Home, Windows, Sunshine and Your Health

Home, Windows, Sunshine and Your Health

Home: a vehicle for wealth and investment or a social good?

Thoughts on healthy housing

The capitalization of the housing market has changed the concept of home from a necessity to a luxury commodity. As a result, creating a home has become unaffordable, “a vehicle for wealth and investment rather than a social good (Taylor, 2019),” or even “a commodity instead of a human right (Dolack).” In this insight article I’d like to focus on a topic which some of us might even have had first-hand experience with: looking for a house that fits health standards or “healthy housing.” In other words, instead of going into the lack of affordable housing, money laundry or foreign investments, I will be exploring the process of looking for a house through an environmental psychology perspective.

New to environmental psychology? Read a brief article on what it is and why you should care here.

Although some of us may know about the ‘Maslow Hierarchy of Needs’ and be aware that shelter is one of the basic needs for all human beings, the main approach toward housing tends to emphasize financial aspects rather than humanitarian ones. There are many reasons and factors underlying this approach in urban development. One of these factors, which I had a chance to experience myself while looking for housing through real estate agents, is the lack of knowledge.

The agents that worked on my case tended to look at the concept of “home” as a future sellable investment opportunity rather than a place that meets my basic needs.

I have studied the impact of living in substandard spaces on people’s health and well-being and am familiar how in the long run these health issues can expand from psychological ones to sometimes detrimental mental health issues. The agents that worked on my case tended to look at  the concept of “home” as a future sellable investment opportunity in a good location with a nice view rather than a place that meets my basic needs.


How environmental psychology can help with making healthy housing choices.

A window view from home 
“Home” by StockSnap at Pixabay

Challenges in finding healthy housing

Particularly as an environmental psychologist and architect whose expertise is on the design of homes, I found the experience of working with these real estate agents in Toronto frustrating. Two of the four agents on the listing were not aware of the direction of the sun rise; most agents did not know whether the unit was south or north-facing. Instead they worked with a rule of thumb where the direction in which the front door opens was apparently the direction the property faced. I literally had to take along a compass to some properties to show and convince my real estate agents that this rule of thumb isn’t exactly absolute. In the end, not all entrances were aligned with the positioning of the windows and most listings on the websites were incorrect. So just relying on real estate agents, however helpful they may be, isn’t enough to confirm whether there’s enough natural sunlight filtering through the window positionings.

Why is it so important to know whether your potential home-to-be faces South, North, West, or East?

Let me explain.

Every home need operable window, sunshine, natural lighting and a good view. These are necessary for our health and wellness and especially important if we have little ones at home.

According to research, for example, North American adults spend about 87% of their time indoors, and operable windows or proper ventilation systems are crucial to ensure they decrease the amount of biological and chemical contaminants (Dales et al. 2008) they are exposed to. The first important function of windows is to provide natural air circulation and ventilation which often decreases the amount of CO2, VOCs and formaldehyde and increases the indoor air quality (The Well Standard, 2019).

I was surprised when I read in the ‘Happy City’ book, that Vancouverites prefer views to the North and West but not the South. Charles Montgomery talks about this local obsession with views and says: “almost nobody in the city wants to face south, where the sun occasionally appears through the rain clouds” (p118, p2). How did Vancouverites come to the conclusion that views were more important than sunshine and natural lighting?

Seems to me real estate plays a role here.

Why? Since they are the ones responsible for selecting a property (Kethley  et al., 2002) and not all of them are equipped with the professional knowledge of standard housing. They are historically considered to act as salesmen for the housing industry (Jude & Frew, 1986) and not scientists.


A window to the heart and health?

Natural views, lighting, exposure to Vitamine D & air quality

Studies have shown that natural views in particular can have restorative effects. There’s no doubt about that, but architecturally speaking, not opting for south-facing windows with sunshine is simply wrong, unhealthy, and far from energy-efficiency unless we are designing for a hot climate. South-facing windows can provide natural and free heating and thermal comfort and save energy. Sunshine has cleansing properties that’s good for homes with little kids and pets.Especially during the COVID19 pandemic it’s important  to benefit from natural air-circulation and solar irradiation through windows as they can help cleansing the environment. Historical evidence of former pandemics has indicated that fresh air and sunshine can speed up recovery from viral infections (Hobday, 2020). A human’s body needs direct sunshine on the skin to enable the production of Vitamin D3. So even if we don’t have a garden, or a balcony, having an operable south-facing window is necessary to store our bodies with Vitamin D3. Harbolic says: “Only 20% of our vitamin D is meant to come from our diet with the remaining 80% is provided by our skin from UV-B exposure to the sun.”

