were by using the general cues and visual character of the neighborhood. Most of this visual distinctiveness has developed over many years, but the cohesiveness of neighborhoods is reinforced in some cases by contrived identifiers like the banners that hang from light posts along the Ave, Broadway and in several other areas of the city. It’s important, though, that these cues be used to clarify an existing distinction rather than to create a distinction that has no precedent in the local culture. Will we ever hear anyone say, “I’m going down to West Edge to do some shopping,”?
Venice is the most labyrinthine and convoluted city I’ve ever tried to navigate through, but, believe it or not, it’s also one of the easiest (as long as you’re not in much of a hurry to get anywhere in particular). It’s marvelous to take a walk for a few hours through tiny alleys and piazzas without worrying about landmarks to find your way back -- because you probably won’t be able to go the same way in any case. When you do decide that your walk is over, just keep an eye out for one of the signs that points you towards San Marco or the Rialto, follow the arrows, and find yourself back at an identifiable landmark. I’ve had similar experiences in Paris and other cities with a strong underground transit skeleton. It’s liberating to know that you can wander as much as you please and always end up within a few blocks of a metro stop with a handy map that tells you exactly where you are and how to get back to where you came from. I’m sure that both of these situations would be much more frustrating, though, if you didn’t have the luxury of a tourist’s leisurely pace.

4. The main point of Dell Upton’s essay “Seen, Unseen and Scene” is that there is much more to the landscape than that which is visible. Sometimes the physical form of a place communicates the unseen forces that underlie it, but the visible “scene” can also belie or disguise that which is unseen. He laments that the field of landscape studies has traditionally overlooked the intangible narratives of a place in favor of the narrative spelled-out by its superficial appearance. Claire Cooper-Marcus has made a similar plea that landscape architects and urban planners remember that landscapes are created as spaces to be in, not just scenes to look at.

It’s interesting that Upton devotes the bulk of his examples of the relationship between seen, unseen and scene to what he calls “commemorative landscapes.” Although every landscape has a narrative that is partially expressed through its appearance, commemorative landscapes are designed to explicitly communicate a particular narrative, particular values and a particular version of history. His discussion of the memorial at Gettysburg invoked strong correlations with the recent controversy over a statue at the site of the World Trade Center. The statue was to be patterned after a photograph of three firefighters raising an American flag in the pile of rubble. The proposal that the three firefighters, all of whom were white in the photograph, be made to represent other ethnic groups raised tempers and opinions across the nation. Upton tells us that the builders of Gettysburg were obsessed “with physical specificity – with getting the placement just right, with the precise depictions of weapons and equipment, and with the representation of individual soldiers.” He also indicates that, by clinging to specificity and making history a matter of individuals, the commemorators shifted collective focus away from the real roots and causes of the war. For many people, anything but an accurate portrayal of the individuals who were actually in the photograph taken at the World Trade Center smacked of political correctness. You could also argue, though, that if “national unity” is the underlying value that the statue is intended to express a multiethnic group of firefighters would be more symbolic of the tragedy “transcending” divisions between Americans and unifying everyone under one banner. It’s arguable, of course, whether any such unity really existed, or even if we would want it to, but the messages expressed in commemorative landscapes almost necessarily have to gloss-over complex reality in order to symbolize abstract values. In one sense making these symbols concrete and visible elevates unseens, like patriotism or mourning, into the realm of visibility, but other unseens are invariably hidden when we choose which ones are to be brought to the surface.

