Hello, I am Wouter Tooren

I work as an environmental psychologist, information designer, wayfinding consultant and do research about the effects of social density on behavior. I live on a sailboat. I climb mountains and sail oceans. I design attractive and useful things. This is my personal site. Welcome.

10 | Engine is out.

We took out the engine. I’m glad that smelly beast is gone. Lifting went smooth and easy with some help from the yard. I have also taken out the exhaust and a multitude of other engine bits. Stella is inside. We are now removing all the deck fittings for sanding and painting next month. This week I will start on the construction of a new bowsprit on the front of the boat.

Meanwhile I’m still contemplating what to do with my career. I will leave ‘De Omgevingspsycholoog’ (the environmental psychologist) this year. I expect to do a wayfinding project this winter. After that everything remains open.

I have two ideas for new companies, and one idea for a research lab. They again involve environmental psychology – but more practical, useful for everyday practices and common problems. I have researched the possibility of a change into clinical psychology. Although the work suits me, and I think I can really help people, the increasingly corporate and bureaucratic overhead feels limiting to me. It also requires a sizable investment, which I rather spend on my floating home at this moment.

9 | I finished strategy kantoor 2023

Last week I finished developing the wayfinding strategy for my biggest wayfinding job in terms of square meters. The ‘kantoor2023’ (office2023) is a major office building for the Flemish Government. Located in Brussels, Belgium, the building will house 29 floors and consists of offices, a restaurant, a fitness centre, an underground carpark, multiple coffee bistro’s and a conference center. In total about 120.000 m2.

My job was developing a strategy to guide people through the building. I analysed the building on wayfinding characteristics and developed a functional and robust information plan. I designed the information system that will be implemented. I then made maps for all floors with flowlines (the walking routes) drawn in, as well as the position of every information element in the building. It was a lot of work, and I’m proud of my achievement. It could not have been realised so properly without the help of Caroline Delveaux from Inter and Karen Calcoen, Ellen Vanderelst and Nadine Böve from the agentschap facilitair bedrijf (the facility agency from the Flemish Government).

8 | Engine is ready for extraction

I removed the propeller shaft from the engine. I took out the waterpump, the gearbox, some hoses, wiring, control panel and pumped as much oil and cooling fluid as possible. I unbolted the struts that connects the engine to the chassis. It is now ready to be lifted. We are waiting on the men from the harbor to lift her with the crane.

Lisa removed woodwork from our bedroom for painting and sanding. We decided to do as much internal woodwork as possible. To make that possible the mast will need to wait, it will be done next year. We also settled for now on the electric engine of choice. Next job: installing a new addition to our settee and the construction of wood panels for the salon.

7 | Citizen panel

I was interviewed by Ilse Akkermans, editor from the Eigen Huis (own home) association magazine about the practice of participation exercises. The Eigen Huis association is there for anyone who wants to buy or own a house. They strive for sustainable and affordable home ownership.I told in the interview practical experiences about participation sessions.

You can download a pdf of the article here (in dutch).

I’ve pioneered an approach over the years that seems to be working. This approach revolves around listening, summarizing, exploring the assignment and determining options. I try to solve problems in short but intensive processes. In addition, I experience that the way we think about things influences how we feel emotionally. We can think about problems differently, by talking about them in a different way.

I always make as much material as concrete as possible in design drawings. I find that essential: I encourage participants in citizen panels to think about acceptable consequences and a vote is taken on solutions. By making it concrete, the noncommittal nature disappears. You vote on a (preliminary) design, not a concept idea. Ideas are useful, but drawings are more important in architecture and urban design. By viewing drawings, people experience the concrete spatial consequences of all solutions. A shared risk arises; the risk of making the wrong choice. Because of this dependence on each other, trust grows between people.

There are two situations to effectively fail a citizen panel (or a participated design). Situation 1: no equal and open communication. Parts of the group that receive more information than others erodes trust very quickly. For example, because people think they are more or less worthy. Situation 2: only have a say in the implementation of a solution selected in advance by another party, and not be allowed to comment on which solution will be forthcoming.

Both situations are not workable for me. It leads to the experience of loss of control. Loss of control leads to stress: people feel threatened. If people feel threatened, these processes stop.

There is a paradox in this: the government will have to let go of control – no matter what. The government can of course always put things on the agenda, advise and explain. And policymakers do this extensively at every consultation. With a good participation process, policymakers and urban planners experience more stress than the citizens who participate. That is a sign to me that it is working.

