Places for People - Assessing user needs

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

Environmental settings

Site design and preference
Kaplan (1982) asked: "What kind of environment would be suited to a knowledge-hungry organism, one concerned to comprehend and to explore, and yet quite limited in how much (information) it can handle at any one time?"

What kinds of environments do humans prefer?

There has been a tendency for planning literature to view preference as something frivolous, suggesting something decorative or an unnecessary extra, rather than something essential for human life to thrive.

This attitude needs changing.

If our site plans are to work for the users we need to find out what range of conditions are preferred and to understand that these will change for different social and cultural groups. This is a factor well understood by all those involved in marketing products - it also needs applying to the way we plan and design.

"What properties must environments possess to enhance people's well-being and effectiveness?"

For a very brief introduction to some of the literature on preference as it relates to planning and design, see:

Anne R.Beer (1990) and Anne R.Beer & Catherine Higgins(2000), Environmental planning for site development, E & FN Spon.

People's choice
Once people are living beyond the basics of economic survival and have some freedom of choice open to them, they seek to live in places which please them. The identification of the characteristics of these places would be a good starting point for the site planner intent on investigating the content of preferred environments. If, as has been suggested above, it is important for places to hold a level of fascination for the user, then what characteristics are needed for that? Writers since the 1960s have investigated this issue in terms of:

  • complexity
  • diversity
  • mystery
  • legibility
  • coherence


These have been identified by Lynch (1960) as important characteristics, not just as characteristics of the scene, but also by the way in which the place impinges on the other senses.

Lynch (1960) writing on the city stated:

"...there is always more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences".

"Moving elements in a city (people and their activities)... are as important as stationary parts."

The site planner should be aware of the experiences available to people on the way to and from the site, as well as within the site. Decisions about a site should not be taken in isolation.

Carr (1982) developed Lynch's and others' ideas about how people react to city environments into a list of criteria to help the city planner. Among these are criteria which suggest the city planner should:


  • make available in the immediate neighbourhood a wide variety of environmental settings which each individual could choose to experience, the use of these areas to be encouraged by the way in which they are connected


  • enhance the visual qualities of the setting, to emphasize the uniqueness of the place so that people develop individual attachments and group perceptions.

The implementation of Carr's proposals would go far to compensate for the loss of diversity in the city and other landscapes which has concerned many authors (Watt,1982).


Places that fit human purposes
The intention of the section on user needs is to indicate some the factors influencing the quality of life at the local level, looking at the question of what makes some sites more satisfactory settings for human life and activity than others.

"Making places that fit human purposes is the task of site planning. Two things have to be understood: the nature of the site, on the one hand, and how its users will act in it and value it, on the other" (Lynch and Hack, 1985).

As the Kaplans (1982) stated, "the role of the physical environment in human experience requires a fresh look".

The identification of the user's environmental needs is central to site planning and design. If site planners or designers ignore human needs, they risk producing environments which alienate people. Although we are as far as ever from truly being able to identify experiential needs, the site planner still has to deal with the task of producing plans and designs for specific sites.

In the past when towns developed slowly within a local cultural context, people were able to adjust to the new with apparently little problem. Now immediate solutions are demanded. Nowadays new site developments can be big and fast moving, and their form and detail organized by people with no contact with the locals.

Failing to identify how the users will use the site and react to it can result in very costly mistakes. For instance, many of the higher density social housing schemes for low income groups constructed from the 1960s to late 1970s had to be demolished; this was because the users reacted very adversely to the environments they were supposed to live in. This is evidence, if for no other reason than economics, that we have to bring consideration of human experiential needs into site planning.


Site planning and design and public participation
Public participation is crucial to successful site planning. The public participation movement of the 1970s and early 1980s was largely directed at attempting to find a means of identifying what the public wanted.

The advantages and disadvantages of the systems which were developed to liaise with the public in relation to site planning matters have been discussed elsewhere.

See Hester (1990), Appleby (1978), Heder and Francis (1977).

From Hester's research it would appear that it is at the site planning level that the public participation process is at its most effective. It is at this level that an identifiable group of people can be expected to react with considered opinions about precisely defined spaces, i.e.. the spaces which they or people like them will use.

