Public Spaces Make Healthy Cities

It is widely recognized that public spaces or urban open spaces are beneficial to our communities and cities. They are places where people can gather and relax and they can serve as platforms for social and political change. As the global population rises, the pressure for cities to accommodate the influx of people moving from the country to cities increases. The environmental stressors that arise from living in dense urban environments can be detrimental to our physical and mental well-being. Now more than ever, the availability and design of good quality public spaces is necessary for the health of our cities.

An extensive amount of research has been published on public spaces highlighting the factors that make them successful, examining design elements that make them inviting/uninviting, and listing the ways they enhance our lives. Much of the available literature is, nevertheless, written from the perspective of designers, architects, and urban planners. Few studies have been conducted from a psychological perspective. This perspective is necessary when approaching the design of our built environments as our behaviors, attitudes, and preferences are complex and no one design or approach can capture our differing needs. I am not proposing that planners and architects account for all the variables that may influence our experiences, but an understanding and appreciation of these complexities can help to maximize the benefits of public spaces.

Where Environmental Psychology Meets the Design of Public Spaces

Environmental stress occurs when there is an imbalance between environmental demands and human response capabilities. Urban density promotes stronger stress responses when we perceive that we do not have control over any given situation. A good example of this is crowding. When there are too many people in a small space, our ability to control our personal space is limiting. Understanding different types of environmental stressors that people experience in cities can help us to design public spaces that counter those stressors. For crowding, a potential solution could be to design spaces that provide people with multiple different options for relaxing and meet varying levels of desire to regulate personal space.

Environmental Psychology allows for a deeper understanding of the complexities that make up different design preferences.

Prospect refuge theory which states that we innately look for places where we can see (prospect) without being seen (refuge) also highlights the need for control of our environment. Affordance theory states that we perceive our environment not only in terms of objects and spatial relationships but also in terms of possible actions (affordances) the environment makes available to us. Public spaces that are poorly designed and do not afford certain behaviors such as sitting, relaxing, observing others, feeling safe, etc., may also evoke environmental stress and cause people not to visit or stay in that space. There is a large amount of research in environmental psychology that focuses on individual preferences for the built environment and what features we respond to positively and negatively. This is helpful for the design of public spaces.

Environmental psychologists can assist planners, designers, and architects in shaping public spaces to best meet the needs of the people who use them and help alleviate some of the negative impacts of urbanization. As a true psychologist would say, we are all complex individuals and we each bring unique skills to the table. Let’s bring those skills together across our respective professions and improve our public spaces.

Not sure about what environmental psychology is about generally? Read this EΨch Insight article for a brief overview!

Carla Wietgrefe

Carla Wietgrefe

Environmental Psychologist & Qualitative Researcher

public space enthusiast (check insta account Public Spaces Behavior), feminist urbanista, & environmental psychologist @The City of San Francisco, USA