Places for People - Environmental settings for urban life

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

Research based design of environmental settings

Behavioural Settings

Settings - environmental settings for daily life
The concept of the 'environmental setting', or as it is sometimes termed the 'behavioural setting', has gradually gained ground as a tool to aid site planning and design. It was first introduced by Kevin Lynch in the 1960s and has been used since by many designers as a tool to allow them to integrate the findings of environmental psychologists into a design process where the end product is a designed space - a place. Christopher Alexander (1977) and Gehl (1976) both used the concept. Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis (1997) have dealt with similar issues more recently. It is a concept that is central to any successful place making process.

Spaces are behavioural settings in which individuals and groups carry out certain actions which involve interaction with the physical environment. In these settings they also experience certain reactions, both consciously and unconsciously. The way the space can be used and the way it is experienced are important elements in how the individual understands and regards spaces in the city and its buildings. If, for instance, it is difficult for a person to carry out an activity within a particular space, then that person is likely to regard it as a hostile place. If they can do what they want - perhaps to sit quietly while waiting for a friend who is in hospital for an urgent investigation, but they find that there is nothing to look at, nothing to stimulate the mind, they soon get bored; this in turn makes for extra stress in an already stressful situation and again means that the place is experienced as unnecessarily hostile. When a person arrives at a large building such as a hospital the entrance point is all important; such a place can be designed to give subliminal messages to users to support any way-marking that is provided - way-marking alone can add to the level of confusion felt in new environments. The best designed spaces do not need written instructions about usage - instead they give messages to the users about how the space can be used through the way they are shaped, laid out and detailed.

Diverse spaces: for diverse activities and diverse users
The spaces and the corridors that link them have their edges defined by walls (freestanding or buildings), berms (changes of level which can be grassed, planted or paved)), or plants (shrubs or trees). A space can be a distinct, stand alone space walled all around, or it can be designed to be a part of a complex of interacting subspaces within a much larger whole. Spaces can be of many different scales and shapes and have many different characteristics influenced by their location within a project area. The use people make of them as well as the local micro-climatic conditions (sheltered, windy, shady or sunny) is also relevant. In some spaces people look to experience peacefulness, in others excitement and in others the possibility of both experiences adds to the pleasure of using a place. In some places there is much activity, in others little. In some spaces people will want to stay and rest and watch the world go by on a daily basis; in others people will only congregate in large numbers occasionally. The designer needs to have as clear an image of the users as possible , including their experiential needs, before working out how to construct the detail of the space - the shape, the scale, the arrangement of the subspaces and how to make it into a recognisable place.

It is important for those involved in the design process to think of the whole of the outside of any project as a sequence of linked spaces. Some of these will be small and intimate, others large and imposing. How the totality and particularly the public parts of that space and the 'corridors' that link them are designed will determine whether a project is a success or not - if the spaces work together with the buildings to make a good place to live, the scheme will be judged a success. Similarly, when spaces are part of a major indoor building project, then it is also important to design them as part of a sequence of linked spaces.

City spaces
The concept implied by the word 'setting' is perhaps best understood by thinking of the spaces that form the city. These spaces are the basic support system for human activities, the settings for all outdoor activity.

When thought of in this way city spaces are not just composed of the few well known grand civic spaces identified as squares or parks; they are also the multitude of smaller spaces (some of them very small and little more than nooks and crannies in the urban grain). These all need to be planned and designed and not seen as they so often are as 'spaces left over after planning' which are filled in with grass or paving and then forgotten until they become the places where drug users or others congregate. All spaces accessible to the public need to be planned as an integrated totality and yet with sufficient diversity to make moving around any project area a pleasure. Diversity in the way that spaces are designed helps to ensure that individuals know where they are at all times - the feeling of being lost creates great stress in most people.

These smaller places which are so important to the success of a project from the users' point of view include spaces:

  • at the entrances to buildings (offices, homes, leisure facilities, etc.) or car parks and bicycle parks
  • where children can play
  • where older people can meet and start a conversation
  • where people wait and sit along the main pedestrian ways
  • where people sit and watch the world go by
  • where people meet friends
  • where people sit in the sun or shade
  • where people can read or talk
  • where people can observe nature, splashing water and feel the wind through their hair.

It is important to attempt to understand how the spaces will work once they are built and how they might support the way local people live, play and work. What will the new 'places' be like to visit? How will they work as 'places' to move through as the inhabitants and visitors go to the shops, schools, offices, bus stops, train station, parks, etc.?

Anyone who finds it hard to believe that the external spaces of cities have a strong impact on how inhabitants feel about where they live has only to consider what it would be like for themselves:

  • to feel fearful every time they turn a corner as they walk towards the bus stop, their front door or the leisure centre
  • to worry about where they could sit happily and talk, or let their children play immediately adjacent to their house/place of work
  • to have nowhere near their home/place of work just to sit and enjoy life on a sunny day

Individually, these may be comparatively minor matters - but put together they can create an alienating and unliveable home or work environment.

Behavioural Settings


Diverse spaces

City spaces



Factors involved


Perception of Place



Human preference


People's choice

Fitting purposes




Links and References

Books and papers

Cooper Marcus, C. and Francis, C. (1997) People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Spaces, John Wiley, New York.

Gehl, J. (1996) Life between Buildings: Using Public Space, 3rd edn., Arkitektens Forlag, Skive.

Lynch, K. (1960) The Image of the City, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the original copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 12 Dec 2003