The questionnaire is the most common means used by planners to try and find out what people want. There are, however, problems with all forms of questionnaire designed to involve the public in helping to plan or design a site. Questionnaires can only deal with people's reactions to that with which they are already familiar. All of us can only respond to questions about facilities and environments within the limits of our own experiences, whether these experiences are direct (that is the person involved has physically experienced the activity, facility or setting and so is able to report a reaction), or indirect (experienced only at second hand through the media or hearsay).

Questionnaires are much less useful as a predictive planning tool. People can describe their reaction to what already exists, but are less good at describing what they would like in the future.


User satisfaction - establishing the level
In the search to find a means of understanding the user's needs, social scientists found that one of the simplest measures was to assess the relative degree of user satisfaction with various aspects of the physical environment. In the main they did this by asking people to evaluate their reactions to particular aspects of an existing environment.

A simple method for the non expert is to ask questions which allow the respondent to reply using a five point scale of satisfaction. Such a scale allows the respondent the opportunity to describe their reaction, ranging from highly satisfied to highly unsatisfied.

The five point scale is a simple technique which can be made more useful by asking the respondent to name the things or features which cause them to feel satisfied or dissatisfied.

Properly carried out and with the right level of statistical checks on validity, this method can provide a great deal of information about any existing situation and allows the site planner to assess what is working for the users and what is not, and what needs to be added or removed from the site. The site planner should only use this technique for very small projects. Larger schemes need the involvement of social science experts.


User satisfaction - post-occupancy evaluations
User satisfaction studies have been used extensively in an attempt to evaluate the success of various housing schemes; for instance, the
Department of the Environment in Britain (1981) undertook a Survey of Tenants' Attitudes to Recently Completed Estates. Such post-occupancy studies were undertaken from the late 1960s onwards.

Whether the space works for the people who use it, is also a crucial part of the experience of using and being in a place, and being satisfied with it. To answer this question it is necessary to identify the activities which will occur on a site and then build the physical structures or settings to allow them to happen.

See also Cooper Marcus and Sarkissian, Housing as if People Mattered, 1986.


Preferences of professionals: local planners and the role of open space
As a supplement to their research with the users of open spaces,
Millward and Mostyn (1989) carried out a series of investigations with the officials who had been responsible for initiating the schemes. These showed that the planners and designers had felt that the public would really prefer a formal traditional park to a natural site. But none of the users had suggested this; in fact they had wanted natural parks to have more nature.

The planners had also thought that the sites ought to be bigger, but the users liked what they saw as small natural parks, they had spoken of their familiarity with the sites and how they felt that they could grasp that size of space and, therefore, feel safe in it. The planners had expected that the natural areas would encourage more trouble amongst teenagers, but in fact there was less. Teenagers expressed their feeling of freedom there.



Behavioural Settings


Diverse spaces

City spaces



Factors involved


Perception of Place



Human preference


People's choice

Fitting purposes






Links and References

Books and papers

Appleby, M. (1978) Organizing participatory public decisions, paper presented to 9th World Congress of Sociology, Uppsala, Sweden, Division of Environmental and Urban Systems, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburgh, Virginia.

Beer , A. R. (1990) and Beer, A. R. & Higgins, C. (2000) Environmental planning for site development, E & FN Spon.

Carr, S. (1982) Some criteria for environmental form. In Humanscape: Environments for People (ed. S. and R. Kaplan), Ulrich's Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Cooper Marcus, C. and Sarkissian, W. (1986) Housing as if People Mattered, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Department of the Environment in Britain (1981).

Heder, L. and Francis, M. (1977) Quality of life assessment: the Harvard Square planning workshops. In The Methodology of Social Impact Assessment (eds. Finsterbush and Wolf), Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Stroudsberg, Pa.

Hester, R. T. (1990) Community Design Primer, Ridge Times Press, New York.

Kaplan, S. (1982) Attention and fascination: the search for cognitive clarity. In Humanscape: Environments for People (eds. S. and R. Kaplan), Ulrich's Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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

Lynch, K. and Hack, G. (1985) Site Planning, MIT, Cambridge, Mass.

Millward, A. and Mostyn, B. (1989) People and nature in cities, Urban Wildlife Journal: No. 2, NCC publication, Londoon.

Watt, E. F. (1982) Man's efficient rush towards deadly dullness. In Humanscape: Environments for People (ed. S. and R. Kaplan), Ulrich's Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
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© Anne Beer, 2000
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Latest update 29 Nov 2003