Have you ever wondered whether playing music while you study helps you to focus? Why some people bicycle, recycle, or minimise the use of heating in winter or air conditioning in summer – while others do not? Do people become more aggressive when it’s hot outside? Would playing in a park, as opposed to a paved playground, help children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) focus their attention better? These are examples of questions that environmental psychologists seek to answer.
Overview of Environmental Psychology
Environmental psychology is the study of how we, as individuals and as part of groups, interact with our physical settings — how we experience and change the environment, and how our behaviour and experiences are changed by the environment. In environmental psychology, environment includes both natural and built settings, such as parks, natural landscape, homes, workplaces, and public spaces. Environments can vary in scale from the immediate space surrounding us to the room, the building, the neighbourhood, the city, the wilderness, or the globe.
In most fields of psychology, behaviour seems to be considered as occurring in a vacuum. The physical environment is often treated in research as mere “noise,” something to be controlled for in studies. Environmental psychology embraces the physical world in which we experience life. Environmental psychologists consider any human activity to be situated along three dimensions at the same time: the person (e.g., age, gender, personality, culture), the place (e.g., home, classroom, workplace, park, nature), and the psychological process of interest (e.g., socialising, working, learning, playing, exploring). Change over time can be an important dimension as well. Behaviours in a particular physical environment can be influenced by social-psychological contextual factors such as the presence of others or one’s role in the group, and these are also part of environmental psychology (Gifford, 2014).
Environmental psychology is a relatively new field — about 60 years old now – that has grown rapidly in response to the degradation of the natural environment and the need to design buildings that better meet the needs of their users. Like most areas of psychology, environmental psychology has a theoretical side as well as an applied side. Some environmental psychologists focus their efforts on developing knowledge, whereas others work as consultants to answer practical questions; others aim to make their work serve immediate, practical goals as well as to contribute knowledge for others to build on (Stokes, 1997).
The goal of environmental psychologists who focus mainly on research is to understand individuals’ transactions with their environments. They study fundamental psychological processes as they relate to the physical environment, including environmental perception, spatial cognition, appraisals of environments, and personality, child development, and social interaction as they relate to the environment. They ask questions such as: How do humans mentally represent their spatial surroundings? What are some common attitudes toward energy consumption? Which physical variables affect learning in the classroom?
At a broader level, environmental psychologists examine how transactions with our work, home, and natural environments are related to our satisfaction and productivity, well-being, and mental health. For example, do crowded cities contribute to depression? Does better lighting on sidewalks encourage people to go out at night? Does indoor air quality associate with better performance at the office? How is climate change affecting mental health (Gifford & Gifford, 2016; Reser & Bradley, 2020)?
In the long run, many environmental psychologists aim to use the knowledge generated by their research to influence built and natural environments in positive and constructive ways. This can be done by contributing to government policies or programs that help to promote sustainable behaviour. It could also be done through influencing the architecture and construction industries by informing design guidelines or by offering recommendations to city planners about how to encourage place-making and create urban spaces that are psychosocially healthy.
Other environmental psychologists work as consultants with goals to solve a practical problem brought to them by someone with a need to solve that problem. Such issues are likely to be local, specific, and pressing. When a client is less interested in the theoretical aspects of the problem, then effective, quick, and evidence-based action is called for. For example, when city officials are interested in establishing a food recycling program, their main concern could be to increase the number of people who participate in their program. They expect the environmental psychologist they hire knows the theories and the body of research and can translate this knowledge into practical recommendations that will result in more food recycling in the city.
The work of an environmental psychologist is interdisciplinary in nature. Depending on the area of focus, the successful researcher-practitioner will know something about architecture, organisational behaviour, health, natural resources management, and other related disciplines. Knowing how to work with other specialists is important, as is understanding the needs of users (or potential users) of the setting that is being planned, constructed, or renovated. Often, projects involving environmental psychology will be important to community leaders, volunteers, and policy-makers who may use research findings to formulate or change government regulations and guidelines. In short, environmental psychologists:
- Seek to improve our stewardship of natural resources and help mitigate climate change, including how best to adapt to it;
- Understand how to increase the habitability and sustainability of the built environment;
- Study everyday settings in relation to human attitudes, emotions, and behaviours;
- Recognise that we actively cope with, and shape, environments; we do not passively respond to environmental forces; and,
- Work in conjunction with other disciplines
A Bit of History
Psychologists have conducted research on the built environment since the 1920s. In the earliest studies (as cited in Gifford, 2014), researchers investigated the effects of noise and heat on work performance, classroom seating on student grades, and lighting on work performance in the infamous Hawthorne studies — studies you might have heard about in some of your courses. There is a section about these studies in the chapter on Industrial, Work, and Organisational Psychology.
