Places for People - Assessing user needs
Anne R. Beer,
Site design and
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:
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:
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
"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
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
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 -
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.
professionals: local planners and the role of open space
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.
Perception of Place
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.
Text and illustrations
(unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd,
2001, all rights reserved.
Latest update 29 Nov 2003