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Introduction to Environmental Psychology

Introduction to Environmental Psychology

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Published by Peter Forster
This is a brief introduction to some of the main themes of the relatively new field of environmental psychology. It is written in an academic style and includes lots of references, but I think it is still fairly readable...
This is a brief introduction to some of the main themes of the relatively new field of environmental psychology. It is written in an academic style and includes lots of references, but I think it is still fairly readable...

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Published by: Peter Forster on Dec 24, 2010
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A brief introduction to environmental psychology
Peter M Forster Charles Darwin University
 Figure 1: Forest of Dean
Abstract
Environmental psychology is a relativelynew branch of psychology that studies theinteractions between humans and their environments from a psychological perspective. This brief overview of somemain themes and theories is intended tointroduce newcomers to this exciting andimportant field. Ideas introduced hereinclude the effects of environments on perception, on health and well-being and oncrime and aggression.
Environmental psychology is the study of theinterconnections between people andenvironments, including natural landscapes and built environments. It is a diverse andmultidisciplinary area of study that includestopics such as wayfinding, restorativeenvironments and the management of sharedspaces. With more recent attention being paid toglobal changes, the promotion of conservation behaviour and the need for a ‘conservation psychology’ is being promoted (Clayton &Myers, in press). The aim of this brief introduction to environmental psychology is to provide an overview of some of the main topicsand theories in the field, and to highlight one or two trends.
Perceiving and navigating throughenvironments
One of the longest-studied areas of environmental psychology is that of how we perceive and navigate through environments.Most psychologists who have studied visual perception have studied object perception.Environmental perception is different fromobject perception:
 
Environments are larger and morecomplex
 
We experience environments from within
 
Environments require navigation skills
Seeing environments
We locate ourselves in environments by anactive process of constructing internalrepresentations or cognitive maps. Thesestructures bring together past experience withcurrent perceptions. They include
 
 
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representations of cognitions, affects and behaviour. They enable us to plan our movements as well as navigate through the present environment.This combination of past and present means thatwe never see the world as it is. We see theworld we expect, the world coloured by our feelings, the world coloured by our memories of the present scene and those it reminds us of.Even in new places we see the past not the present.Siegel and White (1975) propose that we beginthe process of constructing cognitive maps byidentifying and remembering landmarks. Wethen put landmarks together into routes, whichinclude landmarks and other decision points, for the purpose of wayfinding. Finally they proposethat routes are combined into networks to provide a more holistic representation of anenvironment.Others, such as Kuipers (1982) for example, saythat we represent space more like an atlas than amap; that we have representations at differentlevels of detail. One level might be a relativelydetailed representation of the area around one’sown house; another might be a less detailedrepresentation of the forest in which one’shouse is located; while yet another might be acourse representation of the region of which theforest is a part.We prefer some places to others. We prefer andapproach places where we expect to experience positive feelings and avoid those where weexpect negative feelings (Veitch & Arkkelin,1995, p97). A place that one person perceivesas beautiful and restorative may be seen byanother as sinister and dangerous because of  past experience.Salience produces distortions in our environmental representations. Ladd (1970)carried out a classic study of black children wholived in a district of Boston, USA. Ladd askedthe children to draw maps of the area and theninterviewed them about their drawings.Distortions included children drawing the areaswhere white people lived as larger and morecentral than their own area. Some also drew thestreet that marked the boundary between the black area and the white area as larger thanother streets.
 
Perspectives on what we see
Evolutionary perspective
According to Appleton (1975, p73), our environmental preferences are derived from our evolutionary origins. His Prospect-Refugetheory proposes that our modern preferences are based on the needs of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to see prey and predators from a longway off, combined with the need to hide nearbyvery quickly. His theory predicts that we willtend to prefer environments like the savannah inwhich humans are said to have lived for muchof our evolutionary history.
Needs perspective
Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) developed theseideas further and proposed that our environmental preferences evolved from themost salient environments for seeking food andfulfilling other fundamental needs. In other words, humans have positive aesthetic reactionsto environments in which we have functionedmore effectively over the greater part of our evolutionary history.A study consistent with these ideas was carriedout by Orians & Heerwagen (1992). Theyinvited participants from three countries to ratetheir preferences for different types of trees. Themost popular were those resembling savannahtrees, while the least popular were those thatdeparted most from that type of tree in terms of height and density of foliage.From their study of people’s preferences for  photographs of different scenes, the Kaplansidentified four components of environmental preferences:
 