The modern intellectual roots of environmental psychology can be traced back to the middle of the 20th century. Egon Brunswik (1943) argued that psychologists should focus on an organism’s environment as much as the organism itself. Like Brunswik, Kurt Lewin (1946) viewed the environment as an essential influence on behaviour. He also emphasised that research should be driven by real-world problems and applied to solve real-world social problems. Roger Barker (1968) developed the concept of behaviour settings: small ecological units, such as the corner store and the high school basketball game. Barker observed remarkable consistency in the pattern of activity for occupants in a given role in relation to the physical-spatial aspect of the behaviour setting.
The 1950s experienced an increase in research in “architectural psychology,” which focused on human interactions with the built environment. The primary goal of these studies was to improve human well-being and satisfaction by designing or altering built environments. A key example is the redesign of parts of a large, fortress-like mental hospital, as they were called in the 1950s. A team consisting of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and an architect carefully considered the particular needs and behaviours of the patients in the re-design of the hospital at Weyburn, Saskatchewan (Osmond, 1957). This project might have been the very first time in which environmental psychology was consciously applied to the design of a building, and we will revisit this project below.
The 1960s saw rapid growth in environmental psychology. In a time of increased societal awareness and concern about the health of the natural world, researchers began to study environmental issues such as how human activity negatively influences the biophysical environment and how human-caused problems (e.g., noise and pollution) affect human health and well-being (see Diener et al., 2018). These topics soon became an essential part of what environmental psychologists do.
In the late 1960s, environmental psychology became a named, distinct field (e.g., Proshansky et al., 1970 ). Today, the field encompasses the study of environmental and architectural concerns. Environmental psychologists around the world tend to focus on research areas of specific concern to their country or region. Most large national and international psychology organisations have a section or division that is devoted to environmental psychology. For example the Australian Psychological Society has a section on the psychology of climate change and the environment.
Current Environmental Psychology Research Topics
Research in environmental psychology is diverse and largely focused on the interplay between humans and their surroundings. As an applied discipline, research is theoretically-based, problem-oriented and solution-focused, covering a wide range of environments such as natural and built environments, social settings, homes, communities, and community spaces, learning spaces, and virtual environments. Here are some of the current topics of interest to environmental psychologists:
- Ecological consequences of human actions
- Sustainability and climate change
- Psychological aspects of resource management
- Psychological and behavioural aspects of people and nature
- Place attachment and place identity
- Environmental risks and hazards: perception, behaviour, and management
- Personal and group-based perceptions and evaluations of buildings, and natural landscapes
- Design and evaluation of workplaces, schools, homes, public buildings, and public spaces
- Cognitive mapping, spatial cognition, and wayfinding
- Leisure and tourism behaviour in relation to their physical settings
- Stress related to physical settings
- Social space: crowding, privacy, territoriality, personal space
The interests of environmental psychologists continue to reflect the environment we live in, building upon the past and adapting to new conditions (e.g., the creation of virtual reality expands the notion of “environment”). The 21st century is an era of digital communication and artificial intelligence as well as of ecological threats (e.g., Stokols, 2018). How do advances in new technologies change our experiences and relationships with our physical environment? Is the workplace or the school still a relevant conception of place when people can work, learn, shop, consult with a therapist or sight-see places around the world, from just about any physical setting with the aid of technology? How will we perceive, think, and behave in virtual reality, augmented reality, and “smart” buildings and cities? These will be the subjects of inquiry for environmental psychology in the near future.
