Places for People - Environmental settings for urban life

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

User needs - How do we know what users of spaces want

Environmental Settings and User Needs

Designing places is often seen by the general public as an arbitrary process - one involving a high level of understanding of artistic principles. This is an entirely legitimate approach for the design and creation of prestigious urban spaces and gardens, where clients and users of non-residential buildings see the impressing of visitors as an important objective. However, where the spaces are to be used by the public - even when the actual land is privately owned - then different design requiremenst come into play. In large housing schemes, for example, public spaces which will support daily needs (sitting in the sun, waiting to meet friends, watching children play, children having something to do, growing herbs, having attractive and colourful plants to look at, finding a quiet corner to read a book outside, etc.) need to be provided. Without these qualities such a place is unlikely to be regarded as satisfactory by users. Whereas in entirely private housing, where the public only has the right to use footpaths and roads, then a different design solution is acceptable and that could indeed be based on an art form or any other designer's whim - only individual clients are involved here and only they have to be pleased with the design.

When designing housing schemes,business parks, industrial sites, an educational campus, health complexes, traffic interchanges, etc. a design team needs to work out what type of 'Environmental settings' are appropriate. The spaces need to be formed and arranged and 'clothed' so that they enable the people who live or work or in any way use the spaces adjacent to the buildings to make full use of them and enjoy being in them. This is not a purely functionalist approach (where a series of objects are supplied to meet the users' needs - a bench, a path, a play area, a shrub, etc.); it is an approach which creates a 'place' with special characteristics through the way that an area is laid out and designed. Such a space contains the functionalist's 'objects, but they are placed in a setting with specific environmental qualities (a place that pleases the senses and in which users can feel safe and comfortable - if users are lucky this can become a space which is also beautiful and which can add another dimension to the pleasure of being there, for instance, through its plants attracting birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Users of such spaces will normally only appreciate the special environmental qualities of the 'place' they visit subconsciously. However, users are likely to find themselves staying longer and enjoying being in the space more and perhaps even finding that it is nicer to stay near the home at weekends and holidays, rather than join the traffic jams. In the context of the outdoor spaces near the blocks of housing, making environmental settings is about trying to find a way of making the places adjacent to the blocks as comfortable as possible for the users - easy, friendly and pleasing to use.

The following notes are provided to give those who will be involved in redesigning the open and greenspaces near the housing developments some insight into the factors that influence our subconscious reaction to 'spaces'. They are the factors that will need to be used in discussions of what qualities are wanted in each space by the people who live adjacent to a particular block of housing.

How can the activities that people want to undertake in proposed new or regenerated city spaces be identified?

Cooper Marcus and Francis (1991), through an intensive study of the literature from the social sciences and environmental psychology, as well as of the work of architects and landscape architects, identified the characteristic needs of users in different types of urban space. These included: urban plazas (street Plaza, Corporate Foyer, urban oasis, the Transit Foyer, the 'Grand Public Place'), urban parks of different types, housing and outdoor space for the elderly and those with disabilities. Jan Gehl (1996) in his book Life between buildings: using public space identified the good characteristics of urban streets and densely populated urban centres. These two sources provide a wealth of information for the urban designer working on a specific project. That information can be augmented by observation studies of behaviour patterns in existing local spaces, which aim to identify any typical local variations in user behaviour patterns.

Those involved in making and improving public space need to know sufficient about people's likely requirements of the spaces around and near their dwellings, offices, shops and other social facilities to be able to make decisions about how and what to design. They also need to be aware of the users' need for security and safety and to be able to locate themselves in space (where they are and where they are going - way-marking and landmarks). Without this level of knowledge, planners and designers cannot be in the position to justify asking for adequate expenditure on the space between the buildings. Answers are needed to the following:

  • how might the way in which the external areas are laid out and designed, as well as managed, ensure greater user satisfaction with the places that are created?
  • what might reduce the social problems which are so often associated with the structureless open and public spaces left in the spaces between the buildings?
  • is there a way in which changing the outdoor spaces will help local inhabitants to feel less alienated?
  • what, if anything, in the physical environment might reduce vandalism, fear of being outside, etc.?

Finding out what local inhabitants want - the literature

It is also worth looking at information from the literature on the topic of identifying environmental needs. It is probable that some needs are inherent in all human beings - the need to feel safe and secure in our home territory, for instance. However, it must also be recognised that many needs are culturally derived, so that, depending on the characteristics of the culture in which we grow up, we will feel more comfortable in some environments than others.

These differences are important. Even within a 'cultural group' there are many different groups, each applying their own set of meanings and values to interpreting their environment. Those meanings and values can also change rapidly as people create their own culture over several generations; it is not something static.

People normally say that they act spontaneously if asked why they do something in an open space, or else they cannot give any reasons. Through group discussions it is possible to gain some insight into inner motivations and feelings. Examples of the questions which can be used include: "what comes to mind when you think of (a particular) open space?"; "how would you describe that place to someone who lives in another city?" Making a drawing depicting feelings when at a specific open space can also help a group to identify its reactions to specific spaces. Such special qualitative research techniques can uncover the real motivations and feelings experienced by people using spaces and help in the re-design of existing spaces so that they support people's needs more appropriately - they could be used when the local site-specific groups start to develop ideas about how to change their spaces.

Assessing user needs

Obtaining data on user needs

There are four main ways of obtaining useful data on user needs:


  • be familiar with the research available and know where to look for information which will allow general guidelines to be drawn up
  • be familiar with the literature available on the special needs of specific groups in society, for instance, children, people with disabilities, as well as adults at various stages of their life cycle; obtain information on the facilities that will be needed to allow each activity to function
  • be familiar with the studies of particular environmental settings, ie. where to find information on people's behaviour in housing areas, schools, open spaces and parks, etc; obtain information on the types of settings which allow a particular activity to be considered a satisfactory experience
  • use public participation as a means of finding out and providing the public with what it wants.

To understand the importance of public participation and the problems of the site planner when faced with an unknown end user, read the following: Environmental planning for site development, A.R.Beer and Catherine Higgins (2000), E & FN Spon, pp. 177-181.


See paper in this website on Benefits of Nature near Homes

te : 5 Nov 2003

User needs

Settings and users


Assessing user needs




High density



Seeing spaces


Designing for Children's Play in Housing Areas

Designing for the
ess able bodied

Links and References

Books and papers

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

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

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

Back to top

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 origial copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
Web pages by
Map21 Ltd

Latest update 12 Dec 2003