Windows are not just about sunshine and thermal energies, they can improve air quality, provide views and refuge for people.

Most of us in North- America or the UK have experienced Vitamin D deficiency and know how it can disrupt our physical and mental functioning and, in return, our quality of life. We need to expose our skin to the direct sun because through glass our skin cannot produce Vitamin D3. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2018) published a meta-analysis which shows vitamin D deficiency can contribute to depression.

Windows are not just about sunshine and thermal energies, they can improve air quality, provide views and refuge for people. In addition, they have relaxing and restoration properties if they look out on natural sceneries. There is a long list of research studies in environmental psychology that illustrates the benefits of windows on well-being and mental health. I believe it is the responsibility of architects and environmental psychologists to inform people what the characteristics of healthy spaces for living are. Furthermore, I think we have an active duty to inform the real-estate market or uneducated builders about healthy housing standards and unnecessary population risks. Raising awareness about these kinds of themes is very important to me. This is why I decided to design an online course and guide on how to identify a healthy standard home for home seekers. I’m hoping this will benefit buyers, renters, students and especially real estate agents to identify healthy spaces which can respond to the personal needs and safety standards all humans need to function. I’ll keep you updated once the course is up and running on EnDesignSED school, so sign up for the ePSIch newsletter and stay tuned!

Written by Dr. Negin Minaei, edited by Kübra Zehra Kaşıkçı

Anglin, R. E., Samaan, Z., Walter, S. D., & McDonald, S. D. (2013). Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. The British journal of psychiatry, 202(2), 100-107. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/vitamin-d-deficiency-and-depression-in-adults-systematic-review-and-metaanalysis/F4E7DFBE5A7B99C9E6430AF472286860

Dales, R., Liu, L., Wheeler, A. J., & Gilbert, N. L. (2008). Quality of indoor residential air and health. Cmaj, 179(2), 147-152.

Dolack, P. (2017). When Housing is a Commodity Instead of a Human Right,  https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/05/12/when-housing-is-a-commodity-instead-of-a-human-right/

Jud, G. D., & Frew, J. (1986). Real estate brokers, housing prices, and the demand for housing. Urban Studies, 23(1), 21-31.

Harbolick, B. K. (?).  Vitamin D Deficiency. https://www.medicinenet.com/vitamin_d_deficiency/article.htm

Kethley, R. B., Waller, B. D., & Festervand, T. A. (2002). Improving customer service in the real estate industry: a property selection model using Taguchi loss functions. Total Quality Management, 13(6), 739-748.

Montgomery, C. (2013). Happy city: Transforming our lives through urban design. Macmillan. https://thehappycity.com/

Taylor, R. (2019). Housing as a Commodity. https://toughnickel.com/real-estate/Housing-as-a-Commodity

WELL. (2019). WELL Building Standard, https://standard.wellcertified.com/well

Dr. Negin Minaei

Dr. Negin Minaei

Director EnDesign, Social Environmental Design

Dr. Negin Minaei has taught architecture and urbanism courses at different universities for the past 20 years. She holds a MArch in Architectural Engineering (Solar Passive Design), a PhD in Urbanism (Global Cities), and a MSc in Environmental Psychology (cognitive maps). She researched ‘Transnational Spaces’ in Bauhaus, and Sustainable Urbanism during her post-doctoral in UK. She has been a member of the Academy of Urbansim in UK, PassiveHouse Canada and the International Passivehaus Institute. She developed the “Sustainable Smart Cities” course at the UWindsor. She is currently a visiting scholar at the City Institute of York University researching Future Cities, Healthy Cities, and housing. She is the founder of EnDesign, Social Environmental Design, where she educates, consults and designs happy healthy spaces.
Airports: Spaces that NEED Science

Airports: Spaces that NEED Science

The airports on our planet need environmental psychology.  A lot. They’re packed with people who are stressed, for any number of reasons—some are concerned about making connections, for example, and others are nervous about flying, even if their flights are on schedule. Environmental design can make the lives of people in airports less stressful, and even more pleasant. The next paragraphs will look at examples in environmental psychology research that can be applied to designing airports.

