A brief introduction to environmental psychology Peter M Forster Charles Darwin University

Figure 1: Forest of Dean Abstract
Environmental psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that studies the interactions between humans and their environments from a psychological perspective. This brief overview of some main themes and theories is intended to introduce newcomers to this exciting and important field. Ideas introduced here include the effects of environments on perception, on health and well-being and on crime and aggression.

and theories in the field, and to highlight one or two trends.

Perceiving and navigating through environments
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 from object perception: • • • Environments are larger and more complex We experience environments from within Environments require navigation skills

Environmental psychology is the study of the interconnections between people and environments, including natural landscapes and built environments. It is a diverse and multidisciplinary area of study that includes topics such as wayfinding, restorative environments and the management of shared spaces. With more recent attention being paid to global 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 topics

Seeing environments
We locate ourselves in environments by an active process of constructing internal representations or cognitive maps. These structures bring together past experience with current perceptions. They include


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 that we never see the world as it is. We see the world 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 begin the process of constructing cognitive maps by identifying and remembering landmarks. We then put landmarks together into routes, which include landmarks and other decision points, for the purpose of wayfinding. Finally they propose that routes are combined into networks to provide a more holistic representation of an environment. Others, such as Kuipers (1982) for example, say that we represent space more like an atlas than a map; that we have representations at different levels of detail. One level might be a relatively detailed representation of the area around one’s own house; another might be a less detailed representation of the forest in which one’s house is located; while yet another might be a course representation of the region of which the forest is a part. We prefer some places to others. We prefer and approach places where we expect to experience positive feelings and avoid those where we expect negative feelings (Veitch & Arkkelin, 1995, p97). A place that one person perceives as beautiful and restorative may be seen by another 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 who lived in a district of Boston, USA. Ladd asked the children to draw maps of the area and then interviewed them about their drawings. Distortions included children drawing the areas where white people lived as larger and more central than their own area. Some also drew the street that marked the boundary between the black area and the white area as larger than other streets.

Perspectives on what we see
Evolutionary perspective
According to Appleton (1975, p73), our environmental preferences are derived from our evolutionary origins. His Prospect-Refuge theory proposes that our modern preferences are based on the needs of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to see prey and predators from a long way off, combined with the need to hide nearby very quickly. His theory predicts that we will tend to prefer environments like the savannah in which humans are said to have lived for much of our evolutionary history.

Needs perspective
Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) developed these ideas further and proposed that our environmental preferences evolved from the most salient environments for seeking food and fulfilling other fundamental needs. In other words, humans have positive aesthetic reactions to environments in which we have functioned more effectively over the greater part of our evolutionary history. A study consistent with these ideas was carried out by Orians & Heerwagen (1992). They invited participants from three countries to rate their preferences for different types of trees. The most popular were those resembling savannah trees, while the least popular were those that departed 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 Kaplans identified four components of environmental preferences: • • • • Coherence: the level of organisation of a scene Legibility: the ease of processing the elements of a scene Complexity: the diversity of the elements in the scene Mystery: the potential of a scene to provide new information

Urban and natural environments
Although the natural environment presents city dwellers with a number of challenges from minor problems with the weather and pests, to major problems with earthquakes and floods, for example, studies that compare people’s preference for images of urban versus rural environments usually find a preference for rural (see Kaplan, Kaplan & Wendt, 1972; and Evans & Wood, 1980, for example). Viewing a video of a natural environment also induces more


relaxation, as measured by heart rate, compared to viewing an urban environment (Laumann, Gärling and Stormark, 2003). Kaplan, Ivancich and De Young (2007), in describing the many roles played by natural elements within urban settings, emphasise the importance of nature within urban environments. As the authors put it, “Urban nature is not just an amenity; it is essential.”

Health and wellbeing
The origins of environmental psychology, and its connections to health and wellbeing can be traced to the work of Proshansky and his colleagues who, in studying which hospital designs would provide health benefits to patients, can be said to have founded a new discipline (Proshansky, Ittelson, & Rivlin, 1970).

benefits of participating in gardening. The latter study also reported benefits of increased sociability, reduced vandalism and neighbourhood revitilisation. At an individual level, this study also reported increased selfesteem. Medical checks on the participants found lowered blood-pressure, reduced need for medication, and feeling more relaxed and needed. Both active gardening and the passive contemplation of plants appear to have therapeutic effects. According to Mitchell and Popham (2008), parks, playing fields and forests provide both a stress-reducing restorative effect and also allow more physical activity, both of which improve health by lowering the risk of heart disease. The authors observed that having access to such environments substantially narrowed the health gap between rich and poor in terms of death rates. According to Ulrich and Addoms (1981), even people who do not visit parks feel better for knowing that they are there; an argument in favour of creating parks and reserves in remote areas with restricted or perhaps only webcam access. A study in Sweden of elderly (average age 86!) residents in a care home, showed that they obtained higher scores on tests of concentration when they had a rest period in a natural setting compared to an indoor setting (Ottosson & Grahn, 2005).

