Science - March 4, 2004

Environmental perception researchers set their sights on Utrecht station

Environmental perception researchers in Wageningen are starting to focus more on urban areas. Environmental psychologist Dr Agnes van den Berg works at Alterra, and recently participated in an environmental perception study of the area around the train station in Utrecht. It was the first time that environmental perceptions were included in an environmental impact assessment.

The idea behind environmental perception research is to be able to indicate at the urban planning stage how the experience and perception of an area can be improved. The way in which this kind of research is carried out is much the same as is done when assessing people’s perceptions of rural areas, explains Van den Berg. To her surprise, a relatively small piece of research on the area surrounding the station in Utrecht led to a report which highlights many of her findings.

Van den Berg worked with researchers from England, Amsterdam and a representative of the city of Utrecht to assess what physical changes can be made to improve the quality of the surroundings. Junkies and tramps are less annoying for example if there are good vistas and routes to escape from them. Safety can be improved with a few spatial alterations such as creating places where people can sit like café terraces or a food stand. This increases the opportunity for social control in an informal way.

In addition to social safety the environmental perception researchers also assessed the negative effects of noise and air pollution, as well as sunlight, wind and shade. They looked at how easy it is for people to find their way, and whether the presence of plants or water also improves people’s perception of the environment. Variety in the environment and the identity of an area can also have positive effects.

According to Van den Berg it is the first time that aspects relating to quality of experience have been included so early in the planning process. The environmental impact assessment report is the first that also includes environmental perception as an impact factor. Van den Berg and her colleagues have made a plea for this to be done more often. “It requires a change in thinking,” explains Van den Berg. “And also in how the knowledge available already on environmental quality perception can be incorporated in the planning process. Designers are not yet used to working with scientific knowledge on quality of life aspects. Everyone has ideas on how to improve safety, but there is a lack of vision on how the effectiveness of various measures can be justified and compared against each other.”

Martin Woestenburg