These insights gathered from environmental psychology research show how airports can be designed as more pleasant places for employees and travelers to spend time.

1. Feeling safe and in control

Some seats in every waiting area should supply users with what’s known in the environmental psych biz as prospect and refuge (Heerwagen and Gregory, 2008). That means that the people sitting in them feel protected and have a view out over the nearby area, the way someone at the mouth of a cave on a hillside would.  Clearly, not all seats can be arranged so that people sitting in them find a wall (full height or shorter) or a plant or the tall back of a chair, or something similar, behind themselves. But when that can happen, the people seated are more likely to feel comfortable.  It’s alien and unpleasant for humans to sit with unprotected backs in the midst of a sea of people traveling to ticket counters, departure gates, and overpriced hot dogs.

Also, feeling that we have a reasonable amount of control over our environment is necessary for our psychological wellbeing, and it’s particularly important as at-airport waits continue (Leotti, Iyengar, and Ochsne, 2010). A reasonable level of control (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000) means that we can do things such as select from a variety of seats in assorted configurations, decide what sort of over-priced airport snacks we prefer, and choose where to recharge our stash of electronic devices, for example. Too many choices can be overpowering, so it’s best if those planning airports pare options down to the ones people are most likely to need/use—fifteen seating configurations are too many, six probably meet most travelers’ needs.

2. Multiple options for using the same space

A range of space-use options also makes it more likely that people from different national cultures and with varying personalities feel comfortable in a space (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov, 2010; Cain, 2012). For example, people from some cultures prefer to sit physically closer to each other and members of other cultures are more likely to be “at-a-distance-talkers”  (Gifford, 2014).  When an assortment of options is provided—if, for example, in a waiting area there are some seats that are relatively close to each other or that don’t have armrests between seatmates and other chairs that are farther apart or that have armrests—people from various cultures with different personalities can spend time together without amping up each others’ stress levels. Moveable seats, ones that are not bolted the floor, also allow culture- and personality-consistent configurations.  Seating options provided also must reflect the reality that humans come in a variety of heights and weights.

Images from Arlanda airport in Stockholm – this aiport design example consists of a waiting area featuring lots of wood and pivoting, curved chairs.

3. Designing an airport that pleases the senses

Warm colored light is a good choice for airport, waiting areas, restaurants, etc., because it helps us relax and to get along with others (Wessolowski, Koenig, Schulte-Markwort, and Barkmann, 2014). Cool colored light can be good in some airport spaces, such as ticket counters, however, because it has been linked to enhanced concentration  (Weitbrecht, Barwolff, Lischke, and Junger, 2015).

Airport interiors are packed with travelers and airline/airport employees under pressure, so using stress-busting surface colors and finishes is a good idea. These colors are not very saturated but relatively bright (Valdez and Mehrabian, 1994); sage greens or dusty blues with lots of white mixed into them can help stress levels in check.  Time seems to pass more slowly in warm-colored spaces than cooler-colored ones (Baker and Cameron, 1996), so cool colors are better options for airport interiors.  Research by Fell indicates that seeing wood grain also helps us de-stress (Fell, 2010).  Using it in floors and other surfaces is a good bet, as long as it’s been harvested as a renewable resource and covers less than 45% of the available surface areas (Masuda and Yamamoto, 1988; Tsunetsugu, Miyazaki, and Sato, 2007).

Curves in at-airport forms and patterns are desirable because we find curved elements more calming and beautiful to view than more rectilinear ones (Dazkir and Reed, 2012; Vartanian, Navarrete, Chatterjee, Fich, Leder, Modrono, Nadal, Rostrup, and Skov, 2013). The point here relates to relative numbers of curve-y and straight lines in carpeting, upholstery, seat forms, etc.  A space that’s entirely curvilinear seems to be lifted from a kids’ cartoon, and one that’s entirely rectilinear brings horror movies, or falling into a machine, to mind.

Scents can be used strategically in airports. There is less littering, for example, in spaces that smell like cleaning products, for example (de Lange, Debets, Ruitenburg, and Holland, 2012).

 Airports generally have windows that overlook the runways, and that’s a good thing. Natural light has been shown to boost our moods and enhance our cognitive performance, which can be handy when we’re working with a gate agent to rebook a flight (Boyce, Genter, and Howlette, 2003).

