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Lecture/Discussion Topics

Environmental Psychology Is Not All Green

Although the label ” Environmental” Psychology sounds today like it refers to psychology concerned with the natural environment, environmental psychologists study how both the natural and built environments affect human affect, cognition, and behavior– in fact, the bulk of environmental psychology research has been concerned with built environments rather than naturally-occuring settings (Stokols, 1995; Sundstrom, Bell, Busby, & Aasmus, 1996). Recently, more attention has been paid to natural environments, as well as to how humans affect those environments. Also, some environmental psychologists have attempted to break down what they see as a somewhat artificial and non-useful distinction between ” natural” and ” built” environments. Ask students to consider how we should classify settings such as lakes and parks in the middle of cities, or gardens in people’s backyards, or zoos. Environmental psychologists today recognize that the natural spaces accessible and relevant to many people are not pure wilderness, but are embedded within, or hybridized with, built or urban spaces.

Landscape Preferences & Restorative Environments

In their 1989 book, The experience of nature: A psychological perspective, environmental psychologists Rachel and Steven Kaplan ambitiously reviewed two decades of research conducted by themselves, their environmental psychology colleagues, landscape architects, and others on how people perceive, and are affected by, the natural environment. The Kaplans describe research on which features are most important in people’s categorizations of various environments. In the studies they review, people were asked to categorize photographs of different settings. People sometimes categorized on the basis of content of the scene (e.g., whether it included evidence of human impact), and sometimes on the basis of spatial configuration of the scene (e.g., degree of openness). The authors then describe research on people’s preferences for one category of scene over another. Among the findings are the following:

  • when scenes of natural settings include evidence of human impact, people report relatively low preference for scenes of destructive human impact (e.g., clearcutting) and scenes of industrial impact; they rate more favorably those scenes in which the human impact is limited to small built objects (e.g., boardwalk) in an otherwise natural setting.
  • Waterscapes are highly preferred settings.
  • Preference is related to the extent to which the setting would be likely to provide a sense of safety, competence, and comfort. The Kaplans suggest that these qualities are present in settings that offer ease of locomotion and/or good visibility.

The Kaplans conclude that people prefer environments that offer both a sense of understanding (defined by the “coherence” and “legibility” of the scene) and the promise of exploration (provided by the “complexity” and “mystery” in the scene. Importantly, these research studies on perception and preference relied on reactions to photographed scenes, not actual experience in the settings. More recent research has associated landscape preferences with conservation (e.g., Williams & Cary, 2002). The Kaplans also review research on the benefits of actual experience in natural settings and non-natural settings that contain natural elements. Inspired by their decade-long observation of the psychological benefits experienced by teenage and adult participants in a wilderness outdoor challenge program, they endeavored to identify what characteristics are common to “restorative” environments, i.e., environments that relieve mental fatigue and make people feel a sense of peace and renewal. They conclude that whether people experience an environment as restorative or not depends upon four properties: whether it provides a sense of “being away,” the extent to which there is a conceptual vastness of experience, the amount of fascination the setting inspires, and the degree of subjective compatibility between the person and the setting. Regarding this last property, the Kaplans write, For some reason many people seem to experience nature as particularly high in compatability. It is as if there were a special resonance between the natural environment and human inclinations…It is hard to avoid the conjecture that the fact that humans evolved in environments far more natural than those in which we live now has something to do with this special resonance… (p. 193) In the decade and a half since the Kaplans published their book, there has been more research on people’s environmental preferences and the restorative benefits of certain environments (e.g., Herzog, Black, Fountaine, & Knotts, 1997; Van den Berg, Koole, & Van der Wulp, 2003). The primary explanations for why natural environments have restorative effects are that they reduce the physiological experience of stress (e.g., Ulrich, et al., 1991) and they relieve attentional fatigue (S. Kaplan, 1995, 2001), in some cases leading to a transcendent spiritual experience (e.g., Williams & Harvey, 2001). See Hartig, Evans, Jamner, Davis, and Gärling (2003) for a recent study comparing the stress and attention models of restoration (Note: This article appears in a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology). See Hartig, Kaiser, and Bowler (2001) for an article on the link between restorative benefits and environmental protection (Note: This article appears in a special issue of Environment and Behavior on “Restorative Environments”). See Regan and Horn (2005) for a study of how individual differences and mood state (stressed vs. not stressed) may affect people’s preferences for natural and non-natural environments. See Scopelliti and Guiliani (2004) for a discussion of the relative restorative potential of built and natural environments may depend upon individual differences.

