Environmental psychology: short and sweet

As an environmental psychologist, I get a lot of questions about what it exactly is that I do. Past confused attempts made to understand “environmental psychology” included interesting assumptions such as: “Does it mean you’re looking at the psychology of the… environment…?” While I would absolutely love to have that particular superpower at my disposal and overthrow ignorant policymakers by conspiring with majestic mountains and neglected neighborhoods, the skill set of environmental psychologists does not include tree and concrete whispering.

Environmental psychology looks at the relationship between people and the environment. This includes how people interact with, experience, or perceive their environment, as well as how they affect it. The environment can be anything from a public park, to a working space, or even an entire neighborhood – as long as the emphasis is placed on the physical elements of an environment. Environmental psychologists make a distinction between two types of physical environments: the natural environment (nature, beach, mountains, etc.) and the built environment (as the name suggests, anything made from bricks).

Environmental psychology provides tools to study perceptions, experiences, and behaviors of people in spaces and places. This can help us create better environments as a result.

Environmental psychologists could play an important role in difficult global challenges we’re facing today. According to the UN, currently 54% of the world’s population is living in urban areas and this percentage is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. This has great implications for the lives of millions of people and raises difficult questions like: How can we build resilient cities that can sustain a rapidly growing population without exhausting the world’s limited resources? How can we prevent segregation between groups of people in different spaces? Can we shape the environment in ways that encourages pro-environmental behaviors and lifestyles? In what ways can we create inclusive environments that nurture vulnerable populations and minority groups?

Caught in the middle: environmental psychologists as “desciencers”

According to Nasar (2008), designers and scientists take a different approach when looking at environments. Designers tend to take a top-down approach, emphasizing historical context, knowledge, and creativity, while scientists take a bottoms-up approach where they need to dissect concepts to testable and controllable variables. Environmental psychologists ambitiously aim to bring those two perspectives together and operate as what I like to call desciencers.

Desciencing allows us to focus on research from a problem-solving perspective that is applicable to the real world and is necessary for understanding daily processes like why we feel the need to personalize our desk, or when we are more likely to litter in public spaces, and how on earth patients with a view overlooking nature get better faster than those without. By understanding these type of processes we hope to assist designers, architects, planners, policy-makers, or any other interested individuals in creating better environments.

In conclusion, in spite of being a relatively young scientific discipline, environmental psychology has much to offer and we do hope to welcome many of you into this vibrant community…

Craving more content? Also read this EΨch Insight article on the role of psychology in the design of public spaces.

Kübra Zehra

Kübra Zehra

Environmental psychologist & Researcher

Founder of EΨch, environmental psychologist (MSc; PhD student) and pro healthy & inclusive spaces @sometimes Guildford, UK, & sometimes Rotterdam, the Netherlands