The views of nature that come through those windows may or may not provide the sorts of restorative views that de-stress us, ones with grasses and other vegetation, for example (Kaplan, 1995). When outdoor plants aren’t available to combat traveler tension, indoor ones can help keep stress levels in check (Lohr, Pearson-Mims, and Goodwin, 1996).  Green and leafy plants are best and a select group will suffice if they’re positioned so that a few are visible at any one time to anyone looking through the space (Larsen, Adams, Beal, Kweon, and Tyler, 1998).

 4. Ease of navigating and movement

 Wayfinding signage that tells us what we need to know, via words/images/graphics we understand, leads to more positive traveling experiences (Mollerup, 2013). Sign design has been extensively studied by cognitive scientists, and they’ve learned a lot about how signs should communicate.  For example, adding people to signs, and showing them in motion/active, makes content easier to understand (Cian, Krishna, and Elder, 2015).

 Gently curving hallways are a good idea in airports, they encourage us to keep walking (Joye, 2007).

People waiting need information; if they don’t get it their moods degrade with eacpassing, uniformed tick of the clock (Ledbetter, Mohamed-Ameen, Oglesby, and Boyce, 2013). Ideally information boards are distributed throughout a waiting area so that people can read flight related updates without either momentarily abandoning their possessions and racing to an information board or packing up all their possessions and toddling off in search of the info they require.

Sally Augustin

Sally Augustin

Publisher of Research Design Connections

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a practicing environmental psychologist, an internationally recognized expert on person-centered design, and publisher and editor of Research Design Connections.  She has extensive experience using rigorous protocols to integrate insights from environmental/design psychology, other social/physical sciences, and project specific research to develop places, objects, and services that support desired experiences.

As the editor of Research Design Connections, she has written widely on science-based design for a broad audience of design professionals and those interested in the designed world. Her Research Design Connections blog is read by thousands of individuals each month.

Behavioral Economics: Environmental Edition

Behavioral Economics: Environmental Edition

Social norms and sustainable behavior

Have you ever wondered why you’re more likely to take public transportation if your friends are doing it? Or how even if you have long term plans to eat more sustainable and healthier, somehow you feel like you’re always saying that you’re going to start tomorrow?

Welcome to the psychology of sustainable behavior, or behavioral economics for environmentalism. In terms of environmental sustainability, our behavior is at the root of the environmental consequences we face. There are many psychological forces that dictate our actions in ways that we are unaware of. We are unconscious of as much as 80% of the factors that influence our behavior. So what are these hidden factors and how can they be used to encourage more sustainable behavior?

Welcome to the psychology of sustainable behavior: we are unconscious of as much as 80% of the factors that affect our behavior.

Social norms and how they are communicated to us significantly impact the choices we make. When we don’t have strong attitudes on a given matter, we are more likely to adopt the behaviors of the people around us as a way to make ourselves feel safe, known as the social proof heuristic. Descriptive norms explain what behavior the population is doing. For example, a sign saying that 75% of employees recycle is a descriptive statistic that is likely to encourage more people to recycle due to that being the norm. An injunctive norm is a reminder to show us what is socially acceptable. Giving a smiley face to those who recycle encourages recycling because it is seen as the desirable behavior, while giving a frowny face to those who don’t recycle will show them that this is not the socially acceptable behavior. With many behaviors we engage in, we typically look to our peers for cues on actions we should take.

Example of an injunctive norm in a bus station in Istanbul shared by our contributor Büşra Kızık. Left sign says: “Trash bin <– 4 meters,” while the right one says: “Please do not throw your trash on the floor,” with “on the floor” highlighted in yellow. 

Promoting sustainable behaviors 101

Perceived behavioral control is another key factor in determining how we will behave. Situational barriers and facilitators can alter our actions and how much control we feel we have. Let’s say you feel strongly about composting your food scraps. A situational barrier would be if there are no composting bins in your dining hall; it’s less likely you will go through the extra effort to save the food scraps until you find a composting bin then to go against your beliefs in that moment and throw them away in garbage. A facilitator would be making the environmentally sustainable choice the default option or the easiest choice to make. For example, the vegetarian lunch was made the default option at a conference, resulting in 80% of people eating the vegetarian lunch, instead of 17% of people when the vegetarian option was not the default. When the sustainable behavior is made to be the easiest behavior in a given setting, it is much more likely that we will engage in that behavior.