Environmental psychologists use both quantitative and qualitative approaches, choosing the one that best fits the research question, or using multiple methods if resources allow. Many of the methods are commonly used in psychology and, thus, are introduced in most undergraduate research methods textbooks. Other techniques are specific to research in environmental psychology. The environmental psychologist’s job is to know which methods of gathering information will yield quality answers to the questions at hand, and to use these methods well.
Research methods and techniques commonly used in environmental psychology include:
- Self-reports, such as questionnaire surveys, attitude and other rating scales, and interviews;
- Experiments conducted in a laboratory;
- Field studies and quasi-experiments conducted in everyday physical settings;
- Analyses of archival data, such as census data, police crime reports, park visitors’ logs;
- Naturalistic observation and recording of behaviours in an unobtrusive and systematic manner;
- Physiological measurements (e.g., cortisol level, skin conductance to measure stress level);
- Case studies of particular places; and
- Content analyses of documents and messages (e.g., media reports, twitter and Instagram posts, social media feeds).
Some techniques used specifically (or more often) in environmental psychology are:
- Behaviour mapping (i.e., keeping a visual record of people’s behaviours in a space; for example, where visitors are distributed in an art gallery at a particular time);
- Cognitive mapping (i.e., drawing an individual’s mental representation of a place in a sketch map);
- Analyses of physical traces, including accretion (i.e., the deposit of material, such as litter) and erosion (i.e., the selective wear of material, such as floor tiles);
- Environmental simulations, ranging from static photos to videos, physical mock-ups, computer-generated images, to computer games and virtual reality applications. These simulations are particularly useful for studying the responses of future users to environments that are yet to be built; and
- Needs assessment (architectural programming, before the project is built) and post- occupancy evaluation (did the building design work as planned?).
Each of these methods and techniques has strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, using multiple methods and techniques that complement one another in order to gain a comprehensive picture of the person-environment transaction under study is the wisest approach. As in any research involving human participants, the researcher has the responsibility to address any ethical concerns and to weigh the potential social benefits against the social costs of the research. If you are keen to learn more about the research methods and techniques used in environmental psychology research, take a look at the research methods text edited by Robert Gifford (2016).
Some Significant Research Studies in Environmental Psychology
Several pioneers of environmental psychology have focused on our use of social space. The early work of Robert Sommer (e.g., his book Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design, 1969) emphasised our need to maintain our individual, interpersonal distances (personal space) when we interact with different sorts of others, in different sorts of situations. He also examined the negative consequences that follow when others invade that space. In his book The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territoriality, and Crowding (1975), Irwin Altman described how we use our personal space, the territories we claim and maintain, and environmental and other means to maintain control over our interactions with other people (i.e., privacy). These concepts and principles have been influential to user- centred design. Living in a post pandemic world will almost certainly dictate further evaluation of such concepts as the world adapts to new ways of negotiating space and understanding our relationships with it. The impact of social distancing, isolation and quarantine will likely stimulate long term reconsideration of personal and public norms, values and beliefs, the impact of which will flow through to urban design (see Hamidi et al., 2020; Stevens et al., 2021; Tootell et al., 2021).
Recall the mental health hospital redesign project described earlier in the section about the history of environmental psychology. Based on the idea developed from that project, Robert Sommer formulated the concept of social design (Sommer, 1983). This approach to architectural design involves (a) working with people who use, or will use, the building rather than for them, (b) involving these people who will use the building in planning and management of the spaces around them, and (c) educating them to use the environment wisely and creatively to achieve a harmonious balance between the social, physical, and natural environments.
The key benefit of this approach is serving the needs of the building occupants or potential users first. Architects often view their designs differently from laypersons (Gifford et al., 2000 ), and the paying client (e.g., a school board) often does not communicate with those who occupy or will use the building (e.g., teachers and students ). Social design emphasises building users as active agents in the design process. A wonderful example of where this type of logic has been applied in Australia is illustrated by the partnership formed between a Melbourne-based architectural practice and the University of Melbourne School of Design. This partnership led to the development of a framework of design and environmental factors that contribute to the wellbeing of patients, their families, and their care providers . Utilising a comprehensive comparative case study analysis of contemporary Australian paediatric hospitals, the team assessed the benefits of design features including distraction (achieved with the addition of nature and artwork), wayfinding and social spaces . The findings of the initial research which included focus groups with patients, caregivers and staff, and hundreds of hours of observations of waiting room areas, atriums, family lounges, play areas and other public spaces indicated that waiting areas designed to allow supervised play can reduce anxiety in children and their caregivers. They also found that animal enclosures help children, and their families reflect upon their hospital experience more positively. The translational design strategies, evaluative methods and guidelines produced as a result of this research will help to improve the design of hospitals and healthcare facilities, making them more supportive spaces for patients, their families and staff and (McLaughlan, 2018; McLaughlan et al, 2019; McLaughlan & Pert, 2017 ).
