Places for People - Environmental settings for urban life

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

Environmental settings

Experiences - different groups experience environments in different ways
"It should be noted that all responses to environment are mediated by language. Language is the way people communicate with others from their local culture and from other 'cultures'."
(Burgess et al, 1988). Symbolic meanings and values are important in understanding how people relate to, and use, settings.

In any city, where these days so many people from many different cultures live, it is important to try to distinguish how each group understands their outdoor spaces and what they want from such spaces. For instance, not being stared at is far more important to women from an Islamic culture than to others - but equally for all people when outside, a level of privacy/seclusion is important to be able to enjoy just being in an outdoor space. Of course making secluded spaces has ramifications for safety and how to balance these two needs becomes a design issue needing resolution. Once identified, these special local design issues begin to influence how the design for a specific area develops - so that each space will in time develop its own characteristics. This in turn will add to the diversity of visual experience for those moving around a site - helping to meet the desire of the local inhabitants for a more interesting outside environment.

Factors involved in experience
The Senses
People's first contact with the environment is through the senses:

  • sight
  • hearing
  • smell
  • touch
  • taste

For more details see below : Factors involved in perception of place.

People have basic needs which lead to an instinctive reaction to the information received through the senses:

  • survival (physiological needs - food + water + shelter)
  • security (physical and psychological needs)
  • belonging (to a group and a place)
  • expression of individual identity (the need for the self to be worthwhile)
  • experience a sense of self-fulfillment (the achievement of aspirations)

To fulfill these basic needs people have a built-in desire to acquire knowledge about their environment. They are driven to do this by the need to experience satisfaction. They want:

  • knowledge (to understand, to present and to be able to predict future occurrences)
  • satisfaction (which in relation to the built environment can come from a place being fascinating to be in, from having to handle and interpret the information presented by the physical environment and from meeting the challenges it creates; being able to exercise choice is an important element of this).

Much can be done in the way in which outdoor areas are designed to stimulate users so that they find spaces more interesting. 

People's knowledge, as well as social and cultural conditioning and their past experiences, result in their developing sensibilities:

  • what is seen, heard, smelt, touched and tasted is filtered by past learning and experiences and judged qualitatively by the individual.

All landscapes take many decades to develop any level of maturity, so those that exist need enhancing, not eliminating. With maturity comes a sense of permanence and long-term certainty, which is important to communities under stress.

Local inhabitants need to be involved in identifying the visual qualities which they appreciate and those that they consider detract from the local environment (this could be done relatively easily by involving local school children in making their own survey and involving their parents and grandparents). For special interest and to create the missing landmarks, some spaces within any project can be designed by experts so that they have specific visual attributes and become focal points within the area - here the special skills of the landscape designers and environmental artists should be used.

Landmarks - Cognitive maps
Kaplan (1973) developed a model of how people experience and make sense of the built environment. He showed the importance of being able to gather information about the environment and suggested a person's cognitive map included four domains:

  • knowing where you are - prediction
  • knowing what happens next - evaluation
  • knowing whether what happens next is a good or bad action
  • knowing what to do.

All these are important factors in the redesign of any place, as interpreting any space or landscape in this way can help to identify the design changes that are necessary in the existing landscapes.


Perception of Place - instinctive reactions
When designing any spaces the local inhabitants and their designers need to be aware of how individuals can experience 'places' - these experiential aspects of design are important to talk about as new designs are developed for specific spaces.

The foremost instinctive reaction of the individual to a place is one which identifies it as:

  • my place
  • your place
  • their place
  • no-one's place
  • the enemy's place

Spaces can allow people to feel a relative sense of:

  • security or insecurity
  • belonging or alienation
  • fear or ease
  • awe or friendliness
  • delight or horror
  • fascination or indifference

In describing how people might perceive spaces it is important to recognise that:

  • people like knowing a space well and being familiar with it, but
  • people also like new experiences.

People like being fascinated, so they:

search for the new and the different, yet they want these experiences to be within the limits of something known or understood, if they are not to be overwhelmed by uncertainty.

Nature: an important element in the design of public spaces
Whether we are aware of it or not, nature matters to everybody. For instance, as soon as people's incomes rise above the basic level for survival, many will buy plants for their yards or balconies. When people become better off we can observe a tendency to move to 'green' suburbs and when they are richer still they acquire houses surrounded by 'green' - even if they still work in the town. It is often argued that this is done by people to indicate their status, but it is also done to please the self.

update : 5 Nov 2003

Behavioural Settings


Diverse spaces

City spaces



Factors involved


Perception of Place



Human preference


People's choice

Fitting purposes




Links and References

Books and papers

Burgess, Jacquelin, Limb, Melanie and Harrison, Carolyn (1988) Exploring environmental values through the medium of small groups. Part One and Part Two, Environment and Planning A, 20.

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

Gehl, J. (1996) Life between buildings: using public space, 3ed edn., Arkitektens Forlag, Skive.

Kaplan, S. (1973) Cognitive maps, human needs and the designed environment. In Environmental Design Research (ed. W.F.E. Preiser), Hutchinson and Ross, Stronsberg, Pa.

Lynch, K. (1960) 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