At PLASTARC, we love to contribute to conversations about how the built environment affects and shapes everyday experience. We recently returned to one of our favorite events, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) Conference, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in Brooklyn this year.
The conference featured an enlightening keynote from Jan Gehl, a Danish architect who first spoke at EDRA back in 1973. His eponymous firm advocates for improving the quality of urban life by bringing focus to the human scale. This centers the experience of pedestrians and cyclists. In his talk, “From Jane Jacobs to Livable Cities&colon on the importance of putting people first,” (video) Gehl discussed the changes in design and design research over the last 50 years. He critiqued the evolution of the modernist city, arguing that modernism threw out everything that was known about good human habitat and focused on buildings as objects rather than on the spaces and lives between buildings. Gehl pointed out that we now know more about what makes good environments than we used to, “...but do we make sufficient use of all this new knowledge?”
PLASTARC Founder and Executive Director Melissa Marsh spoke about the value of functional choice and multisensory experience. Citing case studies from PLASTARC clients, Marsh demonstrated that occupants who have the option usually opt to inhabit spaces that offer not only the best functionality, but those that provide a positive sensory experience.
Marsh also appeared with Evie Klien, with whom she co-founded the AIANY Committee on Social Science and Architecture. Recently awarded the AIANY Committee Excellence Grant, they are assembling a web resource to improve cooperation between design and social science professionals. Design practitioners, researchers, and academics will be able to access an archive of previous speakers and events on topics of interest to the community.
The remainder of the 3-day event was full of fascinating conversations, many of which are available for viewing on the EDRA website. A perennial highlight is the presentation of the CORE awards, which recognize outstanding research in environmental design—PLASTARC was a recipient in 2015. This year, EDRA recognized work in multiple fields we appreciate. Mindful as we are of the need for design to enable the fullest range of people, we were glad to see awards go to research teams studying the impact of multisensory factors on people with dementia (download) and sensory differences (download). We have previously written about incorporating design lessons from the education sector into design practice, so we were also intrigued by the research that focused on higher education science laboratories (download).
Interactive workshops examined specific research methods and explored topics related to the larger theme of sustainability. One of the salient points was that a new mode of collaboration is emerging, in which anthropologists and other researchers are partnering with in-house designers to address design problems. The pace of this work is faster than the usual pace of academic research, which seeks repeatable and verifiable results. A model that balances the need to push design practices forward with the need to produce sound research is important.
We were particularly fond of sessions that asked interesting questions about the multisensory nature of urban design. For instance, is a noisy city sustainable? What is the role and effect of a soundscape in public spaces? Where does sound fit into urban design practice?
The final day featured a panel facilitated by David Miller, former Mayor of Toronto and current North America Regional Director of the C40. This organization of the world’s largest cities advocates for measures to combat climate change at the municipal level. The panel included Robert Gifford, Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria; Irina Feygina, former Director of Behavioral Science and Assessment for Climate Central, Princeton, NJ; and Lynda Scheekloth, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture, SUNY Buffalo.
At the conclusion of the conference, we came away inspired to continue the pursuit of sustainable and wellness-promoting design. By bringing together a community of design professionals, social scientists, students, educators and facility managers to explore the betterment of our built environment, EDRA continues to delight.