Essay Questions Week 2: Emotional Relationships to Place: Attachment and Identity

1. Place attachments are the relationships that form between people and particular places. Events are not experienced in a vacuum. The emotions, positive and negative, that arise from an experience will be strongly rooted in the place where we had the experience. Place attachment is most commonly defined in terms of bonds with places that are associated with positive emotions, but I think that traumatic experiences can also form a powerful connection with a place and be just as influential in our future choices. We also defined place attachment in class as “a mutual caretaking bond between a person and a beloved place.” This facet of place attachment connects closely with the previous definition because the feeling of being nurtured or cared for by a place elicits positive emotions.
Place identity refers to the “dimensions of the self that develop in relation to the physical environment” (class, 10/15). In other words, place identity is the way we develop our personalities and define ourselves through interactions with the places and objects around us. Place identity is distilled from the series of place attachments that we experience during the course of our lives. You could say that attachment is the process of which identity is the individual result.
Our bonds to place must be one of the strongest forces that shape our lives. As I said above, no event is separable from its temporal and spatial context. Spatial contexts, although always in flux, are more stable than the temporal continuum. Often attachment to a place is a way for us to maintain a connection with a particular moment in time. By extension, places help us to feel close to other people who shared a place and have since dispersed. A positive attachment to a place may cause us to try to recreate it, and with it all of the pleasant associations it embodies, later in life. A place with negative associations may push us away from new places or experiences that remind us of it. Places are an active context for the processes of individual and social development, personal growth and important life decisions.

2. Our current lives are built upon the foundation of past experiences, filtered through our memories of them. Places can act as an armature for remembered experience, giving structure and supporting memories that might be too wispy to stand on their own. I can recall many times when I’ve uncovered a long-neglected memory by being in the place where it occurred, or even just thinking about a place. Cooper-Marcus adds that our identity may be even more strongly tied to places that we have altered or manipulated to express our individuality, where we have made our “mark.” This point emphasizes the bi-directional (multi-directional?) nature of environmental memory. The places we remember are changed to varying degrees by the meaning we ascribe to them.

As we progress through life, we carry selected items, both physical and psychological, with us from our past. Cooper-Marcus identifies this desire for continuity as one of the primary ways in which environmental memories shape our lives. She sees childhood as a potent source of what we seek to carry forward in our lives, mostly because childhood is so strongly associated with the feelings of being nurtured and protected. Childhood is also when we first start to form and define our identity. Cooper Marcus gives multiple examples of people who try to re-create or glorify the environment of their childhood. Some people cherish the actual objects that were in their childhood home, while others evoke a similar feeling through different objects. It’s interesting to note that not so long ago people could remain physically attached to the actual place where they lived in childhood, as most families stayed in the same town and often in the same house. It’s much more unusual now for people to stay in their ancestral homes. Cooper-Marcus points out that this change in lifestyle means that more significance is now ascribed to movable objects, like family heirlooms, than to the house itself in order to capture the spirit of a place and time. Some people who have more negative associations with their childhood environment do the opposite of trying to re-create it. These people make a point of creating a beautiful space if they think their childhood home was ugly, live with minimal possessions if their childhood was filled with clutter or indulge in rich and luxurious furnishings if their childhood home was sparsely decorated. In either case, a person’s memories of past places, especially childhood, are the reference to which they compare current places. I think most people would fall somewhere between these two extremes. I love the house that I grew up in and would have a hard time emotionally if my parents were to leave it, but I wouldn’t want to live there again. It’s a house that has always been filled with wonderful things, overflowing bookshelves in nearly every room, souvenirs from my parents’ travels and from those of neighbors and friends ... It’s also a place that always had papers piled everywhere, a basement, attic, barn, garage and backyard full of junk (old jungle gyms, cabinets that Mom intended to refinish, firewood from Grandpa’s salvage expeditions, old toys, hand-me-down clothes) and rarely a clear horizontal surface inside (except for the floor, and even that was often well carpeted with toys). I don’t feel at ease without a certain amount of disarray. The pattern I learned in childhood was to let the mess build to a crescendo, become frustrated when I can’t find something important that I absolutely need right away, go through a cleaning blitz and then proceed to let things pile-up again. My Dad kept a garage full of papers for 25 years with the intention of writing a PhD thesis. I do the same thing, keeping objects that I think I will make into something some day (broken pots for mosaics, scraps of yarn and fabric . . .). This habit is fine when you own a house with plenty of storage space. My boyfriend and very patient roommate, however, reminds me that living in a rented apartment means that someday we’ll have to move or dispose of everything I bring home. Because his family moved frequently, he doesn’t have a house that he identifies as his “childhood home”. He could probably fit all of the objects that hold significance for him in two or three apple boxes, while mine would fill a whole moving truck. Both of our preferences clearly reflect the environment that we developed in, but the fact that we can manage to live together in relative harmony also means that we are capable of adapting the patterns we learn from environmental memories to new situations.

