Have a look around you. What do you see? Some walls? Maybe some furniture, trees, infrastructure, possibly some people? The answer is all of these – and you – make up the environment that you inhabit. A few seconds ago, it would have been different, and in a few seconds’ time, it will be different again. So how do we perceive this ever-changing world in such a way that we can enjoy being where we are, feel safe being there and, by doing so, contribute to the wellbeing of society. And how is this affected by the design of the space – if, of course, it has been designed?
The key to these questions lies in how we see ourselves in relation to the environment. Is the environment something to which we respond, presenting itself in some way that we sense and thus perceive? Are we in the environment, with the sensorial and physical ambience somehow spread around us? Are we part of it, where we contribute to the environmental state through our actions (or inaction)? In fact, it involves an element of all three – we act and thus change the environment, to which we then respond and perceive, as a result of which we stimulate another change, and the process continues.
People have two ‘bodies’. One is the ‘living body’ made up of cells, bones, muscles, sensorial systems, neurons and so on – we are familiar with this ‘naturalistic’, objective, measurable view of ourselves – which can be measured physically and physiologically in ways that will tell us about our abilities in terms of seeing, hearing, and so on, and thus how we might be able to respond to an environment. The other is the ‘lived body’, which is made up of how we have lived, how we are living now and how we might live in the future. This includes our particular, personal history – including how evolution and genetic transfers have colluded to bring us to the present world in the way we are, the experiences we have had so far in the world, but also how the environment affects us, how we affect the environment and how this is perceived by others. This is a ‘personalistic’ attitude to the environment: how I perceive it and how you perceive it. Either of us can change both of our perceptions by simply moving from where we are now to another place, whatever the reason for us doing that. Thus, the environment is a performance that we enact, putting into place that combination of our histories and past and our desires for the present moment and the future. A person can never be in the same environment twice!
So, if that is the case, how do we approach designing the environment?
The straight answer, of course, is that we don’t know! This goes against the grain of most research methods, which seek to objectify observation, spurning any form of subjectivity. We watch and measure what other people do and assume we have no part in their doing it. To find out how we can gain some idea of a place through a subjective frame, we need to think more in terms of the ‘lived body’ personalistic attitude, with due attention paid to each person’s perceptions, which have resulted from their own past, present and future. To create that environmental performance, the environment design is akin to a composer making marks on a piece of paper, which a musician then enacts to bring the composition to life.
For some 12 years now, we have been studying people in the environment and placing them into controlled conditions to see how they respond. Sometimes this is to find out how changing a design affects their speed boarding a train or how the placement of objects alters people’s pathways through a space or the effects of different hues in lighting or sounds in relation to ambience. Our laboratory, PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement & Environment Laboratory), is able to carry out these experiments at 1:1 scale – for example, we built a life-scale mock-up of a train carriage and part of a station platform, brought a couple of hundred participants in to board and alight the train, while we adjusted details of the design. Every one of these participants arrived with their own experiences (not least of boarding and alighting trains). Why is it that we can make a small adjustment to the inside of a train and people leave by the edges of the doors and enter through the centre, instead of the other way around? What micro signal is transmitted that ‘tells’ people to do this? And can we design the train so each of them is able to see and feel the experience of using the train as enjoyable for them?
This phenomenon is explained by microscopic signals between people, often perceived preconsciously via peripheral vision or through glimpses of the world around them as their eyes scan it. You do this all the time when you walk along a road chatting with a friend, completely unaware of the changes your feet automatically make to cope with irregularities, such as uneven surfaces, puddles and obstacles.
You don’t believe me? Well, try this experiment – but you have to read all the instructions before starting!
It is best to have a pen and paper to hand before starting. Whilst reading this article, close your eyes and turn your head a bit to one side – about 20 degrees should be enough. Then open and close your eyes as quickly as possible – like a ‘reverse blink’. Then turn your head back towards the article. Then open your eyes again and write down all the things you saw during your ‘reverse blink’. Just keep on thinking about it until you have exhausted all that you can recall. Objects? Colours? It might take a few attempts, but in general people are astonished at what they remembered seeing during those few milliseconds. Yet this is occurring constantly during your waking hours.
We want to see urban design as enacting a living performance by enabling the people in a place to create the performance of the environment, with it, them, objects and other people as players. Take a second to think about actors or musicians ‘enacting’ a play or ‘performing’ a piece of music. To enable us to understand how to do this, we are building a new version of our laboratory, called PEARL (Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory), which will enable us to build different sizes of environment and work with people to create these performances.
The environments involved will be streets, squares, stations, buildings and networks, with controllable sound, light and smell. Working with musicians to understand how they perform – individually and collectively – and how they interact with the environment as an active player to create a constantly changing yet recognisable performance. This innovation acknowledges the environment as a dynamic living place, everchanging and opening up diverse opportunities for people to express themselves, and where our mind is composed of the environment, as well as our brain and body.
Words by Nick Tyler
Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering, University College London