Environmental Stress And Urban Greenspace

Research on environmental stress has focused on individual stressors (e.g., noise, crowding) as well as whole settings (e.g., urban vs. rural). Both of these approaches have generated evidence that urban environments contain more stressors than nonurban environments (Bell, Greene, Fisher, & Baum, 2001). Students will likely have no problem generating a list of common urban stressors. One antidote to urban environmental stress is escaping the urban context, but this is not always possible. Alternatively, urban planners incorporate green spaces such as parks, playgrounds, and gardens that are intended to provide some sense of relief from the stimulation of the city. Researchers have found that urban greenspaces– and urban spaces that include green elements such as indoor plants–do have positive effects such as increasing feelings of safety (Kuo, Bacaicoa, & Sullivan, 1998), reducing stress (Kuo, 2001), improving cognitive functioning (Wells, 2000) and increasing productivity (Larsen, Adams, Deal, Kweon, & Tyler, 1998). See Peggy Barlett’s (2005) edited book Urban place: Reconnecting with the natural world for a multidisciplinary perspective on the topic.

“Biophilic” and “Green” Architecture

It is common for urban planners and landscape architects to design aesthetically appealing (and sometimes ecologically beneficial) greenspaces outside. Less common, but becoming more so, is an emphasis on bringing the outside in, blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior. This new trend, called “biophilic” design, can include architectural features such as glass walls that flood interior spaces with natural light and provide a visual connection to the outside. Natural light is not only mood-enhancing and beautiful, it is energy-efficient and can provide passive solar heating. On the other hand, biophilic design also encompasses building and urban space design that connects people with nature, not necessarily bringing it inside. For example, easy access to outdoor walking trails and the addition of bike racks and lanes to promote eco-friendly options of transportation are considered biophilic designs (Weir, 2013). With the influence of modern technology on how we interact with our communities , it is becoming increasingly important to use environmental psychology in design – everything from the ability to open a window to the location of scenic art can drastically affect the overall atmosphere of a building. Architects of schools, corporate headquarters, hospitals, and even museums are also using biophilic design to create buildings that are not only environmentally friendly, but also visually pleasing (see the film, Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life, below for international examples). Aesthetic harmony with natural elements is not new to architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene and Greene pursued this a century ago. Today, however, through biophilic design, architects are moving beyond aesthetic harmony to ecological harmony (Kellert, Heerwagen, & Mador, 2008). It is interesting to have a discussion with students about the array of “green” building approaches. Some designers create ultra-modern high-tech spaces that are energy efficient and employ sustainable materials such as bamboo or post-consumer waste products; some create funky artistic spaces that reuse materials (e.g., old road signs and license plates as siding); and some resort to more “primitive” earth-friendly building techniques such as straw bale and cordwood construction. See the Green Home Building site for a wealth of information on various techniques and materials. College students are not typically in a position to think about how they might build their own home, but highly relevant to them will be consideration of campus buildings guided by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. For example, Northern Arizona University is “unpaving” the way by building its Applied Research & Development Facility to meet the LEED platinum standard (the highest standard). The building design takes into account numerous factors including: energy, water, waste, air quality, site impact, human factors, and public education about sustainabilty. The building will be off the electicity grid, will not be connected to the sewer lines, will produce no polluting emissions, will have no negative impact on the ecology of the building site, and will last for at least a century. Click here for details. Ask students to consider psychological aspects of green building including:

  • how people may feel differently in spaces that include or connect to natural elements
  • how people may feel differently in spaces that they know are low-impact, energy-efficient
  • how people may feel differently in spaces that they have constructed themselves.

