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Understanding Malaysians: Should we take environmental psychology seriously in designing our cities?

Photograph by Edmund Lou

The nature of cities has always been discussed in depth by researchers, professionals and philosophers in the attempt to deconstruct the very essence of mass co-living in an urban environment. Though, the fundamental approach to understanding cities in the primary positivistic stance is considered incomplete in finding the meaning behind the phenomena of cities (Seamon, 1982). In urban design, the process of designing cities can be described as a people's use of accumulated technological knowledge to control and adapt the environment for social, economic, political and spiritual requirements sustainably (Moughtin et al, 1999). As it has also been established that the city is an element of a people's spiritual and physical culture and is one of the highest expressions of that culture. The theory that for us to understand the people-environment relationship, urban actors unanimously accepted the perceptual structure that we perceive places through our sensory capacities hence the study on the sense of places. However, the phenomenologist Ludwig Binswanger (1963), made a bold claim that "what we perceive are "first and foremost" not impressions of taste, tone, smell or touch, not even things or objects, but meanings". The claim was also suggested by Dr Jordan Peterson (2017) to may have neuroscientific support to backed it. Hence, the need to better understand how we truly perceive our cities is necessary.

The dialogue between built environment players in Malaysia focuses more on how the solution to any situation is with the innovation of new ideas. And whenever the discussion of theories comes into play, the arguments usually be that there is either no time to indulge in the in-depth understanding of theories and that modern practical ideas can mitigate the current problems. Though it is rather ironic that the same theories are used to justify their practical ideas however unconsciously having a low-resolution understanding of the meaning of the theory itself. The integrity of the ideas can be questionable if the underlying foundational support for them is flawed. It is as Dr Shuhana Shamsuddin highlighted in a public lecture that "using a theory without proper understanding about the topic would jeopardize the whole theory and practicality".

In the matter of psychology, the question that urban actors should ask themselves is whether it is necessary to incorporate proper established psychological studies in the design process of spaces and places. In fact, Joe Leech, a User Experience (UX) coach describe "a designer who doesn’t understand human psychologies is going to be no more successful than an architect who doesn’t understand physics." Though he was talking about designing apps, there is some truth to what has been said. We should realize by now that the urban actors' primary role is to provide the most optimum UX for the city dwellers in built form. Though, the psychological experience spectrum within the city itself is vast and multi-variant. This article will however explore the phenomenological approach that can be used to enhance the resolution in finding the missing link of studying the meaning of cities concerning the people-environment relationship in Malaysia.

Concerning Phenomenology

One of the basic methods amongst psychologists in studying environmental psychology is through phenomenology (Seamon, 1982). Fundamentally phenomenology is the study of beginnings, essence and meaning of the phenomena itself. Though the styles to conduct phenomenological research differed depending on the study themselves. As described by Seamon, there are as many phenomenological styles as there are phenomenologists. He continues to list down from the transcendental or 'pure phenomenology' of Husserl (1960, 1970) through the hermeneutical phenomenology of Ricoeur (1977) and Gadamer (1975) to the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (1962, 1963), Heidegger (1962, 1971) and Schutz (1967). Though there are some researchers that their methods may not be exclusively phenomenological in theory however do consists some aspects of phenomenological environmental psychology in their studies such as Jane Jacobs (1961), William H. Whyte (1979), Hassan Fathy (1973), Ardalan and Bakhtiar (1973), Critchlow (1976) and Trevelyan (1977) in which they conducted studies through environmental behaviour and experience through descriptive, qualitative examination.

The use of environmental psychology and phenomenology has been around to find the missing links between the relationship of people-environment. Phenomenologists have been fascinated by the studying of being rather than the external factor. The problem with the phenomenological approach is that it can be quite polarizing in their finding depending on the schools of thought. Let us take Christian Norberg-Schulz and Edward Relph. Norberg-Schulz argues that the site or place is essentially what they are because of inherent qualities in the site itself. This was his claim in his attempt to define the Genius Loci of a certain place. Therefore, architects or planners for example are capable of manifesting the underlying meaning of a certain place through the design of objects. However, Relph argued that human experiences are the first on foremost when it comes to studying the phenomenology of places. We perceive the meaning of the objects through our own history and experience rather than the existentialistic claim. The nature of theories is that they will always be vulnerable to refutes and updates in time. In the matter of phenomenology, it goes back from Ludwig Binswanger and Merald Boss all the way to even Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl.

Though, phenomenological studies in the built environment dwell in-depth with potential theories that can be studied deeply within the built environment schools such as - genius loci (the unconscious phenomena of cities), Norberg-Schulz (1971); sonic environment (Lo-Fi and Hi-Fi soundscape), Schafer (1977); geographicality (lived-space, landscape & place), Dardel (1953); emotional attachments - Topophilia (Tuan, 1974), Topophobia (Relph, 1976a); place experiences (intra-structural tensions in a phenomenological structure of place), Seamon (1982). Even Heidegger's theory of Dasein (being in the world) can also be beneficial in the study of environmental psychology by studying the very essence of how we perceive the space itself in his writing of Building Dwelling Thinking (1971).