That stress is also welcome. It ensures that citizens experience that “the government” in practice consists of hard-working men and women just like themselves who are trying to make society better. Citizens can experience that a process is also exciting for “professionals”. Building trust is accompanied by uncertainty. For everyone.

6 | Clearing of the forepeak

Our sailboat renovation is underway. Last week we cleared the forepeak area. It had a lot of rotten wood in the hold. The space is now left to dry out. During the summer we will rebuild the forepeak with new plywood and fibreglass panels. We will add insulation, new led lights, a new oak desktop (this will be our study/guestroom), a 150l watertank and central heating. The paneling will return as it was.

Also done last week was the removal of our table in the salon. This gives us better access to construct a new addition to the settee. In the summer we make a new table from iroko hardwood.

Up next is the removal of our diesel engine.

5 | Inspired by Wouter Tooren

Kees de Graaf did an interview with me and Frank Vonk for developer AM. Kees is a professional writer and editor. He writes about urbanism and architecture. Frank is a landscape architect and developer for AM. I have worked with Frank before for AM, which was a pleasant experience. The interview was a fun and exiting conversation about environmental psychology and participated design.

You can read it online here (in Dutch), a downloadable pdf is for you available here, and I have placed the translated text below.

AM is a Dutch developer. They try to make inspiring and sustainable living environments, I have previously did some inspiration sessions with them. I can work really well with AM because they place social challenges at the heart of their development process. They focus on developing for sustainability, inclusivity, health and happiness.

Here is the translated text:

Interview Inspired by # 7 Environmental pyschologist Wouter Tooren
Posted March 23, 2021

What is inspiring about area development is that it can continuously absorb new insights. In order to offer even more quality of life and, by extension, the well-being and happiness of residents. Environmental psychology is a science that entails a lot of valuable knowledge. We will talk to environmental psychologist Wouter Tooren, who was previously involved in an AM workshop and subsequent publication on the social AM theme “Happy Life”. What recommendations does he have? His plea focuses mainly on creating the right balance and he challenges our field to always keep a critical eye on its own area developments. AM concept developer Frank Vonk responded.

Looking at Dutch practice, which topics are currently in the foreground?

“Well-being and health are issues that are currently receiving a lot of attention. In addition, the environment and climate are important areas of research: nature, thinking about changes on earth and the role of humans in this. These topics come from the bottom up, from society. They translate into concrete issues that I consider. Such as design options for new government buildings that I am working on for the Central Government Real Estate Agency. For example, adjustments in prisons. But also municipalities that play around with neighborhood visions and want to pay attention to quality of life and health promotion.

The context of human behavior is central to each assignment. Four factors in particular influence life in a place: the individual characteristics of people, the social composition of the local population, the cultural-ethnic dimension and the habits or actions they perform. The question then is, for example, in new construction: why are we going to realize this project, is what we are building in balance with that context on these four factors? I find the interaction between space and the context of human behavior very fascinating. Although I do not primarily start with space, but with the wishes and needs of people. I speak to users: what do they want and how do we translate that into a good program?”

How do you then map out those wishes?

“We can classify the factors that influence people along two axes: pleasant versus unpleasant and stimulating / energizing versus serenity / relaxing. It is a question of finding the balance between them. Take a new residential area that is being developed: what kind of people are going to live there? What are their daily rituals like? How can we create opportunities for a healthy environment in this? With a mix of busy but also quiet places. Because we know that overstimulation does not make you happy. People then withdraw. It leads to isolation, fears, frustration and thus also, for example, to vandalism or excessive wear and tear of the environment.

The stimuli concern matters such as disturbing ambient noise, but also, for example, the amount of privacy that people have access to. Many policymakers and planners attach great importance to meeting people, but not everyone wants to see people at all times of the day. Because we often do not know how this balance works, it is important to involve residents in the plan development at an early stage. That is an attitude that all stakeholders can adopt. Guiding that process is part of my regular activities.”

Which factors are important in urbanization from your field of expertise?

“Density without an eye for social life is a wrong ambition. The infamous Pruitt-Igoe project in St Louis in America made this clear sixty years ago: a flat in a park where people have no view and have no influence on the living environment from their home does not work. Social control was low and the connection between the house and the street was out of balance. This affected the area’s impoverishment and subsequent demolition.

