Pavement signs & textures

Sensing the place – experiences & wayfinding

April 2016, London

At our wayfinding event we heard from seven speakers who took us back to first principles of the psychology of how we navigate through our environment.

Dr Jim Coleman, our chair and host for the evening, began the discussion by examining the challenge of advising government on prioritising from the many individual issues in the built environment.

Further discussion focused on how to improve the built environment to give a sense of security in an extreme weather or manmade hazard event. Paranoia resulting from a disaster can lead to panicked action and possibly also schizophrenia.

The visual aspects of neighbourhood planning were also debated – how do we prevent placemaking being reduced to an argument about the individual preferences of professionals and local people? Kay Pallaris of Mapping Futures challenged architects in the audience to go beyond this conversation to create places that are healthy, beautiful and are neighbourhoods people actually want to live in.

Professsor Marialena Nikolopoulou suggested an education process is needed to help neighbourhood planning groups get to grips with tools such as Health Impact Assessments, which in turn can help make use of a group’s freedom and power to define placemaking.

A member of the audience commented that high density buildings above 3 or 4 stories, limit social interaction; this can sow the seeds of mental health problems as early as childhood. The high density context is often compounded by lack of access to green space and poor urban design.

A number of questions focused on wayfinding for people with sensory impairments, for instance, good signage doesn’t help those with impaired vision. Intuitive design and social infrastructure can help those with reduced cognitive or physical capabilities, particularly when it encourages social interaction to seek assistance.

Are we unconsciously designing out places for social interaction, causing increased social isolation and triggering unintended consequences? This was a recurrent point during the discussion, both in the context of assisting people with impairments and in the development of apps to help the impaired. Possible solutions varied from enabling occupants to co-create space through to changes in design practice for healthier towns and cities.


Dr Jim Coleman, BuroHappold Engineering

From masterplan to sensory experience

Mehrnaz Ghojeh & Thomas Lindsay, BuroHappold Engineering

The presentation will talk through the role of the masterplan in the context of the city as an uncertain, diverse and complex system or entity. It will specifically draw out the problems with typical masterplanning in the face of a changing climate (and wider changing conditions). If masterplanning is typically trying to manage all the complexities and uncertainties that make up a city from an external standpoint then sensory experience, while not necessary the best way to plan, can give an indication of conditions inside the tangled city system. The talk will not give solutions but instead set up questions (although in some places it does answer the 3 questions posed at the host) and will use BuroHappold’s recent project for the World Bank for the City of Beirut.

How does the historic environment make us feel?

Jonathan Schifferes, The RSA

How does the historic built environment make us feel? There is something magic about historic spaces, places and objects. Experiments show golfers play better if they are using clubs they think were used by golf legends. Evidence shows that the most productive and innovative industries favour old buildings. The imagination required to engage with the old stimulates creativity in our brains. We need to better harness technologies and approaches that help us understand, interpret and contribute to the heritage of our cities. Mapping heritage data is one stimulus; we also need to create the tools for citizens to take active roles. Our data shows that it is heritage activities – as opposed to heritage assets – which are correlated with well-being in the UK (at local authority level). The benefit of heritage comes from living it, rather than living amongst it. If people are empowered to create their own heritage stories – of their homes, their families, their profession – then we’ll be closer to appreciating a key value that the built environment gives us: the props and the staging for history that shapes our identity. We need to feel ownership; not just over the decisions to restore, recycle or raze buildings, but in the very presentation of place history – the telling of the history of our place to others – if we are to feel a link between our personal identity and the identity of our cities and neighbourhoods. We often struggle to articulate what it is that we like about a historic space. Overcoming this will be key in redeveloping the built environment into the future – brownfield sites and bypasses are each resources created by heritage decisions. We need to build visual literacy and design literacy in ways which recognise that long-term sustainability is systematic adaptation: the ability to respond to an ever-changing context throughout time.

Bad grass, living in boxes and ugly places. Is the ‘science’ of place-making currently being misused?

Nicholas Boys Smith, Create Streets

In many planning and urban design decisions in contemporary London reference is made directly or implicitly to the positive roles of greenery, connectivity and dense city-living. But is empirical research into happiness, beauty, the role of greenery, the role of space and privacy being used or badly misused? Nicholas will summarise some of Create Streets’ current research and work with communities and set out some of their concerns about much current development and ‘urban design.’