Though the matter, of course, is in the quality of the study. For instance, the use of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is starting to be quite popular in built environment schools. However, most mainstream phenomenologists criticize the use of IPA in most research as either the method was incomplete or wrong. Katarzyna Peoples (2020) made a critic in a public lecture that most phenomenological research attempts tend to be heavily empirical rather than be analyzed through a philosophical lens. She argued that some even did not differentiate the method either the Husserlian (bracketing) or Heideggerian (hermeneutic) approach which is a vital factor of the research. The problem with allowing interpretations without any philosophical references is that we tend to limit ourselves to the correlative findings given by the interviewees to fit our research objectives rather than identifying the underlying essence of the phenomena in theory.

The current issue of social sciences of today is that they tend to focus solely on the positivist stance. In which, the philosophical stance that a knowledge founded on empirical reality and validity and is perceivable through space and time is the only genuine knowledge (Bergman, 1967; Bittner, 1973). The terms that are used concerning the positivist stance are objectivity, explanation, quantification, prediction, control, repeatability, and public verifiability (Seamon, 1982). Seamon continues to elaborate that environmental psychology has accepted the positivist stance and have developed conceptual and mythological devices to convert the 'subjectivity' of behavioural and experiential processes into empirically measurable result and even mathematical.

However, phenomenology is critical of the environmental psychology positivistic stance. Phenomenology distrusts the validity of apriori theories, laws and concepts used to direct the organization of the empirical context in evaluating the essence of the phenomena itself. Phenomenologists strive to create a genuine contact with the dimensions of environmental behaviour and experience and thereby secure accurate qualitative descriptions which will provide a base for authentic conceptual portrayals of the various dimensions of the person-environment relationship (Seamon, 1982). The phenomenological stance strives to study the underlying factors that cannot be studied empirically or mathematically. To acknowledge such claims can be useful in pursuit of well-grounded research on cities.

In Malaysia, the lack of philosophical materials concerning our identity can be quite problematic. To connect our history and culture to the creation of our cities not just in physical form but also the meaning attached to it. There is an anecdote that cities are designed as art on canvas. The multilayer of paints creates the depth evident in paintings. That same theory can be applied towards our cities in which the focus of the in-depth analysis of cities needs to be discussed.

Theory vs Practice

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not. - Albert Einstein

The necessity of practices is indisputable. We need to apply it to perceive the error or success of the experimentation. Though the synergetic aspects of both practice and theory are also necessary for us to push the boundaries of our knowledge in designing cities. The problem however comes when we use theories out of context as a solution in our design process. Some can debate the severity of the situation but if thought through, the alarmistic stance is well-grounded. The reality of how cities make or break humanity is proven to be self-evident.

The method in which we design cities needs to be taken seriously and sensitively for us to be able to improve. We throw words like walkability, genius loci, sense of place, sustainability, etc. in presenting our design with gusto. Though the manifestation of such theories is not as black and white. Then again, to blame professionals alone regarding theory comprehension would be unfair. The urban researchers in the field of social sciences are also to blame when it comes to deconstructing theories for them to be palatable. The problem is that the social sciences research community have been in a series of reputation-damaging events for the past 5 years. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, criticize in his words that "It’s (social psychology) been going through an absolute internal revolution over the last two years because of its own discovery that many of its fundamental studies and propositions are flawed." This issue was founded within the social sciences field itself as highlighted in this paper - Replicability Crisis in Social Psychology: Looking at the Past to Find New Pathways for the Future (

If the studies of Malaysians living in cities or towns are not well-grounded, this begs the question of the validity of the claim for those who call themselves urban experts let alone urban designers? The individual spaces were designed by architects, the natural spaces by landscape architects, the spatial zoning by urban planners, public infrastructures by engineers. And to weave all these spaces into a grand symphony of spaces would take more than just the ability to be creative. Everything can become livable on paper as criticized by Jane Jacobs in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" on adding digital renderings of human lives in designing spaces. And it is quite fascinating that the claim that 'a' space with all its complexities can be designed by one profession.

The modern take of designing spaces usually comes in prioritizing the form rather than the life itself. For life must take into consideration the pattern of being not just professional opinions. Placemaking, for instance, is the concept of revitalizing an existing place in which to provide a new life to a declining or rather a potential space. Though to take it lightly and to assume that introducing new spaces in the hope that people will revitalize the place is rather wishful thinking. To design a space for structure and to design a place to dwell are two separate ideas. Heidegger's theory to dwell is to live, to be in, suggested that the building part does not necessarily result in the dwelling.

Hope for the future

Knowing ourselves is the beginning of all wisdom - Aristotle

In Malaysia, we tend to look at the foreign-built environment to inspire us on how to best design our cities thanks to rapid globalization. However, the risk of not identifying the underlying nature of how Malaysians truly experience being in cities would inevitably be catastrophic and somehow wasteful in the future of our cities. The fear is that we are progressing too fast that inevitably we will lose our sense of identity. We can also factor in that the philosophy of urban design in Malaysia regarding 'Malaysians' is at its infancy due to the lack of urban theorists that can deconstruct the phenomena of this hot pan of a multicultural society. Our researchers and professionals should be held to higher standards and must be open to criticisms for us to progress.

Today, to utilize a set of ideas without fully comprehending said ideas in designing cities is probably not the best strategy considering the effects on thousands of people living in it. As Carl Gustav Jung would say, "be careful of unearned wisdom". The solution that can be seen so far is that we need to truly understand ourselves better to design better cities for ourselves, Malaysians.




Image by Nicole Geri

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