Post-occupancy evaluations are conducted after people move into the space to provide feedback to the architects and the paying client as to the effectiveness of the design. In the end, architects and paying clients could benefit as well by avoiding mistakes that would be costly to remedy over the building’s life (Brown, 2018; Lacroix & Gifford, 2018; Reizenstein, 1982; Wener et al., 2016 ). However, some resistance to this approach occurs because of the extra effort of involving users and occupants, unrealistic expectations about the effectiveness of social design, and conflict among principal players.
Significant contributions have been made to our understanding of what it is like to be living and working in extreme environments, including at both the Arctic and the Antarctic regions (Nicolas et al., 2019 ; Suedfeld, 1991). People in such environments experience not only extremely hostile physical conditions, but also but also psychological feelings of isolation from close family and friends combined with confinement with a small group in close quarters. Difficulty with communication and interpersonal conflicts may occur, depending on the duration of stay. Preventive measures to minimise these problems might include selecting members through vigorous physiological and psychological testing, capsule design, and countering boredom. Individuals who can do the required tasks, are emotionally stable, and are “sociable introverts” may be most suitable for this type of work.
Capsule designs that incorporate colour and variety, and some means for personalisation and privacy, can help to reduce psychological stress. Individuals use different methods to fill unstructured time, reducing monotony in the capsule environment by injecting novelty into their lives; some focus on the capsule or its surrounding environment (e.g., sunrise), whereas others focus on re-creations of their far away home (e.g., a birthday party; Suedfeld & Steel, 2000). These research findings have spurred an interest in investigating the possibilities for human habitation in space and other planets, and environmental psychology has contributed to such endeavours (Gifford & Lacombe, 2006).
Research investigating human adaptation to isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) environments has considered a myriad of factors which may impact human adaptation in these settings including individual psychological reactions and group dynamics, environmental conditions (temperature, weather, dark/light cycles), facilities available for use, communication with the outside world, individual and crew characteristics (Häuplik-Meusburger, & Bishop, 2021; Palinkas & Suedfeld, 2021; Suedfeld & Steel, 2000).
For a long time, the study of climate change was the territory of the natural sciences. However, in the last decade or so, social scientists have been successful to an increasing extent in convincing natural scientists and the public that they can play an important role in helping solve the problem. Both human solutions and technological solutions are necessary. After all, it is primarily human activities that have devastated much of our natural environment and as a result, it is our duty and responsibility to mitigate that impact through our individual and collective actions. Several environmental psychologists (Swim et al., 2011) served on the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Climate Change, which compiled a report to guide future actions. Since that time environmental psychologists have become increasingly active in this space. In Australia, environmental psychologists have made valuable contributions to the writing of a diverse range of discussion papers and government submissions and led the development of the Australian Psychological Society Climate Change Empowerment Handbook (Burke et al., 2017). For more information on the advocacy undertaken by environmental psychologists visit the Australian Psychological Society webpage.
Robert Gifford (2011) has identified almost 40 psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation which he calls the “Dragons of Inaction.” These dragon “species” fall into several “genera,” such as (a) Change Unnecessary, (b) Conflicting Goals and Aspirations, (c) Interpersonal Relations, (d) Lacking Knowledge, (e) Tokenism, (f) Limited Cognition, (g) Government and Industry, and (h) Discredence (Lacroix et al., 2019). Understanding the type of barriers faced by different types of people is the basis for crafting interventions that will help people engage in climate change mitigation. Recent research has made some interesting connections between these psychological barriers and the differences we observe between intentions and actions regarding climate positive food choices (Gifford & Chen, 2017), energy conservation (Lacroix & Gifford 2018), intentions to prepare and act in the event of a disaster (Asgarizadeh & Gifford, 2022).