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 grass while the other had a view of a brick wall. It was found that the patients with a natural view spent less time in hospital, required fewer painrelieving drugs, had fewer complications and received fewer negative comments in nurse's notes compared to patients with the brick view. A potential criticism of the study was that the differences may have been due to differences other than the naturalness of the scene, such as visual complexity. However, subsequent research suggested that the naturalness of the view was a significant factor (see Ulrich and Lunden, 1990, for example). On a smaller scale, it has also been shown that the presence of indoor plants in a hospital room can have positive effects on health, including recovery from surgery (Park, 2006). This suggests that hospitals, hospices and clinics without access to a natural environment can benefit patients’ health by making indoor plants available.

Natural environments and mental health
Several studies have shown that children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) experience an improvement in 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 to reduce the impact of stressful events on children, particularly those who had experienced a greater number of stressful events (Wells & Evans, 2003). A longitudinal study of older people living in France demonstrated a link between gardening and a reduced risk of developing dementia (Fabrigoule, Letenneur, Commenges & Barberger-Gateau, 1995).

Natural environments and wellbeing
Two studies of gardeners found benefits of active engagement with garden environments. Kaplan (1973) studied largely middle-class members of the American Horticulture Society while Lewis (1996) studied working-class urban gardeners in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Vancouver, Canada. Both reported peacefulness, tranquillity and wellbeing as


Theories on the restorative effects of environments
Biophilia – Wilson (1984) defined biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature”. Wilson proposes that humans have evolved to respond positively to natural environments to help us survive. The theory proposes that we are attracted to environments where we feel more positive emotions and can live more effectively. The theory accounts for some aspects of behaviour, but needs extending to account for the biophobia experienced by some. Attention Restoration Theory – This model assumes that there are two types of attention. One type of attention requires focussed concentration and is tiring. Indirect attention, however, is said to attract our attention with little effort and is therefore restorative. The model further proposes that natural environments are more likely to facilitate indirect attention (Chang, Hammitt, Chen, Machnik, & Su, 2008; Kaplan, 1995). Directed attention, such as that required to read this article, takes effort and is tiring. The result, according to Kaplan (2001), is distractibility, planning impairment, impulsive behaviour and irritability. This model has been evoked to account for the reduction in crime observed in areas with more natural features such as trees and grassy areas. Psycho-physiological Stress Recovery Theory – This model is based on the observation that viewing natural environments leads to a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure in people who report feelings of stress (Ulrich, 1983; Velarde, Fry, & Tveit, 2007). This model proposes that natural settings are restorative because they had survival-related advantages for early humans, thus helping us cope with stress. Research within this model includes the observation that participants who view even a video of natural surroundings recover more rapidly from stress (Ulrich, Simons, Losito, Fiorito, Miles & Zeison, 1991). These models are not mutually exclusive.

activities, there is evidence that green areas with trees are more likely to attract local residents of all ages to use the space and thus deter crime (Coley, Sullivan, & Kuo, 1997). In a study of felt safety, one hundred residents of a single area in Chicago reported that their sense of safety was influenced by the density of trees and the maintenance of the grass in an area adjacent to their homes (Kuo, Bacaicoa, & Sullivan, 1998). A further study using police crime reports in a city neighbourhood found that more vegetation around a building was associated with fewer violent crimes and fewer property crimes (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001a). It is unclear whether such effects are due to reduced mental fatigue leading to reduced impulsiveness or to the perception that an area is better cared for and protected, and is thus a less suitable target for crime. What is clear is that the presence of trees, grass and other vegetation in an otherwise built environment has an important role in influencing the social interactions that take place there (Sullivan, Kuo, & Depooter, 2004).

Effects on aggression
A further study by Kuo & Sullivan (2001b) supports the view that natural environments can contribute to reduced aggression and violence in inner cities by reducing mental fatigue and thus irritability. In this study, levels of aggression and violence by single mothers was reduced in those who had a view of trees and a green area, compared to those with a built (labelled ‘barren’) view. The study involved random allocation of families to a housing project. Bell, Greene, Fisher & Baum (2005) discuss this effect in terms of attention restoration theory.

Although a very slim introduction to environmental psychology, the areas outlined here are clearly relevant and important to human health and well-being. Yet, from even the early days of the field (see Proshansky, 1987, for example) doubts have been cast about the viability of the area. Stokols (1995) offers a different perspective and suggests that the field of environmental psychology is flourishing, but that it is losing its distinct identity as its concepts and methods become diffused through many other branches of psychology and other disciplines.

Crime and aggression
Effects on crime
Within cities, although it is possible that dense vegetation could provide cover for criminal


For a contemporary account of the field and a more in-depth review of the trends that have contributed to the current state of environmental psychology, see Giuliani and Scopelliti (2009). For an exciting synthesis of environmental psychology with another relatively new field, positive psychology, see Kaplan and Kaplan, (2008). It has been an aim of this paper to illustrate the relevance of environmental psychology to a number of important and pressing issues. Indeed, many issues related to human health, well-being, and both pro-social and anti-social behaviour, cannot be understood without including the perspectives and findings of environmental psychology.

Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 375-386. Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 241-248. Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration and the management of mental fatigue. Environment & Behavior, 33(4), 480506. Kaplan, R., Ivancich, J.E. & De Young, R. (2007). Nearby nature in the city: Enhancing and preserving livability. Retrieved 23rd December 2010 from: http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/48784 Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of Nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press. Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (2008). Bringing out the best in people: A psychological perspective. Conservation Biology, 22(4), 826-829. Kaplan, S., Kaplan, R., & Wendt, J. S. (1972). Rated preference and complexity for natural and urban visual material. Perception and Psychophysics, 12, 354-356. Kuipers, B., 1982, The `Map in the head' metaphor. Environment and Behavior, 14, 202-220. Kuo, F. E., Bacaicoa, M., & Sullivan, W. C. (1998). Transforming inner-city landscapes: trees, sense of safety and preference. Environment and Behavior, 30(1), 28-59. Kuo, F.E. & Faber, T.A. (2004). A potential natural nreatment for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity disorder: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586. Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001a). Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime? Environment and Behavior, 33(3), 343367. Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001b). Aggression and violence in the inner city: Effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33(4), 543-571. Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001a). Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime? Environment and Behavior, 33(3), 343367.

Appleton, J. (1975). The Experience of Landscape. London: John Wiley. Bell, P. A., Greene, T. C., Fisher, J. D., & Baum, A. S. (2005). Environmental psychology (Fifth ed.). New York: Harcourt College. Chang, C.-Y., Hammitt, W. E., Chen, P.-K., Machnik, L., & Su, W.-C. (2008). Psychophysiological responses and restorative values of natural environments in Taiwan. Landscape and Urban Planning, 85(2), 79-84. Clayton, S., & Myers, O. E. J. (in press). Conservation Psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature. New York: WileyBlackwell. Coley, R. L., Sullivan, W. C., & Kuo, F. E. (1997). Where Does Community Grow? The Social Context Created by Nature in Urban Public Housing Environment and Behavior, 29(4), 468494. Evans, G.W., & K.W. Wood. 1980. Assessment of environmental aesthetics in scenic highway corridors. Environment & Behavior, 12, 255-273. Faber, T.A., Kuo, F. & Sullivan, W. (2001). Coping with ADD: the surprising connection to green play setting. Environment and Behavior. 33, 54-77. Fabrigoule, C., Letenneur, L., Commenges, D. & Barberger-Gateau, P.J. (1995) Social and leisure activities and risk of dementia: a prospective longitudinal study. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 43(5), 485-490. Giuliani, M.V. & Scopelliti, M. (2009). Empirical research in environmental psychology: past, present and future.


Ladd, F. C. 1970. Black youths view their environment. Environment and Behavior 2, 74-99. Laumann, K., Gärling, T. & Stormark, K.M. (2003). Selective attention and heart rate responses to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(2), 125134. Lewis, C.A. (1996). Green Nature, Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants in Our Lives. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). Evolved responses to landscapes. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 555-579). New York: Oxford University Press. Ottosson, J. & Grahn, P. (2005). A comparison of leisure time spent in a garden with leisure time spent indoors: On measures of restoration in residents in geriatric care. Landscape Research, 30(1) 23-55. Park, S.-H. (2006). Randomized clinical trials evaluating therapeutic influences of ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms on health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery. Unpublished Dissertation, Kansas State University. Proshansky, H. M. (1987). The field of environmental psychology: securing its future. In D. Stokols, & I. Altman (eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 2 (pp. 1467–1488). New York: Wiley. Proshansky, H. M., Ittelson, W. H., & Rivlin, L. G. (1970). Environmental psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Siegel, A.W. & White, S.H. (1975). The development of spatial representations of large-scale environments, In H.W. Reese (ed) Advances in Child Development & Behavior by H.W. Reese 10, 9-55. New York: Academic Press. Stokols, D. (1995). The paradox of environmental psychology. American Psychologist, 50, 821–837. Sullivan, W. C., Kuo, F. E., & Depooter, S. F. (2004). The Fruit of Urban Nature: Vital Neighborhood Spaces. Environment and Behavior, 36(5), 678700. Ulrich, R. S. (1983). Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment. In I. Altman & J. F. Wohlwill (Eds.), Behavior and the Natural Environment (pp. 85-125). New York: Plenum Press.

Ulrich, R.S. and Lunden, O. (1990). Effects of nature and abstract pictures on patients recovering from open heart surgery. Paper presented at the International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, Uppsala, Sweden, June 27-30. Ulrich, R., Simons, R.F., Losito, E., Fiorito, E., Miles, M.A. & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201-230. Veitch, R. and Arkkelin, D. (1995). Environmental psychology: An interdisciplinary perspective. PrenticeHall, Inc. Velarde, M. D., Fry, G., & Tveit, M. (2007). Health effects of viewing landscapes – landscape types in environmental psychology. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 6(4), 199-212. Wells, N.M. & Evans, G.W. (2003). Nearby nature: a buffer of life stress among rural children. Environment and Behavior, 35(3), 311-330. Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Figure 2: Todd River, Alice Springs


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful