"Current Trends in Environmental Psychology"


by Gary W. Evans
gwcl@cornell.edu

Environmental Psychology as a Field within Psychology

Environmental psychology as a specialized discipline within psychology has lost much of its visibility as a unique area within psychology over the past decade. Some of this loss is bad; whereas much of it is surprisingly good--let me explain.

The bad part is that much of the initial impetus for environmental psychology came from the mutual desire of social scientists and designers, particularly architects, to work together to create buildings that would work better for people. Unfortunately that initial enthusiasm has since waned, at least within the United States.

The good part is that much of what environmental psychology brought to psychology has been fully adopted into mainstream psychology. There are many reflections of this. Submission rates for manuscripts to the three major journals in the field, Environment and Behavior, the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research are all very high. Environmental psychology course offerings are at an all time high in North America with new editions of the two best selling textbooks (Bell Fisher Baum and Greene; Gifford) either just out or impending; two new texts have been published in the past year in the U.S. (Mc Andrew; Veitch & Arkelin), and Bonnes and Secchiaroli's text has been published in Italy; and several additional texts are nearing completion.

The Cambridge series on environment and behavior and Gower's Ethnoscape series are both selling very well and each series has several volumes in the pipeline. Furthermore, individual volumes continue to proliferate both in North America as well as in Europe. The Handbook of Environmental Psychology sold out its press run and has now been reissued by Krieger Publications. Both Environment and Behavior and Journal of Environmental Psychology have had strong sales of individual volumes or collected articles compiled into books.

North and South American (EDRA), European (IAPS), Japanese (MERA) and Australian/New Zealand (PAPER) organizations are devoted to the study of human behavior and the physical environment. Each manages a regular conference, publishes proceedings, either annually or bi-annually, and sponsors a newsletter. Both Sweden and Spain have national task forces that regularly meet. Estonia has recently sponsored an international conference and publication.

There has also been widespread incorporation of environmental psychology into other areas of psychology. The handbooks of both social and health psychology have chapters devoted to environmental topics; health psychology, the largest growing sector of psychology in North America, routinely incorporates measures of social and physical environmental characteristics. The new edition of the handbook of psychophysiology will contain a major chapter on the physical environment and physiology.

Cognitive sciences have incorporated cognitive mapping as a major research area into their field as witnessed by the proliferation of articles within cognitive journals on spatial memory, wayfinding, and computational models of environmental cognition. Indeed, amongst the earliest intellectual origins of environmental psychology was concern amongst perceptual psychologists about the ecological validity of traditional approaches to the study of perception.

Child psychology as well as life span development research continue to examine the role of both the immediate and background setting as they contribute to healthy development. Developmentalists also maintain a strong ecological perspective in their examination of the role of different childcare settings as well as aging in place options as they impact young and old individuals, respectively. Environmental education is a major subarea within educational curricula and practice.

In addition many leading applied and social psychology texts continue to have chapters devoted to environmental psychology. Several introductory books also include sections on applications of psychology with prominent coverage to environmental issues. Finally, the Journal of Social Issues, a major international journal devoted to psychology and public policy, has had recent special issues on environmental stress, residential mobility, environmental attitudes, human dimensions of global change, environmental hazards, and in 1966, published one of the seminal volumes outlining the field of environmental psychology.

Psychology and the Environmental Design Professions

Although the initial zeal of collaboration between architects and psychologists has waned considerably, growing trends in other design fields suggest increasing interest in behavioral science research. Interior designers,for example, have altered their major scholarly journal, the Journal of Interior Design, to reflect greater involvement in social science research. Interior design departments are increasingly recruiting new faculty with research training. Planners are looking to social scientists for evaluation of various new development alternatives such as new urbanism or transit oriented development. Landscape architects are increasingly collaborating with researchers interested in the concept of restorative environments, and landscape aesthetic assessment is a mainstream topic within this field. Policy makers, interested in cost-benefit analyses, are also looking to research to document the value of open space, parks, transportation policies, zoning practices, and the like.

Although architecture as a practice has not embraced the behavioral sciences to the extent hoped for, the education of architects typically includes some exposure to human behavior. The idea that design affects users and can make a difference in their lives is central to every major design profession.

In many other countries outside of North America, however, there is better and more sustained collaboration between architecture and environmental psychology. This seems particularly true in economically developing countries and in smaller countries where the trivialities of professional turf wars are not as easily tolerated.

The direct link between environmental psychology and design has begun to develop in the form of design guidelines or programming documents, particularly for the design of specialized facilities. Major examples include low cost housing, housing for alternative living arrangements (e.g., co-housing), various medical facilities, facilities for people with special needs (e.g. Alzheimer's disease, the physically disabled, victims of abuse, recovering drug abusers) and environments such a daycare and schools focused on healthy development among children. Research continues to mushroom on the role of different living arrangements for older people, ranging from micro features such as doorway design to macro issues like availability of the correct matrix of services.

One alternative to convincing designers of the value of social science research for the design of better settings is to educate clients to demand more of those who design for them. This approach has been the hallmark of the Facilities Planning and Management profession. Researchers at several universities have established collaborative relationships with major international firms who recognize the critical importance of physical facilities in today's marketplace. Changes in the nature of work as well as in the workforce itself demand facilities that are flexible, supportive of different and varied ways of working, cost-effective, and pleasing to a well educated mobile workforce.