3. Hester’s work in Manteo, NC, highlights a frustrating paradox of historical redevelopment. Often the very development that seeks to preserve and capitalize on the historical character of a place, especially a place that is suffering economic hardship, manages to destroy the character and meaning that the place still has for the people who actually live there. Hester began his community design process by seeking to identify the places that held significance to the people of Manteo, not just the places that would turn up on the official radar of historical importance. There was, of course, some overlap between the places that people were actually attached to and the ones that would have been judged as significant by an outsider. However, one of the compelling things that Hester discovered about the places that were seen as Sacred to the residents of Manteo is that existing Historic Preservation Legislation would only have protected two of them. Some of the Sacred Places, like a gravel parking lot, would probably have looked like prime development sites to a planner who failed to observe behavior or ask the locals what it was used for. Hester’s work addresses on a more practical level some of the issues brought up in Dell Upton’s article “seen, unseen and scene.” In this case, the “seen” is the official version of what is significant, primarily obvious places like historical buildings and a waterfront park. The “unseen” is that which holds significance for the community, what Hester is trying to bring to light.

Hester defines “Sacred Structures” as “those places that exemplify, typify, reinforce and perhaps even extol the everyday life, patterns and special rituals of community life.” In essence, these are the places that have formed strong bonds with people. The goal of Hester’s community design process was to legitimize feelings of attachment that the residents of Manteo felt toward aspects of their town. Some of the places that were identified as sacred were places that residents even felt a little embarrassed about, but that still somehow embodied an important aspect of the life of the town. Hester identified the places that were important to the town by observing behavior, interviewing people, sending a questionnaire through the local newspaper, and, most importantly, living in the town while he was working on the project. With an inside/outsider (participant observer) as a sounding board, people found that it was easier to clarify and articulate what they wanted from the process of redevelopment. The eventual codification of the Sacred Structure of Manteo did impose restrictions on development so that important places would be preserved, but the residents were willing to sacrifice some potential economic benefits in order to maintain the integrity of their place attachments. The power of Hester’s technique is that it begins to give place attachment, which is usually a fuzzy, personal thing, a concrete expression and an air of importance so that we can use it as a tool to make changes in the environment better serve the people who will be affected by them.