Creating dementia friendly environments: how to support successful orientation for people with dementia

Mary O’Malley, Bournemouth University

Older adults and those experiencing dementia often exhibit marked difficulties in their orientation and navigation abilities. In order to know how to adjust environments to compensate for decreasing orientation skills, voice must be given to older adults and those experiencing dementia to describe how they find their way around environments. Secondly, understanding which aspects of route memory are most and least susceptible to the effects of typical and atypical ageing will allow for appropriate navigational aids to be implemented in spaces. This talk will discuss the findings from two studies which have explored how older adults with memory difficulties learn environments, as well as their possible causes of disorientation. The first of these, a qualitative interview study in a retirement complex, addresses the design preferences and orientation experiences of residents with self-reported memory difficulties. The second study in this talk focuses specifically on older adults’ route memory (e.g. landmarks, directional information, map reading) and which aspects were most sensitive and least affected by the effects of typical and atypical ageing. The findings and implications of the findings are discussed in relation to existing dementia and navigation research as well as dementia (and age) friendly design guidelines.

ESRC funded project Dementia-friendly architecture: reducing spatial disorientation in care homes at Bournemouth University  

O’Malley, M., Innes, A. & Wiener, J.M. 2015. Decreasing spatial disorientation in care-home settings: How psychology can guide the development of dementia friendly design guidelines. Dementia, June 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1471301215591334

Microclimate, thermal experience and urban design: increasing our adaptive capacity under climate change

Prof Marialena Nikolopoulou, Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent

The talk will explore how microclimate and people’s thermal perception can shape the use of space and how such conditions may improve or ruin people’s experience of urban spaces. My research in the UK and across Europe has shown that responses to the microclimate may be unconscious, but they often result in a different use of open space under different climatic conditions. Using extensive field surveys to understand and evaluate comfort conditions and microclimatic monitoring techniques, confirmed the strong relationship between microclimate and the use of open spaces. The work also highlighted how mechanisms of physical and psychological adaptation enable people to adapt to a range of environmental conditions. Careful microclimatic design can enhance environmental diversity, which can encourage people’s sense of place, ensuring use of open spaces throughout the year. Ultimately, understanding people’s thermal experience in urban spaces can inform our vocabulary of independent physical interventions. Such knowledge will enable us to use design to improve environmental quality and increase our adaptive capacity under climate change.

City living in the moment – using smartphone data in urban planning

Neil Davidson, J&L Gibbons

Urban Mind is an app that measures the experience of city living in the moment. The research team will use the real-time data collected as people go about their daily life, to understand how different aspects of the urban environment affect mental well-being. The results of this research project will help inform future urban planning and social policy aimed at improving design & health in our cities. The use of smartphones to acquire the data will encourage more accurate information than that delivered by participants using traditional methods, where responses are logged retrospectively in the artificial environment of the clinic or research institution.

Reflections of transport modes, and GPS on the experience of urban atmosphere – case study of London

Dr Negin Minaei, IAU, Kerman Branch

Experiencing a space by a person is an internal psychological process and can be affected by external and internal factors. External factors are environment-based and the result of “urban atmosphere” which includes people and activities, sounds and noises, smells and environmental clues, and (urban/architectural) design of a space; The latter involves all physical aspects of a space such as urban sculpture (city scape, skyline, silhouette, entrances and exits), Lynch factors (landmark, path, edge, node, quarter), urban appearance (facades, urban spaces, urban furniture) and the movement system (circulation and transport modes). The possible impact of using different transport modes and way-finding apps/GPS have been studied in my research and published in a paper called ‘Do Modes of Transport and GPS affect cognitive maps of Londoners?’. Internal factors refer to each individual and can be age, gender, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, language, cognitive abilities including memory, imagination and way-finding skills, level of education, field of study and former experiences of travelling to different cities.

Minaei, N. 2014. Do modes of transportation and GPS affect cognitive maps of Londoners?. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 70, December 2014:162–180 DOI: 10.1016/j.tra.2014.10.008