Environmental psychology

Environmental psychology measures the effect of the physical and social environment on the health and well-being of individuals and communities. The discipline has a rich history stretching back over 50 years. The vast evidence it has gathered includes:

• the harmful effects of ugliness - this could be a building, cheap materials, bad urban design or townscape planning;

• the restorative effects of beauty, even though what beauty is in a context will be subject to debate;

• the impact on people of a clutter of signs and information overload;

• the disorienting effects of confusion in the urban environment in terms of feeling safe;

• the influence of height on the senses, feeling overwhelmed by the townscape, especially when the pavements are too narrow;

• the impact of heaviness or clunkiness of buildings;

• The consequences of seas of endless asphalt, wide roads and turning circles or sprawl;

• how mental geography determines a sense of well-being; thus the effect of people feeling cut off by roads, barriers and obstacles;

• the effect of motorway gateways, such as 'spaghetti junction' in Birmingham, or looming overpasses;

• feelings about dirt and rubbish and the subsequent lack of care people have for their environment; and

• the repercussions of noise and car dominance.

Clearly both beauty and ugliness are relative terms, yet there is a surprising coalescence in agreeing their scope. It is often highlighted that more traditional designs are favoured over the modern. This is often seen as a consequence of the failure of many new housing designs in the 1960s,32 but in fact there is a complex of reasons. One is the impact of the speed of change, which leads to a pervasiveness of risk consciousness - and anything modern is risky. It feeds deeper anxieties about our notion of progress and the arrogance and overconfidence of science and technology that it can solve any problem. In this context, the past and nostalgia seem like a safe, comforting place. Experimenting with new designs for living that might work better seems frightening.

Depending on age, class, life position and income, concepts of aesthetics and good design vary, while what is deemed ugly tends to cut across divisions. Unsurprisingly, the net effect of beautiful, well-designed, high quality physical environments is that they feel restorative, more care is taken of them, feelings of stress and fear of crime is reduced, and social mixing increases, as does hope, motivation and confidence in the future and thus well-being. 'Natural' environments have similar restorative effects.

By contrast, ugly environments increase crime and fear of crime and lead to stress, vandalism, untidiness, feelings of depression, isolation, loneliness, worthlessness, a lack of aspiration and a drained will. The consequence is a self-reinforcing negative cycle, the likelihood of less employment, reduced social capital and less social bonding, although community spirit can occasionally be intensely strong in places of such disadvantage. A core question to any architect is then, 'How does your structure help build social capital?'

similar evidence exists for other phenomena, such as how levels of noise cause people to shut off and become uncommunicative, how a lack of quality space makes people feel impoverished, how too many cars overwhelm, or how wide open asphalt or concrete can lead to depression.

Within each of these, there are the thresholds of change that people can psychologically bear. people are affected by, but cope with, say, a pub changing its name three times in a few years. Anchoring either in physical space, through the community or with peers is key. Interestingly, change and variability are more accepted when decisions go with the flow and grain of a local culture, and culture thus becomes a backbone rather than a defensive shield. so working with and uncovering this 'cultural stuff' through consultation processes is far more central than we think.

This brings us to the third large domain missing in city-making - cultural literacy.

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