The Impact of Memory on the Experience of Place

Charles Montgomery discusses the findings of a fascinating study on the responses of residents and visitors to different environments in New York, Berlin and Mumbai. The results hint at the impact of experience and memory on how we perceive a place.

"My friend Colin Ellard has just issued final results [PDF] for Testing, Testing, his study of the psychophysiological effects of public space in New York City, Berlin and Mumbai," writes Montgomery. "The program involved taking small groups of volunteers on neighbourhood tours, and collecting data at various distinct stops on the way. Colin hacked Blackberries in order to accept participants’ self-reports on affect and arousal. He also attached skin conductance monitors to some participants, to gather objective data on arousal."

While participants uniformly responded positively to green environments and permeable facades, their reactions to other environments differed from each other.

"This is a powerful reminder that when we experience a place we are not merely responding objectively to geometry and design," observes Montgomery. "We are responding to the idea of the place, our previous experience and memory of it, and the messages and stories that it might trigger."

"These results, then, carry a crucial message for city planners and policy-makers: if you don’t include local people in planning and decision-making, then your plans will simply not be based on an accurate understanding of the place."

Full Story: Emotions in place: why do visitors to New York have a different physical reaction to streets than locals?

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