People want to be able to regulate the amount of privacy themselves. That gives control over social life. This control reduces stress and increases well-being. Many high-rise buildings often offer this option too little. The transition is often too direct: from the home directly to the public space. If there is semi-public space, it often only has a traffic function. While with a gradual transition through successive semi-public spaces, residents can better appropriate that space. Ownership of the use of the semi-public space is important in this context. This also allows people to better express their identity. That increases the security and attachment to their living environment.”

Can you give examples where these gradual transitions have been made properly?

“A good example that I often take people to is the Kadijken area in Amsterdam. A highly urban environment, but with a mix of houses and types of residents. The mix is ​​great, also in types of outdoor spaces. From public plinths to semi-public inner streets that the residents have appropriated. A more contemporary example is the small square designed by architect Rob Kier in The Hague, in De Resident. While the buildings there are of considerable size and scale, that square in the middle of the urban dynamics offers an oasis of silence and tranquility. With the gates leading to the square, a place has been created with its own identity that people can attach to and identify with.

These examples show a form of craftsmanship in urban design. I think it is essential that we do not lose that in the near future, now that so many new homes have to be built. The great danger is that we will stack and stamp enormously and that the uniqueness will be lost sight of as a result. I understand that we have to speed up, but we have to keep an eye on the human scale and fit each environment into its unique context – and especially that of people’s lives. In that sense, it is also good to revisit existing projects and see how they have developed over time. I can recommend this to all area developers. Be sure to take a critical look at your own projects. Anyone who systematically exposes themselves as a developer to the effects of their own choices becomes a better client.”

Frank Vonk, landscape architect and concept developer AM:

“The holistic approach to environmental psychology is very appealing. Wouter’s approach has certainly helped us give substance to our core theme “Happy Life”. We also deal with many aspects of our profession: from floor plans and public spaces to the behavior and wishes of a diversity of users. How do you organize all of this in a good way so that people embrace their environment?

I can certainly endorse his plea for creating balance. For example, in tenders we experience that in the municipal tender everything is aimed at meeting and dynamics. While many people also want to have the choice: am I looking for the crowds or can I avoid it in a pleasant way? You cannot determine that from above with standard standards, we want to investigate this in dialogue with the end users. Incidentally, this is not only about the first design.

The management of a place and its functioning over time is also very important. It is not without reason that we are now investigating whether we can remain involved in projects as an area developer for longer. Then we can monitor what is needed and how we can respond to it. In this sense, the social dimension of area development is becoming increasingly important. An example is the area development Op Enka in Ede, where we have been active for many years. The young children in the neighborhood are now growing up and want more play opportunities. That is a new challenge that presents itself and that we want to accommodate.”

4 | A letter of gratitude

I received this message today. It gave me a warm feeling:

It is a time ago that we came into contact with each other. In 2014 (or 2015) at the UvA I took the environmental psychology course with you. At the time I already thought that was an incredibly interesting course to take, but I only realized in recent months how much it has shaped the rest of my study career and the start of my career. I would like to share that with you. Because I can imagine that after students have taken the last exam, it is difficult for you to see that.

I taught environmental psychology for three years at the University of Amsterdam. This message made me realize how much I like teaching architecture and environmental psychology.

3 | Scenes for new dialogues

I work as an expert with CIVIC architects on a research assignment to explore design possibilities for new places for political debates, conversations and protests that take place outside the traditional council and parliament halls. The need for active participation of citizens in policy seem to be growing in importance. Today I had a very entertaining conversation with Gert Kwekkeboom about the possibilities for these places. First an introduction of the project:

The project ‘Scenes for new dialogues’ has as its starting point the thesis that ‘the citizen’ wants to be heard more, and differently, and be more involved in the decision-making of administrators. The question is whether our traditional spaces for political debate – town halls and parliaments – are (still) suitable for this or whether they change too slowly with the needs of society.

At the same time, we are investigating opportunities for improvement opportunities for better design. Or are physical places for debate already outdated, in a society where by far the most amount of discussion takes place online? A space for debate does not necessarily have to be a physical space. But even then the question is how such a virtual space functions and looks like.

Some of the threads we explored (among others) in our talk today:

The sensecape of a debate room. The spatial “regime”, or “atmosphere” of the place is guiding for a conversation or debate. For example, is the room too dark or too light, open or closed, friendly or intimidating, does it echo or not? In our conversation we focused on the need for a balance of stimulation. Specifically, we looked for ways to adapt spaces to the size of the attendees (social density) and the intensity of the debate. By playing with stimulation in a subtle way, the space can appear more intense or more peaceful. This provides opportunities for a chairman to find an appropriate level of stimulation for a constructive outcome of a meeting.