How Environmental Psychology Makes A Difference
Environmental psychologists help to improve the world in a variety of ways. Sometimes this impact is dramatic. Other times, it is more subtle. In this section, we celebrate a few of the ways in which environmental psychology has changed the world for the better.
One of the most important challenges that environmental psychology is helping to overcome is to apply psychological knowledge to help preserve the natural environment. Many threats to environmental sustainability are caused by human behaviour, and so targeting human behaviour that has harmful effects is paramount for protecting nature and natural resources. Among other activities, environmental psychologists identify behaviours that can and should be changed to improve environmental quality, determine which factors affect these behaviours, and develop and evaluate interventions to change them.
Most people have some concern for the environment, and this concern stems in part from egoistic, altruistic, and biospheric environmental values (e.g., Schultz, 2001). Knowing what individuals value helps environmental psychologists develop intervention policies. For instance, if a person or group’s primary concern is egoistic, for example, interventions can be implemented that emphasize the personal benefits of caring for the environment, such as lower electricity bills. In contrast, for those who hold hedonic values, favouring their immediate experiences (Steg et al., 2014 ), interventions that focus on their own improved comfort or enjoyment might be most effective.
In the Australian landscape, researchers have engaged in a diverse range of projects in the area of pro-environmental behaviour including research aimed at understanding attitudes and behaviours influencing water security (Dean, et al., 2019; Mankad et al., 201 5; Spinks, et al., 2017), pro-environmental behaviours in the workplace (Bissing-Olson et al, 2015; Hicklenton et al., 2019), the role of self-efficacy and belief in motivating environmentally sustainable behaviour (Schutte & Bhullar, 2017), and the effects of collective-level variables on pro-environmental action (Barth et al., 2021).
To add to the challenge, many individuals rebound from their pro-environmental behaviours. For example, people who reduce energy consumption in one area sometimes compensate by increasing consumption in another (Otto et al., 2014). Environmental psychologists seek not only to alter behaviour, but to ensure that this altered behaviour leads to real and lasting results. Studying how, and how much, rebound occurs is an area of active research with important policy implications (Santarius & Soland, 2018).
These are just a few ways in which environmental psychology intersects with conservation research and environmental policy change. Consider reading the reviews by Steg and Vlek (2009) and Grilli and Curtis (2021) for in-depth reviews about how to encourage pro-environmental behaviour, or the chapters by Gifford (2002; 2014) that describe the many ways that environmental psychology has already made a difference in the world.
Environmental Identity and Nature
How individuals think about themselves can be an important predictor of pro-environmental behaviour. Those who identify as pro-environmental tend to engage in more pro-environmental behaviours (Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2010). Environmental psychologists use this knowledge to help influence pro-environmental actions, such as using marketing strategies that encourage greener identity.
Emotional connection to the natural world is also an important predictor of well-being and ecological behaviour (Nisbet et al., 2009). By helping people develop bonds with nature, environmental psychologists promote sustainable behaviour and overall well-being (Barrera-Hernandez et al., 2020; Martin et al., 2020).
Another key point of interest in environmental psychology is the effects of natural settings on people. A growing number of environmental psychologists specialize in restorative environments, places that help people recover from day-to-day psychological overload. Nature walks, for example, can lead to stress reduction, improved attention, and decreased anger (Fuegen, & Breitenbecher, 2018; Hartig et al., 2003). Similarly, children whose homes are close to green spaces show fewer ill-effects from stressful life events (Wells & Evans, 2003). Interesting research conducted in Australia (Lee et al., 2015) found that the use of a 40 second micro-break featuring a green roof view is a simple and effective strategy for boosting attention at work. This research provides a valuable incentive for urban planners and developers, to consider the addition of green walls and green roofs into our workplaces and high-density cities. Additionally, recent Australian research conducted by Rose Macaulay and colleagues (2022) considered how, when environmental conditions for restoration and connectedness are lacking (such as when living in an urban environment), mindful engagement could be utilised as a strategy to help people notice and re-engage with nature. This research reveals the importance of preserving accessible green areas in our cities and homes.