When it comes to promoting sustainable behavior, incentives are a tricky motivator. Though the instinct might be to reward those who are engaging in a sustainable behavior, people are twice as motivated by avoiding loss than gaining a reward. For example, charging five cents for using a plastic bag at the grocery store is a successful campaign where the thought of losing five cents encourages people to bring their own reusable bags to the store. Even with loss aversion being a motivator, people are more likely to create a habit that they are intrinsically motivated by than adopting behaviors based on external pressures, known as the self-determinism theory.

There are many other factors, from the framing of messages to a host of our internal heuristics, that nudge our behavior in a certain direction. It is important to take a step back to be aware of why you’re choosing to make a certain decision, especially if it is the less environmentally sustainable option, and reflect on why you’re choosing that behavior. Behavioral economics for environmentalism has been studied less than other areas of decision-making, and still has yet to be applied in many aspects. Environmentally sustainable choices are also more complex than other choices, because it involves making decisions based on long-term abstract benefits for the earth and not necessarily on seeing the benefits first hand, which goes against our natural hedonistic instincts.

Jade Cooper

Jade Cooper

Environmental Psychologist & Preschool Teacher

A nature loving tree hugger passionate about reducing our environmental impact through behavior change.

Maggie’s Centre: Vision and Reality.

Maggie’s Centre: Vision and Reality.

Maggie Keswick Jencks: an author and landscape architect, she was surrounded by other designers, architects and academics. She met her husband, Charles Alexander Jencks, an architect, lecturer and theorist while studying at Architecture Association in London.  Maggie and Charles travelled exhaustively, assessing buildings, meeting architects and academics, and giving lectures and attending conferences. Her extensive design knowledge and experience made her excellent architecture critic.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47, she experienced the spaces as a patient. She had a mastectomy and was cancer-free for five years; it returned as advanced metastatic breast cancer, hurling her into the maelstrom. Maggie and her family heard of a trial at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, and they decided to fight. This place is where Maggie, as a patient and a designer, had insights about the psycho-social needs of the patients. She was disappointed with the conventional hospital which failed to support the psycho-social needs of the patients. This experience inspired her to create an additional facility for cancer hospitals that had a different kind of space and function compared to the conventional hospital.

In these “Maggie’s Centre” series’ I will outline essential elements of these centres and critically discuss the strengths and weaknesses of them by applying environmental psychology theories and frameworks.  

Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, UK
Maggie Centre by Park Page architects, Highlands, UK

It is well known that the facade of a building makes the first impression. Western General Hospital failed to make a good first impression for Maggie; she says that it made her anxious. Maggie’s impression of late Victorian and Edwardian style building highlights the importance of Kopec (2006)’s suggestion to use human-scale elements in healthcare buildings and avoid massive buildings with uninterrupted facades. The importance of scale and massing is evident from the fact the AEDET Evolution checklist (Achieving Excellence Design Evaluation Toolkit) used by UK National Health services (NHS) discusses the building massing and scale as an essential factor of a fair healthcare environment.

Although Maggie and Charles encouraged architects to create building such that their exteriors are aesthetically stimulating and sensitive to surroundings, it is entirely possible that comforting and reassuring facade was achieved through human-scale elements. Since Maggie centres were designed as an additional facility to the hospitals, they resemble outposts, in Kopec’s words (2006), – ‘a small-family house like buildings’. The eccentric exteriors may not significantly contribute to the warm, welcoming quality of Maggie Centre when compared to the scale of the building.

Anyone who has been to a hospital would know that the time passes slowest in the waiting room. Maggie had a distaste for clinical appearance of the waiting areas; she believed that have a cause psychological distress and wrote: “patients like herself were left to wilt under the desiccating glare of fluorescent lights.” Kopec (2006)  explains this experience in his book. He bases his argument on Barker’s Behavior setting theory (1968) which states that a physical or psychological environment elicits or supports certain types of behaviour. Kopec argues that the typical appearance of the hospital environment elicits one’s role as patient. In this case, the resulting behaviours are what Parsons (1951) called “sick role”,  includes passivity in health care decision, the surrendering of one’s belief to a person of power, and behaviours related to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness, or feeling helpless in the face of a negative situation, cause depression and stress.