Coherence: the level of organisation of ascene
 
Legibility: the ease of processing theelements of a scene
 
Complexity: the diversity of the elements inthe scene
 
Mystery: the potential of a scene to providenew information
Urban and natural environments
Although the natural environment presents citydwellers with a number of challenges fromminor problems with the weather and pests, tomajor problems with earthquakes and floods,for example, studies that compare people’s preference for images of urban versus ruralenvironments usually find a preference for rural(see Kaplan, Kaplan & Wendt, 1972; and Evans& Wood, 1980, for example). Viewing a videoof a natural environment also induces more
 
 
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relaxation, as measured by heart rate, comparedto viewing an urban environment
(
Laumann,Gärling and Stormark, 2003).Kaplan, Ivancich and De Young (2007), indescribing the many roles played by naturalelements within urban settings, emphasise theimportance of nature within urbanenvironments. As the authors put it, “Urbannature is not just an amenity; it is essential.”
Health and wellbeing
The origins of environmental psychology, andits connections to health and wellbeing can betraced to the work of Proshansky and hiscolleagues who, in studying which hospitaldesigns would provide health benefits to patients, can be said to have founded a newdiscipline (Proshansky, Ittelson, & Rivlin,1970).
Natural environments and health
In his classic and oft-cited study, Ulrich (1984)examined hospital patients after they had major surgery. The patients were in two groups, one of which had a view of trees, plants and grasswhile the other had a view of a brick wall. Itwas found that the patients with a natural viewspent less time in hospital, required fewer pain-relieving drugs, had fewer complications andreceived fewer negative comments in nurse'snotes compared to patients with the brick view.A potential criticism of the study was that thedifferences may have been due to differencesother than the naturalness of the scene, such asvisual complexity. However, subsequentresearch suggested that the naturalness of theview was a significant factor (see Ulrich andLunden, 1990, for example).On a smaller scale, it has also been shown thatthe presence of indoor plants in a hospital roomcan have positive effects on health, includingrecovery from surgery (Park, 2006). Thissuggests that hospitals, hospices and clinicswithout access to a natural environment can benefit patients’ health by making indoor plantsavailable.
Natural environments and wellbeing
Two studies of gardeners found benefits of active engagement with garden environments.Kaplan (1973) studied largely middle-classmembers of the American Horticulture Societywhile Lewis (1996) studied working-class urbangardeners in New York, Philadelphia, Chicagoand Vancouver, Canada. Both reported peacefulness, tranquillity and wellbeing as benefits of participating in gardening. The latter study also reported benefits of increasedsociability, reduced vandalism andneighbourhood revitilisation. At an individuallevel, this study also reported increased self-esteem. Medical checks on the participantsfound lowered blood-pressure, reduced need for medication, and feeling more relaxed andneeded. Both active gardening and the passivecontemplation of plants appear to havetherapeutic effects.According to Mitchell and Popham (2008), parks, playing fields and forests provide both astress-reducing restorative effect and also allowmore physical activity, both of which improvehealth by lowering the risk of heart disease. Theauthors observed that having access to suchenvironments substantially narrowed the healthgap between rich and poor in terms of deathrates.According to Ulrich and Addoms (1981), even people who do not visit parks feel better for knowing that they are there; an argument infavour of creating parks and reserves in remoteareas with restricted or perhaps only webcamaccess.A study in Sweden of elderly (average age 86!)residents in a care home, showed that theyobtained higher scores on tests of concentrationwhen they had a rest period in a natural settingcompared to an indoor setting (Ottosson &Grahn, 2005).
Natural environments and mental health
Several studies have shown that childrendiagnosed with Attention Deficit HyperactivityDisorder (ADHD) experience an improvementin their symptoms following outdoor green play,compared to outdoor urban play or indoor play(Faber, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001; Kuo, & Faber,2004). Natural environments have also been shown toreduce the impact of stressful events onchildren, particularly those who hadexperienced a greater number of stressful events(Wells & Evans, 2003).A longitudinal study of older people living inFrance demonstrated a link between gardeningand a reduced risk of developing dementia(Fabrigoule, Letenneur, Commenges &Barberger-Gateau, 1995).

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