Essay Questions Week 3: Relationships to Nature

1. Mitchell et al. argue that attachment-based concerns have long been neglected in forest service land planning. Utilitarian criteria have traditionally been what shapes decisions on planning for recreation areas, but the authors’ studies in the Chiwawa river drainage make it clear that many visitors to public lands choose them for other than utilitarian reasons. They classify visitors as Attachment-oriented or User-oriented. Some of the distinctions between different sub-groups are dubious, e.g. the difference between an intimately associated visitor and a dependent visitor. The classification system is necessarily general, but does acknowledge that most people would fit into the system as some combination of multiple categories. Its intention, though, it the classification system’s biggest strength. It attempts to give legitimacy to qualitative emotional distinctions in a decision-making process that has been dominated by utilitarian science and the idea of places as commodities. It is useful mostly in that it clearly articulates that there are people whose repeat visits to a place are motivated more by affective attachments than by the recreational opportunities the find there. Rigid typologies like this one will never be able to completely capture the nuances of human motivations. It’s important, though, to attempt to quantify that which is un-quantifiable if that’s the only way to communicate it’s importance to the people who are making decisions. If the people in charge are science-oriented, it helps to put emotional issues in a framework that can be understood at a more concrete level. The author’s suggest that the emotional characteristics of a place and the ties that people feel to it should be added as another layer of analysis when plans are being made to alter a public recreation area, and, by extension, in other areas of planning for public use as well. They suggest that, while some of the planning technologies that are currently employed by the forest service are incapable of addressing these issues, there’s no reason that affective “data” can’t be added as another layer on a GIS analysis of a site. Their main intent, I think, is to make emotional attachment a legitimate part of the decision-making process.
2. McNaughton and Urrey argue that nature is not a static entity inhabiting a place outside human culture but instead comprised of multiple views of nature that have formed over thousands of years. According to the authors, these views of nature evolve in response to socio-cultural factors. They give examples of the religious underpinnings of the view that nature was something to be cultivated for the benefit of humans. They also discuss three views of nature that are currently prevalent: environmental realism, environmental idealism and environmental instrumentalism. The realist view postulates that nature is observable, unambiguous and can be concretely studied. Environmental idealism developed as a critique of the realist perspective, saying that nature should be analyzed based on the values that people hold about it, values that are stable, underlying and consistent. Environmental instrumentalism searches for people’s motivations to perform environmentally sustainable actions. This approach uses cost-benefit analysis, contingent valuation schemes and other market-based methods to analyze environmental situations. McNaughton and Urrey continue to trace the evolution of views of nature through consumerism, postmodernism and beyond.

The view of nature as multi-faceted develops from a plural perspective and through dialogue. Our views of nature are strongly held, morally charged and hotly contested if they are challenged. The authors say:
Once a singular nature was established, it became possible to consider whether human activities did or did not fit into the “pre-existing natural order.”
The converse of this is also true, that once nature is defined as an indefinable, amorphous entity people lose what had once been a solid reference point. I think that this challenge to our views of nature is a necessary step towards understanding the social conceptions that motivate our choices, and those of people we associate with. The word “contested” does capture some of the relationships between different conceptions of nature, but I think that varied perspectives can also exist in consort to help give us a more complex perspective. It’s always better to come at something from more than one angle. If you don’t, you risk missing something important. In my opinion, “nature” is inclusive of all these contested natures. Some perspectives are indeed in conflict, but many are complimentary. It might be more useful to think of them as plural natures, or facets of a whole. In order to accept this view of the subject, I have to make a distinction in my head between “nature” and the “environment.” I still want to believe that the environment is a real entity, of which we are a part, but which exists independent of our conception of it. The idea of “nature,” or “natures” is a semantic construct by which we try to capture our concept of the environment. The advantage of a concept that acknowledges the contested plurality of nature(s) is that it mirrors the dynamic interactions that animate the environment itself. This is not to say that our conception is now closer to capturing “reality,” but that we are closer to capturing our own thoughts and intentions.

3. Although I find Grampp’s classification of garden types interesting and useful, I do have a few small quibbles. It seems like one of the chief distinctions between the well-tempered garden and the expressionist garden is class. He implies that if a working-class gardener places a pink flamingo in her lawn, for example, the act is in all seriousness. If an expressionist gardener does the same it’s an expression of worldliness and irony. He also implies that, while expressionists work in their gardens for pleasure, well-tempered gardeners don’t do it for leisure but to make their house more impressive to their neighbors. I’ve observed that many people with decidedly well-tempered gardens do indeed enjoy the inherent pleasures of time spent outside. I also wonder where a yard full of decrepit cars fits in his categorization. Maybe this doesn’t qualify as a garden. I guess that his classification system is based on the difficult task of judging the motivations of gardeners who make the various garden types.

