The Sensory Experiencing of Urban Design: The Role of Walking and Perceptual Memory

Degen, M. M., & Rose, G.

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Degen, M. M., & Rose, G. (2012). The sensory experiencing of urban design: the role of walking and perceptual memory. Urban Studies, 49(15), 3271-3287. ISO 690

Experience is conceptualised in both academic and policy circles as a more-or-less direct effect of the design of the built environment. Drawing on findings from a research project that investigated people’s everyday experiences of designed urban environments in two UK towns, this paper suggests at least two reasons why sensory encounters between individuals and built environments cannot in fact be under- stood entirely as a consequence of the design features of those environments. Drawing from empirical analysis based on surveys, ethnographic ‘walk-alongs’ and photo-elicitation interviews, we argue that distinct senses of place do depend on the sensory experiencing of built environments. However, that experiencing is significantly mediated in two ways. First, it is mediated by bodily mobility: in particular, the walking practices specific to a particular built environment. Secondly, sensory experiences are intimately intertwined with perceptual memories that mediate the present moment of experience in various ways: by multiplying, judging and dulling the sensory encounter. In conclusion, it is argued that work on sensory urban experiencing needs to address more fully the diversity and paradoxes produced by different forms of mobility through, and perceptual memories of, built environments.

Main finding
The city centres of Milton Keynes (modernist 'new town') and Bedford (historical old town) have undergone transformation following a design-focused regeneration plan where the physical qualities of that design affect the human experience. The experience is subjected to the multisensorality based on walking patterns and perceptual memory (comparison, judgement and typology recognition) is different for the modernist town (routinized walking patterns that can feel isolated and lonely) vs. the historic old town (strolling chaotically through the organic street plan that can trigger a multisensorial experience). The planning and design practice should be more aware of the multisensorial experience of urban environments that can vary considerable between specific forms of built environment.

Description of method used in the article
1. Survey: participants in the shopping centre or high street were asked 5 questions. 2. The walk-along method: the researcher accompanying individuals (sometimes with families and friends) in a routine walk through the town centre. 3. Photographs: taken by participants of things that particularly struck them on our walk.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Walking or Rolling
Field Observations Survey
Physical types
Geographic locations