A love affair with environmental psychology and the historic environment

I just read an interesting article on the decline in the collaboration of environmental psychologists and architects. In “Architecture’s Brief Love Affair with Psychology Is Overdue a Revival” Carlos Galan-Diaz and Dörte Martens describe how the environmental design and behavior movement that started in the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s now seems to be a marginal affair largely confined to post-occupancy studies. I agree with their sentiment that environmental psychology still has much promise in terms of being able to facilitate the creation of buildings and places that benefit people.

What is missing from Galan-Diaz’s and Martens’ assessment of the state built environment design is the lack of a focus–actually, any whatsoever–on the design of historic environments, which led me to ask the question: Why hasn’t environmental psychology bothered to focus on the conservation of the historic environment? After all, human beings experience the environment holistically and don’t artificially separate experiences into “new construction” and “historic construction” — it’s the environment after all!

While many of us accept the concept of evidence-based design, why is evidence-based conservation simply absent from the discussion of built environments? While it’s a shame that the environment/behavior movement seems to have declined since its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, at least the psychological impact of new design is still on the table while the existing, historic environment never even made it there in the first place.

That the design of the built environment has significant psychological impacts on people is pretty irrefutable. Why, then, is all the focus on new construction? There are huge areas of the older built environment across the planet that have been conserved, ostensibly, for the benefit of people. But where is the empirical evidence for this claim? Exactly how does heritage conservation benefit people from an environmental psychology perspective? We don’t have good answers. In most cases we have no answers at all.

I challenge my readers to name environmental psychologists who have done work on some aspect of the conservation of the existing built environment. I can name less than a handful: Daniel Levi (Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo), David Uzzell (University of Surrey), Thomas Herzog (Grand Valley State University), and Setha Low (CUNY). If you search the articles in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (JEP), you will find exactly one article that addresses the conservation of the historic environment, and I co-authored it. In fact, if you Google the phrases “environmental psychology” and “historic preservation”, all of the top links point back to this article in JEP, my other work, and this web site. Does anyone see an open opportunity both for research and the creation of empirical evidence that could profoundly impact the practice of heritage conservation? I sincerely hope this is the case.

How do we encourage people to research environment/behavior interactions with historic environments? And, if we have more empirical evidence, shouldn’t environmental psychologists play a role in determining how historic environments are conserved? In other words, just as with new construction, environmental psychologists could (and arguably, should) influence the practice of heritage conservation. Trust me: the field is wide open.

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