What’s New For Environmental Design in 2019?

What’s New For Environmental Design in 2019?

Dr. Casey Lindberg & Dr. Giyoung Park

The 50th gathering of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) took place in Brooklyn, New York from May 22-26 at the New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. Design researchers and practitioners from around the world gather yearly for EDRA, and fittingly, this year’s theme was Sustainable Urban Environments, setting the stage for Jan Gehl’s impassioned keynote address

In his keynote, Gehl discussed various forces that have, over the last several decades, led city designers to transition from designing for the the physical scale and speed of people, to instead designing for the scale and speed of motorists. Gehl explained that prior to the era of modernism, environmental design focused on humans, as we can see in examples including the piazzas in Italy and plazas in Spain. During modernism however, the focus of environmental design shifted to objects, creating a mismatch between design intents and user experience. Brasilia, for example, was designed to realize an ideal new capital of Brazil; however, this approach neglected the importance of the dynamism of the human scale and instead artificially “planned” for human activities. He went on to explain that the consequences of not designing for the person and not considering the human scale have had negative impacts on many important health and wellbeing factors including physical safety, walkability, and social connectedness. Gehl concluded by offering a few positive examples of cities that have begun to design to a smaller, more human scale, such as Copenhagen who has begun to prioritise the use of the bicycle. 

Gehl’s keynote reminds us that at the heart of the seemingly conflicting forces between designing for objects or for people is the historical lack of knowledge about how people experience space, how they are affected by space, and how they interact with space. Human-centered design has long been a value for EDRA, and this year saw an increase in tools and methods being developed to study such human experiences, often in new digital ways and across various types of spaces and building sectors.

EDRA has long valued and encouraged industry-academia relationships, and this year’s industry presence was notable. To recognize outstanding practice-based research, 11 projects were awarded with the 2019 EDRA Certificate of Research Excellence (CORE).

One of these projects was a research collaboration between HKS, Ouva, Mohawk, and the University of Michigan that utilized data from subjective reports and sensors to study how adolescents with developmental disabilities could benefit from a Sensory Wellbeing Hub at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago. This project integrated data from several streams, including a smart flooring system and movement in the space using Kinect sensors.

Behavior mapping received a considerable amount of attention. On a larger scale, an app for mapping public settings developed by Sidewalk Labs called CommonSpace is now available in the US. The app allows for observers to catalogue and save raw data about human behaviors using satellite imagery. For example, in a university campus setting, HGA Architects used Maptionnaire to document the travel paths of female students as well as route selection rationales. At the urban design scale, the NC State College of Design demonstrated a method of behavior mapping with ArcGIS

On the smaller scale of the workspace, HKS is developing and beta-testing a tool called Onion that layers various spatial and behavioral data to allow for a more integrated visual analysis of trends and patterns in space. This tool was on display at EDRA, supporting an HKS program of iterative research and design translation called Living Labs, that layers several qualitative and quantitative methods to meet human outcome, business, and building performance goals.

Additionally, in a program of workplace research comparing Generation Z and millennials’ values, the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces teamed with HGA Architects to create a novel, interactive virtual reality experience for participants as they navigated and manipulated workspaces. In the tool, a virtual tablet popped up in the field of vision for subjects to rate different aspects as they would with a physical tablet in the real world.

The increase in digital tool development for studying people in space, whether it be new software to integrate existing streams of data, or new sensors to layer objective data, is noteworthy. It represents a shift in how both designers and researchers will be able to make sense of the complex relationship between people and space. People are by far the most valuable asset in any built space, so having an expanding toolbox of methods to study the impact a design has on behavior can add to existing, subjective methods and help stakeholders be more informed when assessing value for design features.