Not-So-Natural Disasters & Technological Catastrophes

Environmental psychologists have studied people’s reactions to natural disasters and technological catastrophes for some time and there is interesting research on people’s perceptions of them, behavioral reactions to them, and psychological suffering because of them (e.g., Bell, et al. 2001). Discussing these topics within the context of people’s environmental attitudes and behaviors highlights some interesting aspects of them that have not been addressed by most researchers. In the past, researchers have defined natural disasters as not under human control, as caused by natural forces, but today we are witnessing “natural” disasters that may, in fact, be caused by human behavior. Hurricanes, drought, floods, mudslides, and avalanches are all examples of natural phenomenon that may be prompted by human effects on climate and topography. Ask students whether they think that awareness of a possible human cause has implications for how people may perceive and respond to natural disasters. Technological catastrophes involve the failure of human-built systems, many of which attempt to transcend, control, or harness nature (e.g., failure of flood levees, nuclear plant accidents, blackouts, airplane crashes). When our technological infrastructure fails, even lifelong urbanites can find themselves temporarily thrust into a more “primitive” way of life. Ask students whether they have experienced or witnessed a technological catastrophe. If so, ask them whether the experience affected their sense of security and feelings of control. Did it affect how they think and feel about the natural world and their connection to it? When the Hurricane Katrina caused the massive flooding in New Orleans in 2005, residents experienced a simultaneous natural disaster (possibly with a human cause) and technological catastrophe. Many victims seemed not at all prepared to deal with the basic survival situation in which they found themselves. In contrast, one news account mentioned a woman who had recently immigrated from a village in Indonesia; she dealt with the situation by staying put, catching fish, and drying them on the roof of her submerged car. Ask students to brainstorm a list of factors they think might affect individuals’ coping responses in natural or technological disaster situations.


Nature At The Shopping Mall

Shopping malls are typically rife with contained and artificial nature. For this exercise, send students to a local mall to observe the setting and people’s behavior in the setting. Students should take note of natural and unnatural light, greenery, water features, etc. They should be on the lookout for nature-oriented merchandise. Ask them to write a short paper summarizing their observations and analyzing what their observations suggest about humans’ affinity (or lack thereof) for nature. Ask them to comment on any effect they think the natural elements have on shopping behaviors. When students adopt the perspective of a critical observer, they notice many interesting things. For example, at the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN (the largest mall in the U.S.), every trash bin has pictures of foliage on it, shoppers can visit restaurants decorated with fake nature (e.g., the “Rainforest Cafe”) and shops specializing in nature-themed products, one wing contains an atrium with benches nestled among potted trees, there are fountains and plants throughout the mall, and in the center of the mall is an amusement park with a summer camp theme.

Design A Zoo Exhibit

Zoos have changed in important ways over the last couple of decades. One major change concerns the goals associated with holding animals in captivity. In most major zoos in the U.S. today, animals are not put on display just as an entertaining attraction; instead, a primary mission is conservation education. By displaying animals in naturalistic enclosures instead of cages, and by posting signage about habitat loss and dwindling populations in front of those enclosures, zoos are encouraging visitors to think more about the animals in their natural context, and are confronting visitors with facts concerning how human behaviors are threatening the stability of that context. In recent years, some zoos have taken things a step further by trying to bring visitors into the animals’ territory. At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., orangatans travel from one building to another by swinging along cables stretched over the visitor sidewalks and golden lion tamarins range freely in the trees. At the Dallas, TX, zoo, visitors step into glass bubbles that jut into the gorilla habitat, thus enclosing the people rather than the gorillas. At Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, jaguars lurk in tree branches over the heads of visitors. Ask students to select an animal and design a zoo exhibit that they think will maximize visitors’ sense of connection to the animals and concern for the animals. Have students make a 3-dimensional model of their exhibit and present it to the class. They should explain important features and why they think these features would heighten visitors sense of ecological connection and/or concern. Students should include an assessment plan to measure the impact of their exhibit design on visitor perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors (students may want to skimBitgood, 2002, for some inspiration regarding design and assessment of visitor reactions).