Prominent Research Topics

An important emerging area is the connection between global environmental issues and psychology. This area builds upon early and still ongoing important work examining operant paradigms as well as basic motivational theories to alter ecologically destructive behaviors. Another exciting direction for this line of work is integration of concepts from social and cognitive psychology on judgment and decision heuristics. The national Science Foundation of the United States, for example, has put out a call for proposals specifically addressing human dimensions of global change. Several environmental psychologists were involved in the planning group for this new initiative. Paul Stern and his colleagues at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have published a recent monograph in this area, an Annual Review of Psychology piece, and the Journal of Environmental Psychology has recently edited a special issue on the topic.

Another prominent area within the field of environmental psychology is the critical role of culture in understanding human-behavior relationships. The growth of interest in environmental psychology in Central and South America is heartening in this regard. For example, one of the largest environmental psychology programs in the world is located at the National University of Mexico. Issues related to housing, environmental attitudes, mental health and the environment, privacy and place are among major topics of interest in this program. Several collaborative projects cutting across cultures are ongoing on crowding and noise, restorative environments, alternative work environments, transportation impacts, women and housing, and childcare facilities. Japan and the U.S. have conducted a series of joint meetings on environment and behavior; Sweden and the U.S. hosted an international meeting on environment cognition, and action; and several trans-European studies, principally surveys of public attitudes about environmental issues, have been conducted.

Another important topic of research and discussion within the field continues to be criminal behavior and design. Since the initial interest in defensible space, researchers and designers have continued to be fascinated by the role of the physical environment in affecting crime directly as well as its influence on fear of crime. The interplay of these two processes is well illustrated by the incivilities theory, use of landscape aesthetic principles, and research on the criminal's perspective on crime. The new field of Investigative Psychology is playing a dominant role in crime management in the criminal justice systems of many countries. This field draws heavily from topics such as place theory, territoriality, and environmental cognition, research on prisons continues to underscore the positive and negative role the physical environment plays in such settings.

Interest in life in space has spawned a host of efforts within the United States and Europe to develop programs for housing travelers and workers in outerspace. This endeavor plus several other areas, particularly related to health and safety issues in the workplace, has renewed interest in more direct connections between environmental psychology with human factors or ergonomics. The boundaries between these disciplines is slowly eroding with environmental psychologists studying more micro aspects of the human-technology interface, at the same time that human factor specialists are studying such topics as indoor air quality or stress in the workplace.

The emergence of desk top simulation capabilities as well as more exotic venues such as virtual reality, continue to fascinate researchers and practitioners alike desirous of studying human reactions to various spaces or objects prior to their actual development. Utilization of simulation as a basic research tool has lagged behind its more practical applications with some interesting exceptions in the areas of environmental cognition and restorative environments.

Finally, research on environmental stressors continues to receive attention. Noise, crowding, pollutants as well as natural and technological disasters have psychophysiologic, health, and cognitive implications. The actual behaviors of people during emergencies has also provided critical insights into human behavior that inform emergency planning policies as well as the design of spaces to minimize harm when disasters do occur.

Overcharging Conceptual and Methodological Issues

A conceptual topic of continuing interest within environmental psychology is the concept of place. How are places developed, how do they acquire meaning to people, how are they related to people's plans of action, their preferences, and even to their emotional reactions and well being? And what does the concept mean across generations or across cultures? Place making and the development and sustainability of community has been the subject of several recent books in the field.

There continues to be a strong commitment within environmental psychology to try and study human-environment relationships within the full contextual framework in which they occur. Accepting the mantle from Barker and his early associates, researchers in environmental psychology continue to struggle with how to do this in a manner that yields reasonable guidance about important causal variables. Related to this concern with ecological validity coupled with rigor is the appropriate unit of analysis for study--is it persons, settings, person by setting interactions or some new entity of person-environment unit? Studies of multiple stressors, cross over effects between different settings (e.g., home-work), life course trajectories, multiple level analyses (e.g., family and neighborhood effects on child development) are examples of this more contextualized perspective.

Greater methodological and analytic sophistication is now also apparent in environmental psychology. For example in the study of environmental stressors a prospective, longitudinal study of chronic residential crowding has been conducted in the U.S. and an ongoing prospective study is underway on airport noise and children in Germany. Analytic investigations of unit of analysis, cross-level effects, as well as environmental sampling have been undertaken. Increasing awareness of the important conceptual and analytic distinctions between mediator processes and moderator processes in the links between human behavior and the physical environment are apparent. Moreover the field's long-standing commitment to multiple methods of measurement continues unabated.

There is a growing interest among some environmental psychologists to connect up their work with poverty as it becomes increasingly clear that poor environmental quality is often a major constituent of the plethora of suboptimal conditions in which the poor live. This trend appears particularly strong in Third World countries and has influenced current research on topics such as urban stressors, street children, and residential housing. A related issue that some are considering is the potential role of psychical factors to help account for the well established health-income relationship as well as the linkages between poverty and developmental psychopathology.

In conclusion, please let me apologize for my North American bias in presenting this overview for IAAP members. I welcome any corrections or additions from my colleagues throughout the world.

Author Notes

Gary W. Evans, President of the Environmental Psychology Division of the IAAP, is Professor of Human-Environment Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-4401, USA. I thank Robert Bechtel, David Canter and Nancy Wells for critical feedback on a draft of this note. See Stokols, D. (1995), American Psychologist, 50, 821-837, for a more in-depth, scholarly analysis of the international field of environmental psychology.

Back to the IAAP Newsletter Fall 1996