The concept of biophilic design which embraces the use of natural elements as design inspiration for the built environment has received increasing attention over the past two decades for its positive impacts on health and wellbeing. The aim of biophilic design is to create artificial environments as similar as possible to natural ones stimulating similar positive emotions to those elicited when interacting with natural settings. The positive effect of biophilic design on health and wellbeing has been linked to increased productivity in the workplace (Browning & Ryan, 2020; Lei et al., 2021; Söderlund, 2019).
Place attachment is the bond between a person and a place. It is a complex reciprocal association involving cognition, affect, and behaviour (Lewicka, 2011; Manzo, & Devine-Wright, 2020; Scannell & Gifford, 2010). The bond can exist at very small scales (e.g., one’s own room) through to neighbourhoods, parks, cities, regions, nations, and the globe.
With the rise of globalisation and mobility, place attachment has become of particular interest as person-place bonds have become increasingly tenuous. This, in turn, can influence the perceived safety and pleasantness of an environment, and can lead to people being less protective of these places. Because of this, and because place attachment is associated with environmental risk perception, place attachment is important for understanding pro-environmental behaviour (Fornara, et al., 2020).
Place attachment can be a means of influencing behaviour in positive ways, for example by encouraging the use of public spaces such as national parks. Place attachment is also relevant for disaster psychology and has been used to help understand and mitigate the grief experienced by those forced to relocate or, indeed, why people sometimes stay in a dangerous place when, rationally speaking, they should leave (Billig, 2006; Mihaylov et al., 2020; Scannell et al., 2016).
Knowledge of how people find their way in the built and natural environment has a wide range of applications. For example, psychologists have used this research to help catch criminals (Canter & Larkin, 1993), and locate persons lost in urban areas and the wilderness (Heth & Cornell, 1998; Cornell & Hill, 2006). It has also been used to discover ways to evacuate dangerous areas more quickly, such as a burning hotel (Kobes et al., 2009) or a smoky railway tunnel (Cosma et al., 2016). Wayfinding research has also helped to develop head-mounted displays that can aid firefighter navigation in emergencies (Wilson & Wright, 2009).
Enhancing Building Design
Environmental psychology first started by making its mark in the world of architecture. For decades, environmental psychologists have been working to improve buildings by focusing on the human dimensions of building design. Here are a few examples of how environmental psychologists have improved the lives of users in several types of built settings.
Offices have been a popular setting for environmental psychologists to study because many people work in them and because they are comparatively accessible sites for field research that are relatively easy to simulate in a laboratory setting (Sundstrom, 1987; Veitch, 2012). Poorly designed environments can trigger ill effects such as excess fatigue and psychological distress (Colenberg et al., 2021; Evans et al., 2012). Conversely, for example, greater well-being in the form of satisfaction with one’s performance, and fewer physical symptoms at the end of the workday, have been associated with working under lighting conditions that one appraises as comfortable (Sander et al, 2019; Veitch et al., 2008; Zhu et al., 2019).
Long-Term Care Centres
Environment-behaviour researchers (who encompass people with professional training in a variety of related social sciences, architecture and design, whose interests overlap) have played a role in the planning and evaluations of long-term care facilities for elderly residents with Alzheimer’s disease. To learn more about the research in this area including the history of the design of residential care facilities the Margaret Calkins (2018) article – From research to application: Supportive and therapeutic environments for people living with dementia, and the literature reviews conducted by Chaudhury and colleagues (2018), and Day and colleagues (2000) are recommended.
Health Care Facilities
Environmental psychologists have conducted research to evaluate the physical design of health care facilities, including hospitals and the doctor’s office, to improve the health care experiences of patients and those who work in healthcare environments. The right design elements can help reduce stress reported by patients, provide patients with a greater sense of control of their environment and their recovery, help to facilitate social support, provide a welcome distraction (Andrade et al., 2017; Devlin, 2014), and help to reduce aggression in psychiatric facilities (Ulrich et al., 2018). Research has also suggested that design elements can help or hinder the level of communication and teamwork in healthcare facilities (Gharaveis et al., 2018).
Classrooms and Learning Spaces
Researchers have conducted research in learning spaces in educational settings. Sommer and Olsen (1980) designed a “soft classroom” by adding semicircular, cushion-covered bench seating, adjustable lighting, carpeting, and fabric wall decorations to a university classroom. The addition of these features significantly increased student participation. Interestingly, the soft classroom continued to facilitate increased student engagement even after 17 years despite wear-and-tear on the furnishings (Wong et al., 1992).
Researchers have also examined how acoustics affect students using informal learning spaces in universities. In one study, students perceived those spaces with lower background sound levels (e.g., from ventilation systems), higher people-generated sound levels, and more reverberation (which presumably provides greater conversational privacy) were more suitable for engaging in such activities as small-group discussions and socializing than other spaces (Scannell et al., 2016).
Teachers are also affected by the physical environment in schools. For example, changing a traditional library design toward a more social and technologically focused “learning commons” model can affect the perceptions and behaviours of teachers using these spaces in secondary schools (McCunn & Gifford, 2015).
Daycare Centres and Playgrounds
Preschoolers and school children spend much time in daycare centres and playgrounds. The design, layout, and the type of ground surface, in open areas of a daycare can influence the physical activity level of preschoolers. Hard surfaces and curvy pathways are conducive to such physical activities as running and playing with wheeled toys. By contrast, soft, sand-covered ground surfaces in playgrounds inhibit higher levels of physical activities (Cosco et al., 2010). As noted by Cosco et al., this has important implications for playground design. Ground coverings are often chosen for safety, but it could be that associated levels of physical activity should also be considered when selecting a ground covering.
The design of playground equipment can also facilitate different types of play. When outdoor playground equipment has enclosed spaces, nodes and connector spaces, and stage-type spaces, preschool children tend to engage in fantasy play. When children are able to use loose parts to construct their own spaces (constructive play), they are more likely to engage in dramatic play (e.g., “play house”) as well (Maxwell et al., 2008).
Modern planners and city officials are often keen to understand why people use urban spaces in particular ways so that public dollars can be used wisely. Environmental psychologists have emphasized that city and community planning should be approached from psychological and public health perspectives, citing extensive evidence that the physical environment, and its organization, influence attitudes, health, and well-being on large and small scales (McCunn & Gifford, 2014; Wells et al., 2010). For example, noise has well-understood effects on cardiovascular health and on children’s reading acquisition, and this evidence should be taken into account when planning the locations of hospitals and schools in relation to roads with heavy traffic and railways.
Environmental psychology can also improve the habitability of buildings and enhance urban neighbourhoods and parks. One classic example is the application of cognitive mapping principles to the urban design of Ciudad Guyana, a planned Venezuelan city that was created to centrally amalgamate several existing small towns (Appleyard, 1976). More recently, McCunn and Gifford (2017) found associations between feeling a sense of place in urban settings and the various navigational strategies that city dwellers use to find their way around their town. When recalling settings for which they felt a strong sense of place, participants recalled cognitive paths through those settings more readily.
Education and career pathways for Environmental Psychology
Undergraduate psychology degrees in Australia contain several core foundational topic areas with a diverse choice of electives. There are some Universities across Australia that have elective subjects in environmental psychology or content related to it though they are limited in number. James Cook University offers two subjects in environmental psychology, the University of New England has one subject, and the University of Tasmania has a human behaviour in extreme environments subject. In New Zealand you will find environmental psychology offered at the University of Canterbury, Victoria University of Wellington, and the University of Waikato. Courses aligned with or extending knowledge of Environmental Psychology can be found in postgraduate options such as those offered by the University of Melbourne environmental programs and the ANU Master of Environment. Those wishing to pursue research in the area typically pursue a PhD and certainly this would be considered a strong foundation upon which to build a sustainable career pathway.
