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.
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.”