The relationship between openness and closedness, intensity and relaxation. We realize that for a well-functioning democracy, the opportunity for consultation and meeting is essential in order to reach compromises. By making a mix of open and closed places a la Herzberger, people can have more or less privacy. In addition, it is important that the areas around the conversation areas can restore the attention and energy of those present. Debates can be an intense affair. If the spaces in between can contribute to the recovery of “energy”, the quality of conversations will improve and there will be less discomfort from stress – at least that is our theory.

Identity as a reflection of society. Town halls are often designed to appear neutral, try to activate a ground culture from the local flora and fauna (a thatched roof) or reflect a historical quality. For a part of the population, these identity choices have no significant associations or memories. The architecture is therefore not meaningful enough – it does not attract people because it does not represent shared values. In a way, it is a place devoid of values. The idea we explored was that for a better functioning “debate temple” the site should claim a broader set of subcultures in The Netherlands – and make less appeal to only the mainstream white, highly educated middle class culture.

Centrality in city life: lowering the threshold. Participation and co-determination are increasingly important for a properly functioning government. This is evident, for example, from the presentation of the report of the Brenninkmeijer committee on 21 March. In this report on the role of citizen forums in climate policy, they indicated that participation and copartnership at an early level is indispensable to formulate and implement well-fitting policy. By also viewing a place of debate as a place for reflection, participation and discussion, forums can be created that focus on cooperation, rather than competition.

We thought that the threshold of the forums should be as low as possible in order for it to work properly and a wide part of the population feels recognized and called to enter. Forums can therefore be located in city centers where they are linked to active walking routes. The spaces are integrated into the urban fabric – comparable to the covered shopping streets in the past. They can become semi-public places where people can walk in and out of easily. Places with a high degree of accessibility and hospitality. There may also be a role here for expanding the libraries’ range of tasks, because these buildings seek the same quality.

We are looking for locations to organize an exhibition in 2023, possibly supplemented with discussions and debate. We are also looking for municipalities that feel touched by the theme and want to be involved in the research. Do you work for a municipality as an alderman, councilor, policy worker or otherwise, and is this suitable for your municipality? Then I would like to hear about it and I will contact you so we can explore the task more widely.

2 | Stella is out of the water

Stella hanging in the ropes.

We took Stella out of the water. First we removed her radar, windmill and boom. A crane hoisted her mast, than her body. It is always a strange experience seeing everything you own bungling in two hoist straps a couple of meters into the air. All 12.000 kg of fiberglass, metal and wiring together with some clothes, books and an iPad or two.

A renovation project to make her pretty starts next week. For the next six months, Stella will be sanded, painted and coated. Her rigging will be renewed. We add a new addition to her salon, a new galley, a new bathroom and a study/guestroom. We finish with a new central heating system and a boiler. Yeah. She’ll be nice,

1 | The challenge of limiting your scope

I earn my living as a researcher, designer and consultant. Three different roles I play to help people. All three roles require some form of entrepreneurship. That means taking risks.

Entrepreneurship is the creation of value. To create value, generally I have to help or guide people in making changes, Something isn’t going right. It needs to go better. Therefore something needs to change. They come to me for guidance on what change is necessary.

I think most changes I promote are for the better. But there is no sure guarantee that all changes will work. I don’t control all the factors involved. Every change is a risk. A risk of failure. I have to assess if that risk is low or high.

This has an inherent challenge, I call this the challenge of limiting your scope. I want to create value. And when somebody comes to me, that is a value creating opportunity. But the challenge of limiting you scope means saying no to some opportunities. That is counterintuitive, Why would I pass on a possibility to help? Isn’t that my purpose?

But if I limit my scope, the opportunities I do decide to participate in will have a better chance of being actually meaningful. Therefore my overall total success ratio will be higher, because less opportunities ended op in a failure.

That’s the challenge of limiting your scope: to help with meaningful changes, you need to say no often. If you do, more projects end up in success. More people will also offer you their problem. Word will get around. A high overall success ratio due to limiting your scope, means having to say no to even more people. So I can help less people. But my work is more meaningful. In the end I have created more value.