Essay Questions Week 4: Environmental Attitudes, Appraisals and Assessments

1. DREAME is an acronym for some of the bases of environmental appraisals. Description is the first dimension represented herein, referring to non-emotional reactions to physical characteristics. Risk is evaluated from a more human-centered perspective, judging the safety of a place to yourself or others. Emotional reactions are more personal, concerning how a place makes you feel. Aesthetic appraisals are judgments of the beauty of a place. Meaning is a personal appraisal of what a place means to you. Evaluation makes a rather absolute judgment of the value of the place, whether it’s good or bad, desirable or unpleasant.
Some of these dimensions are more personal, some more universal. Most of them tend towards subjectivity, although description purports to be objective. In my opinion, the more viewpoints from which we observe a place, the more adequate our appraisal will be. However, not every situation calls for every category of appraisal. Different categories will be given more weight depending on the purpose of the appraisal. For example, when you’re walking down a dark urban street at night, your primary window on the environment might be risk. However, you will most certainly also have emotional reactions and probably judge that the place is less than desirable. Consideration of meaning and aesthetics will likely be less important in this situation. Many of these appraisals are done almost subconsciously throughout our daily life. We don’t often articulate to ourselves what the meaning of a place is to use, but places have strong meaning even if we’re not conscious of it.
I would add the category of utility to this system of environmental appraisal. Of course, utility can’t be judged in general, but it’s an important aspect of whether we see a place to be relevant to us. James Gibson’s theory of affordances is clearly closely related to the idea of utility, what we can do in a space. He would argue that the functional possibilities of a setting are one of the first steps of our appraisal of it. Utility can also be appraised for a less personal, behavioral purpose. If we evaluate a site as to whether it would be an appropriate place to build a school, for example, the site’s utilitarian potential to serve our purposes would be incredibly important. Of course, you would have to assess a place’s utility based on some of the other dimensions of appraisal.

3. The fact that design professionals tend to make environmental appraisals that differ drastically from those of “lay people” has frightening implications for those of us who are going through formal training in the field. I think that designers are more likely to look at an environment based on the visual pictures it makes, where most people instinctively judge a place based on how much they would want to be there. Unless we’re designing spaces solely to impress other professionals, making a place with people in mind is a far superior approach. I think that a large part of the difference between experts and others is that those who have made the environment their profession tend to look at it more intellectually. Most people approach the environment from a more instinctive, emotional perspective. This is not to say that designers and environmental professionals don’t have feelings that guide their impressions or that an instinctive approach is necessarily superior. An environmental scientist might observe an urban space that looks natural and seems capable of supporting a diverse collection of species. Her knowledge of natural systems, however, might tell her that the space is too small to support much biodiversity. Designers also share an intellectual vocabulary of landscape that can aid communication between professionals but which might not be so evident to other people. We design puns in this language of landform that may be clear to those who are “in the know” but, although clever, will be largely irrelevant to users and will not necessarily serve to make the place any more pleasant or useful. I don’t mean to underestimate the general public, as I know that many people appreciate and “get” public art that errs more on the side of clever than practical.

It’s imperative that we as designers make a conscious effort to be aware of our assumptions. It’s also necessary that we not judge our opinions to be superior or more accurate simply because we have been trained to assess environments. Participatory design is one way in which we can better take the user’s opinion into account. People-centered design, as espoused by people like Claire Cooper-Marcus is a strong movement in the field of landscape architecture which we hope will eventually bridge the gap between expert opinions and those of actual users.

Week 5: Environmental Perception and Cognition

1. Optical illusions and research into object perception have made it possible to isolate some of the basic processes and constraints of human perception. For example, selective attention is the principle that we are only able to consciously pay attention to a limited amount of stimuli at once. Figure/ground illusions exemplify this effect, as we can only see one of the figures at a time. The same principle also applies to our perception of the larger environment. We are constantly selecting the information that we choose to take in from amid the barrage of stimulus that greets us in even the blandest environment. Gestalt principles also influence our perception of the environment as well as our reaction to optical illusions. We try to organize a series of shapes on paper by creating associations of proximity, similarity, continuity, connectedness or closure between them. We also complete lines that are merely suggested by the actual forms in the landscape.
The main way in which environmental perception research differs from traditional perception research is that the latter presents subjects with an entire, complex scene, not just an isolated test of a simple perceptual task. In environmental perception research, the subject is an integral part of the scene. He or she is also connected to the environmental display by a clear goal or purpose. This relatively new field of study brings perception research out of the laboratory and into the real world in all its complexity.