Because of her dissatisfaction with the institutional nature of the spaces in hospitals, she envisioned the ideal waiting area to be a well-lit pleasant room with a view out to nature, and chairs and sofas arranged in various groupings to create an opportunity for the patients to interact and relax. She wanted to provide facilities for patients where they could make their cup of coffee or tea. The kitchen often takes centre stage in the Maggie centres. She described facilities provided by Maggie centre as ‘away from home care’, and her concepts aim at creating a home-like environment, which is consistent with guidelines set by organisations such as the World Health Organization (2007) and Planetree (2009).

She despised the partitioned toilet, and her vision included an ‘old-fashioned ladies room’ – a room with hand basin and mirror, a proper door with the door frame so that the visitor can cry privately and compose oneself before getting back to the public space. Maggie was not the only one, a survey conducted by Stern and her colleagues (2003) found privacy to be one of the crucial features of the hospital care environment. Nevertheless, Altman (1975) explains that people prefer different means of achieving privacy. So,  it is essential to provide more than one way of achieving privacy.

Waiting area at Watford General Hospital.  
They waited in an awful interior space with neon lighting and then the nurse told them to come in.  

They asked: “How long have we got?”  

To which the doctor said: “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes, we really want to know.”  

“Two to three months.”


And then the nurse explained. “I’m very sorry, dear, but we’ll have to move you out into the corridor, we have so many people waiting.”

They sat in a “windowless corridor trying to deal with this business, having two to three months to live. And as They sat there, various nurses who I knew came up to them and said, very cheerfully, ‘Hello dear, how are you?’ ‘Well,’ managing a laugh, Maggie said ‘I’m fine!'” 

Maggie Centre by Cullinan Studio, Newcastle, UK.
Maggie Centre by Cullinan Studio, Newcastle, UK.
Maggie Centre by MPJ Architects, Cheltenham, UK.
Maggie Centre by Zaha Hadid, Fife, UK.

Finally, she expressed concerns about doctors being dismissive of complementary treatments such as diets and exercise. She believed that her diet helped her even though she was aware of changing one’s diet was not considered to be cancer preventive and lacked evidence as treatment. She wished to help others find the complementary treatment that worked for them. So, Maggie centre was created as a warm and welcoming place with a library, an office and a gathering space that would offer information, psychological support, advice on nutrition, exercise and relaxation therapies, thereby helping each visitor to find their way of coping with the disease. It is entirely possible that the complementary treatments do not make a significant contribution to physiological health. However, these programs could restore the sense of control by involving patients in their healthcare planning and mitigate the effects of learned helplessness such as stress and depression. It is essential that designers and stakeholders consider these practices as means of improving the mental health.

The project ‘Maggie centre’ has interesting concepts inspired by personal experiences. Considering that today there are seventeen centres, arguably the project is remarkably successful. Few attempts have explored these centres in greater detail from a psychological perspective. Understanding the psychological process behind these concepts can increase the design quality and impact of these buildings. The Maggie’s Centre Series will look at different centres and highlight some fundamental design issues that are effective as well as those that could be improved.


Barker, R. G. (1968). Ecological psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior. Stanford University Press.

Department of Health Estates and Facilities (2008), Achieving Excellence Design Evaluation Toolkit Workbook. UK Department of health.

Jencks, M. K. (1995). a view from the front line. Maggies Caring Cancer Centre.

Kopec, D. A. (2006). Health Care Environments. In Environmental psychology for design. (pp. 257-276) New York: Fairchild.

Parsons, T. (1951). Illness and the role of the physician: A sociological perspective. American Journal of orthopsychiatry21(3), 452-460

Planetree (2009). About Plane Tree. Retrieved from www.planetree.org

Stern, A.L., MacRae, S., Gerteis, M., Harrison, T., Fowler, E., Edgman-Levitan, S., & Ruga, W. (2003). Understanding the consumer perspective to improve design quality. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 16-28.

World Health Organization. (2007). Harmonizing mind and body, people and systems: People at the centre of health care. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO Press.

Sushil K Premkumar

Sushil K Premkumar

Architect and Environmental psychologist

Passionate about research and designing. Interested in studying the impact of physical environment on social and individual well-being.   @Chennai, India.

Maggie’s Centre: Vision and Reality.

Maggie Keswick Jencks’s battle with her cancer inspired her to create the Maggie Centre. But how far does the personal experience helps one in creating a building that will be used by many?

Making Space for Psychology in the Design of Public Spaces

Making Space for Psychology in the Design of Public Spaces

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

Environmental Psychology: the Overlooked (de)Science

Environmental Psychology: the Overlooked (de)Science

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