The Psychology of Place

Why We Do What We Do Where We Do It

By Leigh Brown Perkins
Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

The Psychology of Place. Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

Tag along with a group of high-schoolers on a prospect tour of Rollins College and you’ll hear a predictable response: “This campus is so beautiful.” Outwardly, they’re responding to the arching live oaks, the Spanish-Mediterranean architecture, and, of course, the sunshine. But internally, they’re processing spatial perception, territorial behavior, density, even the formation of mental maps.

All of these elements and more influence our connection to place and our behavior in that place. Figuring out how and why is the business of environmental psychology.

“It’s about the interrelationship between us and the environment—built spaces or nature,” said Paul Harris, professor of psychology, who has been teaching a course on the subject since 2000.

“It is by nature a very multidisciplinary field,” Harris said, that draws on geography, political science, sociology, physiology, architecture, ecology, and psychology—the ultimate liberal arts subject.

If the term, if not the experience, is new to you, it’s likely because environmental psychology is a relatively new discipline. Earliest studies date only to the 1960s, and there are only a handful of graduate programs in the world.

But if you have heard the term, it’s likely because of a single man, William Whyte. Although he became famous in the ’50s for his scathing take on white-collar life with the book The Organization Man, it was his groundbreaking work in the 1980s that brought environmental psychology to the masses. His Street Life Project, using time-lapse film to show precisely which of New York City’s public plazas were most popular (and why), became a book and then the film Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. His findings were more than entertaining: They became the standard for urban planning courses and civic design throughout the country.

“Every space is idiosyncratic,” Harris said, “but Whyte’s work proved that you can generalize some things about how people use spaces.”

For instance, the most popular public spaces have a higher proportion of women, who appear to be pickier about where they’ll hang out. Men, on the other hand, gravitate toward pillars, walls, and flagpoles. They like to have something solid at their backs (you’ll start to notice it from now on). And, although it seems obvious in our current era of the ubiquitous café table, it was groundbreaking when Whyte reported that benches are a false lure: people prefer chairs so they can move them into the sun, away from noise, toward their companions.

“And you’ve got to have food,” Harris said. “If you want people to come, give them food and a comfortable seat where they can eat it.”

Mind Games

So how, exactly, do environmental psychologists figure out how many cleverly spaced palm trees will get us to relax (spatial perception), the right ratio of footpath to sod, how loud and how tightly packed to make a dance club feel youthful and popular (density)? They take the multidisciplinary approach.

“We use a wide variety of methods: lab experiments, field work, coding behavior, surveys,” Harris said.

Like crime scene investigators, environmental psychologists analyze spaces, checking for traces of trash accumulation or wear on paths (accretion and erosion, they call it). Harris often has students track their blood pressure and heart rates walking down leafy Park Avenue and then walking the same distance on Fairbanks. He gets a predictable outcome.

“Studies have shown that more natural settings create a biological response,” Harris said. “In one, patients were randomly assigned hospital rooms, some overlooking buildings and some overlooking trees. The ones with exposure to nature healed faster and had less stress.”

This plays out in the places we choose as our favorite “spots.” For students, more often than not, it’s a quiet place (but not too quiet) enveloped by nature, which Harris says restores a sense of balance and comfort. Jazzmyn Iglesias ’13, for instance, gets away from it all lakeside, behind the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, “the best place to think and relax.”

She’s onto something. According to a study in the 2010 Journal of Environmental Psychology, 90 percent of people report increased energy when placed in outdoor activities, even for just 20 minutes a day.

This plays out in the broader sense of “favorite place,” too. A Gallup poll in 2010 named Boulder, Colorado, the happiest town in America. Yes, it has good health care and a steady job market, but it also has 300 days of sunshine per year, the powder of the Rockies, and a greenbelt surrounding the city with 120 miles of hiking trails. Nature’s impact is not lost in more metropolitan areas, though. Washington, D.C., with its carefully tended forests and carpet of grass, consistently ranks in the happiness poll, too.

Although there are exceptions, Harris said, “We seem to be hardwired to respond to certain aspects of nature with relaxation.”

The rest of what the studies find, however, is a bit more interpretive. Just because it’s designed with scientific principles in place does not mean the public will respond to it or use it in the way it’s intended. Likewise, city planners unschooled in environmental psychology sometimes get it just right. Harris calls this the difference between architectural determinism and architectural probabilism.

Nowhere is environmental psychology’s body of research more diabolically exploited than in Las Vegas, which consistently ranks at the bottom of the happiness poll. Las Vegas is where human probabilism tends to race mindlessly toward determinism. If you give people a space with no windows, no clocks, easy-to-win slots by the front door, bottomless glasses, and topless waitresses (and, rumor has it, oxygenated air systems to up the feel-good factor), you get another fairly predictable outcome.

“There are manipulations everywhere,” Harris said. “But not just in Vegas. In Washington, D.C., the monuments are all designed to move people to different areas and to prompt a particular feeling, and airports and theme parks are designed around human behavior.”

Change of Scenery

Despite its 21st-century theme-park applications, the concept that environment influences behavior and well-being is as old as civilization itself. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates taught that humankind’s health is affected by where people live, noting that hillside residents were healthier than people who settled on marshes (he did not need to know that malarial mosquitoes were to blame, rather than the “bad air” of the bogs, to know that cool breezes made for a more hale population).

Twenty centuries before the first experiments with sunlamps and SAD (seasonal affective disorder), Hippocrates taught that the greatest environmental influence of all—the seasons—could not be underestimated: “Diseases (that) increase in the winter ought to cease in the summer, and such as increase in the summer ought to cease in the winter.”

The father of modern medicine (and maybe patron saint of seaside resorts?), Hippocrates prescribed sunbathing for any number of ills.

Humans have been using geography to improve psychology ever since.

Ancient Romans took long weekends. The Russians had their dachas; the Japanese their bucolic minkas; the British Raj their bungalows. The French have long been famous for deserting Paris in July and August to lounge on the beach, with five weeks off mandatory by law. The United States has no statutory minimum. And, in fact, Americans on average are given 12 days off a year but use only two, giving up $34 billion in paid vacation annually. American women, who take the fewest vacations, have higher rates of depression and lower marriage satisfaction. Men who rarely take a trip for pleasure have higher blood pressure and greater risks for heart disease. Plus, they’re grumpy, which is not the Hippocratic ideal.

Like a desk-bound American worker, science has until recently foolishly disregarded the wisdom of the ages as it relates to place and state of mind. The Industrial Revolution is partly to blame, writes author Winifred Gallagher in The Power of Place. “Turning away from the natural world, huge populations gravitated toward a very different one made up of homes and workplaces that were warm and illuminated regardless of season or time of day.” It is only now, 200-odd years into this new way of living, that scientists are beginning to study the effects of such artificial comfort, a world that Gallagher writes is structured around economic rather than biologic concerns.

“While we readily accept that a healthy seed can’t grow into a plant without the right soil, light, and water and that a feral dog won’t behave like a pet,” she writes, “we resist recognizing the importance of environment in our own lives.”

As environmental psychology develops, researchers more and more examine broad eco-issues, such as pollution, global warming, and overcrowding. But then there are the issues closer at hand, as small as the cellphones we hold next to our brains all day, as personal as the color of our bedroom, as intimate as the womb.

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