Environmental Psychology: Group Research Project

Environmental Psychology is an enormous area of study.  The field is concerned with how organisms interact with their surrounding environments.  This includes how these interactions affect the behaviour of organisms physically, psychologically and socially as well as how organism behaviour affects surrounding environments. Because Environmental Psychology spans such a broad spectrum of topics, one way of getting exposed to specific issues in environmental psychology that may be of interest to you personally is by researching a topic within the field.  Working in groups of 3-4 max, select one of the following topics, and research it using online sources, print and AV material in the University Library and present your findings to the class in a 20 min PowerPoint presentation.  (Submitted by K. Hamilton; DOWNLOAD FULL ASSIGNMENT)

Suggested Topics:

  • Environmental design in relation to a specialized setting for a particular user group. This could include an educational setting for pre-school students, a seniors’ facility, etc.
  • Universal Design
  • Crime prevention by environmental design
  • Living and working in an unusual or extreme environment, for example, polar expeditions, extended space exploration, maritime operations, aviation etc.  .
  • Sustainability – what is it?
  • Creating to pro-environment, green and sustainable behaviours
  • Environmental economics and pro-environment business models
  • Urban transit
  • Cultural differences in perceptions of the environment
  • Therapeutic uses of nature and restorative environments
  • Transitioning from a carbon based economy



Website: Environmental Psychology Lab

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are among the faculty of the Environmental Psychology Lab at University of Michigan. The lab website can be found at http://www.snre.umich.edu/eplab/index.html.

Website: Research On Place And Space

Philosophy professor Bruce Janz at the University of Central Florida has compiled an extensive online list of resources regarding environmental psychology research on place and space. His list can be found at http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~janzb/place/psychology.htm.

Website: Division 34 Of The APA (Population And Environmental Psychology)

Division 34 can be found at http://www.apa34.org.

Film: Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life (2011, 62 Min.)

Biophilic design, a new trend in green architecture, is a category of design that focuses on bringing the environment back into our urban and suburban environments, as well as minimizing the environmental footprint of our buildings. This documentary highlights communities and buildings from Europe, Canada, and the United States that bring nature and the community together. For more information, see the Bullfrog Films website at http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/biod.html.

Film: Next Industrial Revolution (2003, 55 Min.)

This video describes how businesses in the U.S. and Europe have been inspired by architect Bill McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart to bring together ecology and human design while increasing profits. See more details at www.thenextindustrialrevolution.org. After viewing this film, ask students to identify three incentives for companies to adopt sustainable design. [reduce operating (e.g., energy) costs; increase worker attendance and productivity; enhance employee health; improve customer satisfaction; reduce costs for regulatory compliance; eliminate waste and its impact as well as cost.]

Film: Cities (2000, 50 Min.)

This film is described on the Bullfrog Films website as follows,

As the world’s cities grow and resources shrink, will we be able to live sustainably with the earth – and with each other? Can we take care of people and the environment? A community watershed project in Sao Paolo, Brazil shows us how. Can urban planning be a win-win for everyone? This program looks at what sustainability means in locations as diverse as East L.A., Sao Paolo, and Curitiba, Brazil, Vancouver and Portland. Jane Jacobs, Bill McKibben, Bill Rees, California senator Martha Escutia, and John Ryan offer their ideas on what living sustainably in the world’s cities means.

Suggested Readings for Students

Bell, P. A., Greene, T. C., Fisher, J. D., & Baum, A. (2001). Environmental psychology, (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

In contrast to environmental psychology texts that include a single chapter on the natural environment, this text has content related to the natural environment integrated throughout. It includes chapters on “Nature and Human Nature,” “Disasters, Toxic Hazards, and Pollution,” and “Changing Behavior to Save the Environment,” as well as sections in other chapters that address the restorative effects of nature, global warming, negative effects of urban living, urban greenspace, and management of natural lands.