Compared to other applied subfields of psychology, such as clinical psychology, the number of positions is small. However, the number of environmental psychology graduates is also small. Because environmental psychology is still a relatively new discipline, finding a job and establishing a career depends more on one’s ability and initiative. The good news is that employers, and the public, are becoming more aware of the contributions from those with have training in environmental psychology. Given the size and scope of the field of environmental psychology and given the fact that the use of the term ‘psychologist’ in Australia is reserved for those who are registered practitioners, you will not see such a tile appear in advertised positions. For instance, many positions open to a person with training in the area have titles, such as environment health and safety consultant, sustainability advisor, facility planner, design programmer, or design researcher, so it really is a matter of learning to recognise and extrapolate the skills that you have acquired during your broad undergraduate degree to an advertised skill set. Graduates of psychology degrees are well trained in research methods, data collection and analysis and the distilling of knowledge to a range of audiences. They are equally at home understanding the nuances of behaviour, behaviour modification, and the impact of the environment on health, wellbeing, and resilience.
Government and Other Agencies
You may find work in areas aligned with environmental health and safety, natural resource management or environmental sustainability and resilience. There may be opportunities to work with the CSIRO or local councils as part of their urban planning and development, urban renewal, disaster preparedness and management teams.
Architectural and Sustainability Consulting
In recent years, some architects and design professionals have advocated the use of evidence-based design. They strive to consider the best evidence from research and practice and include the client, and in some cases social scientists, in making critical decisions about each project (Hamilton & Watkins, 2009). Designers of health care facilities are particularly keen on this idea. Enterprising individuals might find a career path by joining such firms. Others have chosen to become consultants offering service to a variety of corporations and industry utilising the broad knowledge and skill set studies in environmental psychology can bring to the table. For instance, there may be opportunities to work on projects related to climate change, urban renewal, and environmental degradation, architectural design, or workplace health and safety. Even more enterprising individuals run their own consultancy companies. Robert Gifford, Lindsay McCunn, Lily Bernheimer and Sally Augustin are a few examples of those who have chosen such an opportunity.
As noted in the introduction, projects that call for the services of someone with training in environmental psychology are sometimes less theoretical and more practical and immediate. For example, if an architecture firm asks for help to complete a post-occupancy evaluation on buildings it has designed, but no data exists from before construction to statistically compare how people think about or use the spaces after they have been built, that would be a consulting project intended to determine how the building performs in the eyes of its occupants. If meaningful comparison data exist, it might also be possible to take a more scholarly approach from which to develop generalisable knowledge. Both career options contribute to the body of knowledge in environmental psychology but differ in the kinds of relationships formed among team members, communities, and organisations, as well as the ways in which a project’s results are communicated.
Environmental psychology is a small field within the larger discipline of psychology, but its scope is broad and includes some of the most important problems that challenge humans in our time. If your career goal is to work with others to make a positive difference in the world, this may be the field for you. Indeed, there is no shortage of topics and problems that await your attention. As one of the major reviews of the field was titled, Environmental psychology matters (Gifford, 2014).
- Clayton, S. D. (Ed.) (2012). The Oxford handbook of environmental and conservation psychology. New York: Oxford. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199733026.001.0001
- Gifford, R. (2014). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice (5th ed.). Colville WA: Optimal Books.
- Gifford, R. (2014). Environmental psychology matters. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 541-580. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115048
- Gifford, R. (Ed.) (2016). Research methods in environmental psychology. Wiley-Blackwell.
- Sommer, R. (1983). Social design: Creating buildings with people in mind. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Steg, L., & de Groot, J. I. M. (Eds.) (2019). Environmental psychology: An introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
Overseas Graduate Programs
- International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP), Division of Environmental Psychology (Global)
- International Association for People-Environment Studies (IAPS)
- American Psychological Association (APA) Division 34: Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology
- Australian Psychological Society Psychology and the Environment Interest Group
- Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)
- The Environmental Psychologists Global Census: A list of around 1000 researchers who identify partly or wholly as environmental psychologists.
This chapter has been adapted by Kerry McBain, School of Psychology, James Cook University. It has been adapted from Ng, C. F., Gifford, R., Veitch, J. A., & McCunn, L. J. (2019). Environmental psychology. In M. E. Norris (Ed.), The Canadian Handbook for Careers in Psychological Science. Kingston, ON: eCampus Ontario. Licensed under CC BY NC 4.0.Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/environmental-psychology/
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