2. Environmental cognition is the storage, organization and recall of the physical environment. It is the final stage in a sequence that leads from sensation, through perception to cognition. Environmental cognition breaks down into two main categories. The first, non-spatial cognition includes environmental memories and mental models. The second, spatial cognition, addresses wayfinding, or how we navigate in our environment. A cognitive map is the spatial, navigational knowledge we store in our heads and use to get from place to place every day. Cognitive maps can’t be seen, obviously, because they are stored inside our brains, but sketch mapping is a technique that is used to try to give cognitive maps a visible form. Sketch maps can give us an idea of how legible a particular environment is and which elements most dominate a person’s conception of the place they are mapping. Lynch used a number of sketch maps to discover which elements of a particular city were prominent organizing principles for wayfinding. Sketch maps, though, often tell us as much or more about their creator as about the place they are trying to map. Inaccuracies in sketch maps are an important means for us to understand how people understand their environment. Sketch maps are most often simplified because we only learn and store information about our environments insofar as it serves our utilitarian needs. The ways people think about the environment are especially evident in mistakes based on principles like the super-ordinate scale bias. These distortions in our cognitive maps show that we generally organize information by category, starting with the largest category and moving to smaller ones. Something’s omission from a sketch map, for example, tells us that it’s not very important to the person drawing the map. Distortions that make things bigger or smaller than they would normally be show us their relative importance. It’s important to remember that, although sketch maps can tell us a lot about the way we store spatial information in our heads, they are not a direct transcription of our cognitive maps.

3. “Legibility” refers to the ease with which the physical environment can be identified, organized and navigated by people. In other words, legibility is the extent to which a setting can be “read,” organized and made sense of. According to Lynch, the elements of the designed environment that support legibility are paths, edges, nodes, landmarks and districts. Paths are linear elements along which we move. Edges mark boundaries and can be permeable transitions or barriers to movement. Nodes are focal points and points of convergence or concentration. The often, but not always, occur at important intersections between paths. Landmarks are points of reference that we navigate by. Landmarks can range in scale. Some are big and prominent, like the Space Needle, but a familiar patch of grass growing through the sidewalk on your way home can also serve as a landmark if you use it to determine how far you’ve come. Lynch’s actual definition of a landmark is that it should be something that you can’t go inside, but I think it’s clear that there are many buildings that serve as landmarks from afar but that can be entered. Districts, larger areas that have a distinct, unifying character, are the last of Lynch’s elements of a legible environment.

As I discussed previously, I find that Seattle’s distinct neighborhoods, or districts, help to make it more legible. I still, though, have a terrible time finding my way new places here because the obstacles of landform and water, the very things that so define the neighborhoods, mean that you can’t just drive in the general direction that you want to go because you’ll inevitably be cut off at some point.
The town in eastern Colorado where I grew up is arranged on a strong grid system. I’m sure pure familiarity is part of the reason that I find my hometown especially legible, but I think the street layout would probably be clear even to a new visitor. I do tend to navigate, though, by assuming that places with similar characteristics will be close together. I remember once when I was seven or eight I was riding in the car with relatives from out of town. They asked me how to get to a particular location, which I remembered as being next to the railroad tracks. The directions that I gave them, though, took us to an entirely different portion of the railroad tracks. The places looked similar, but weren’t anywhere near each other. A consistent layout can make a place easier to navigate, but lack of visual distinctiveness makes it much harder to form a clear image of an urban area.

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