Bechtel, R. B., & Churchman, A. (Eds.) (2002). Handbook of environmental psychology. New York: Wiley.

This handbook includes several chapters focused specifically on the application of environmental psychology theory and research to issues of environmental sustainability.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice, (4th ed.). Canada: Optimal Books.

In addition to chapters on environmental attitudes and natural environments, this text includes a chapter that specifically addresses sustainability and the management of limited resources.

Gifford, R. (2014). Environmental psychology matters. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 541-579. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115048.

Dr. Robert Gifford has nicely packaged (with pictures!) the answers to questions like “what is environmental psychology,” “how is environmental psychology put into practice,” “where can I study it,” and “who are the experts in my region of the world?”

Download the booklet for free at https://tinyurl.com/envpsychbooklet

References Cited In This Section

Barlett, P. F. (Ed.) (2005). Urban place: Reconnecting with the natural world. Urban and industrial environments. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Bechtel, R. B., & Churchman, A. (Eds.) (2002). Handbook of environmental psychology. New York: Wiley.

Bell, P. A., Greene, T. C., Fisher, J. D., & Baum, A. (2001). Environmental psychology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Bitgood, S. C. (2002). Environmental psychology in museums, zoos, and other exhibition centers. In R. B. Bechtel & A. Churchman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology (pp. 461-480). New York: Wiley.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice, (4th ed.). Canada: Optimal Books. Hartig, T., Evans, G. W., Jamner, L. J., Davis, D. S., & Gä rling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.

Hartig, T., Kaiser, F. G. & Bowler, P. A. (2001). Psychological restoration in nature as a positive motivation for ecological behavior. Environment and Behavior, 33, 590-607.

Herzog, T. R., Black, A. M., Fountaine, K. A., & Knotts, D. J. (1997). Reflection and attentional recovery as distinctive benefits of restorative environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 17, 165-170.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.

Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J., & Mador, M. (Eds.). (2008). Biophilic design: The theory, science, and practice of bringing buildings to life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Kuo, F. E. (2001). Coping with poverty: Impacts of environment and attention in the inner city. Environment and Behavior, 33, 5-34.

Kuo, F. E., Bacaicoa, M. & Sullivan, W. C. (1998). Transforming inner-city landscapes: Trees, sense of safety, and preference. Environment & Behavior, 30, 28-59.

Larsen, L., Adams, J., Deal, B., Kweon, B., & Tyler, E. (1998). Plants in the workplace: The effects of plant density on productivity, attitudes, and perceptions. Environment and Behavior, 30, 261-281.

Regan, C. L., & Horn, S. A. (2005). To nature or not to nature: Associations between environmental preferences, mood states, and demographic factors. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 57-66.

Scopelliti, M., & Guiliani, M. V. (2004). Choosing restorative environments across the lifep: A matter of place experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 423-437.

Stokols, D. (1995). The paradox of environmental psychology. American Psychologist, 50, 821-837.

Sundstrom, E., Bell, P. A., Busby, P. L., & Aasmus, C. (1996). Environmental psychology 1989-1994. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 482-512.

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201-230.

Van den Berg, A. E., Koole, S. L., & Van der Wulp, N. (2003). Environmental preference and restoration: (How) are they related. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 135-146.

Weir, K. (2013, November). Design in mind. Monitor on Psychology, 44(10), 50.

Wells, N. M. (2000). At home with nature: Effects of ” greenness” on children’s cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32, 775-795.

Williams, K. H., & Cary, J. (2002). Landscape preferences, ecological quality, and biodiversity protection. Environment and Behavior, 34, 257-274.

Williams, K., & Harvey, D. (2001). Transcendent experience in forest environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, 249-260.