Let’s Hear, Think, and Feel It for Environmental Psychology

Tap into your senses, memories, and dreams to create places for people.

Posted Jul 11, 2019

Some moments change your life. In my 20s, I mused about becoming an architect. I searched through architecture school catalogs but most programs covered the functional or aesthetic aspects of design with no mention of design’s emotional and social impact. Then, one day, an architect-friend dragged me to a lecture by Dr. Maxine Wolfe, a pioneering environmental psychologist. I’d never heard of environmental psychology

At Princeton University, in a room filled with men in black suits and ties, Wolfe (dressed in blue jeans) spoke about how a "High Art" psychiatric facility designed by "star" architect Richard Meiers drove patients crazy with its reflecting glass and maze-like hallways. Wolfe explained how environmental psychology, a field that examines how places affect people and people affect places, provided an antidote to such myopic design. It was as if a bolt of lightning hit me. I was so inspired! Shortly thereafter, I applied to City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) Environmental Psychology Program. 

After completing my Ph.D. there and entering the profession, I never looked back—that is, until I attended the 50th Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) 2019 Conference in Brooklyn, N.Y. The conference’s 600 interdisciplinary presentations by speakers from 35 countries highlighted ways environments can be “safer, healthier, and more responsive to human needs.” 1

Both EDRA’s and CUNY’s missions revolve around environmental design research2 which helps advance environment + psychology theory, teaching and practice. For example, one session I attended, “Coming to Your Senses,”3 highlighted the theories of Juhani Pallasmaa, a well-known Finnish architect/author. Pallasmaa contends that “modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination, and dreams, homeless.”4

I agree. That’s why I was glad conference sessions dealt with a variety of topics such as ways to design dementia-friendly places and ways to design with nature to improve learning environments. 6 Gratifying for me was that Dr. Amy Beth spoke about how she adapted my Design Psychology Toolbox 7 to tap into people’s memories of “rich and even transformative” childhood hours spent in libraries: memories of a past place that can inform future library design.8

EDRA’s 50th anniversary conference was a homecoming not just for me, but for academics and interdisciplinary practitioners who reflected on their Environmental Psychology career paths. These hard-working professionals continue to make a difference- - sometimes in the least expected ways.

Speaking on an EDRA@50: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow panel, for example, Dr. Kathryn Anthony 9 commented:

My testimony before the US Congress in 2010, where I advocated for increasing the number of toilet fixtures for women in US federal buildings, in order to reduce long lines for ladies’ rooms (a subtle but powerful form of gender discrimination) was another way to bring these issues before the public.

Toilets and restrooms are the great levelers – we all use them, but we rarely talk about them.

Besides reminiscing, Anthony spoke about her newest book, Defined by Design 10 which,  she explained, “ . . . fulfilled my lifelong dream to bring environment-behavior and gender issues in design to a popular audience. The book sparked much media attention, causing audiences to raise their antennae about how spaces and places affect them in ways they never realized before.”

I say, “Let’s raise our glasses to EDRA 50.  Let’s hear,  think and feel it for Environmental Psychology.”


1.      EDRA 50 Conference Program Book

2.       Other PhD programs such as Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology program offer courses that combine the study of human behavior and design.

3.    “Coming to your Senses” or “There is More to Environmental Design than the Eye.” (Full presentation title), EDRA Conference Presentation, May 24, 2019 by Susan Drucker, Gary Gumpert, Peter R Hecht, PhD, Rich Wener, PhD, and Thom Gencarelli, PhD.

4.     Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2012.

5.      “Laying the Groundwork for Dementia Friendly City Centers,” EDRA Conference Presentation May 24 by Emily Roberts, PhD, Lorraine Hiatt, PhD, Nisha A. Fernando, PhD, Jennifer Senick, PhD, Jennifer Sodo, AIA, and Jeffrey Anderzhon, FAIA.

6.     “Nature-based Learning: Designing with Nature to Improve Learning Environments,” EDRA Conference Presentation by Louise Chawla, PhD.

7.      In Toby Israel, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places.  West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons,  Ltd, 2003.

8.     “Not Your Ordinary Space Planning: Understanding How Design Professionals, Librarians and Patrons Build Narratives Around Physical Space,” EDRA Conference Presentation, May 22, 2019 by Amy Beth, PhD, MLS.

9.     “EDRA as a Springboard for Design Juries on Trial, Designing for Diversity, Defined by Design," EDRA conference presentation by Kathryn H. Anthony, PhD, May 23, 2019.

10.      Kathryn H. Anthony, Defined by Design: The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and   Places. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017.