Cognition: A Psychological Scenario in Urban Spaces

by Akshaya Arul

Before physical form was created, spaces represented a vernacular process, communicating the cultural aspects. Later, ancient cities like Athens recognised the public zone as a space for the exchange of goods, ideas and information. With the rise of complex urban spaces, humans began to create chaotic spatial structures to fulfil their needs. Social isolation (i.e. the relationship between human experience & their spatial expression) is an illness in these spaces leading to the need for a human-oriented interplay in the built environment.

Human beings in space and time have the capacity to imagine and remember. The impressions in the surface character communicate feelings and moods that describes appearance as a living thing.  According to Peter Mackeith, the result is a collage emphasising on the tactile experience of space, light and material through intellectual ordering (Pallasmaa, 2012).

Fig. 1: Interdependence of space at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, India (Source: Author)

1.0 Urban Street Types

Urban spaces are complex physical forms that intertwine living organisms with many functions that go beyond streets, squares and parks. Based on certain behavioural constraints, socially-intensive urban spaces can be classified as:

  • Formal Space: The places that celebrate citizenship events, which forces a system of psychological behaviour. Mostly, this includes locations at the city’s centre which act as a path of self-realisation;
  • Casual Space: These are informal places with simple rhythms of building units. These spaces bring formal and casual environments into a dynamic relationship;
  • Protective Space: “Hereness” dominates over “thereness”, according to Gordon Cullen’s (2000) phraseology. The streets are less in width and the space is dominated by vernacular buildings; and
  • Linear Space: It elevates the routine walking experience. The movement also regulates social code in the environment.

(Smith, 1977)

Urban space typologies, in modern studies, are approached differently by different designers. Zucker classified them into five types—closed, dominated, nuclear, grouped and amorphous while Krier classified them into two types—squares and streets, with reference to geometric shapes. Carmona categorised them into positive, negative, ambiguous and private representing the vision of privatisation and management. But places need to improve quality of life and provide a sense of emotional connection.

Urban space needs identity, stimulation and security. Design itself cannot exist without the threshold being defined through psychological divisions. Based on user engagement, Dines & Cattell (Carmona, 2010) categorise them into:

  • Everyday Places: Nondescript interaction venues;
  • Places of meaning: The meaning of the place differs from person to person;
  • Social Environment: Spaces that encourage meaning;
  • Places of Retreat: Spaces that allow people to be alone;
  • Negative spaces: Spaces that induce antisocial behaviour.
Fig. 3: Social Environment, Bank of Canada, Ottawa (Source:

2.0 Cognition

Today’s urban design is a discipline of organisation and ordering of one’s life. Instead, the spatial experience should hold significance to residents, passers-by and visitors. Cognition is a personal and mental process. It is seen at different levels, scales, and patterns by creating a place-based relationship.  Parameters like density, transportation, the context of the city and land use planning are overlooked factors in urban design. One needs to go beyond and think about human needs and preferences to solve the riddle. For example, at Main Street, Disneyland, a rich visual matrix becomes important in the planning process. But the design has excluded the shapes and spaces into poetry that reaches the ultimate goal of mentation. One sees the pedestrians sticking to the sides of the streets, leaving the central space empty.

Fig. 4: Main Street, Disneyland (Source: Alfred A. Si,

People are bipedal, they have two feet, and they walk with eyes facing forward. People rarely look backwards or up. They almost never walk sideways or backwards. 

(Sussman & Hollander, 2015, p. 17)

According to Aristotle, humans acquire knowledge through observation and experience.  The process is active, rather than passive. Hence, they respond (Matlin, 2005). The cognitive scenarios are divided into sub-themes i.e., Sensation & Perception, Space, Distance and time, Aesthetics & Emotions, and the values in social spaces.

2.1 Sensation & Perception

Kandel says that the human brain prioritises the recognition of faces over other visual objects. But when a person sees a painting, it exists only for a moment but the impression occurs as a cognitive process. Thus, perception is a way to interpret information gathered by the senses. It acts as an interface between the natural and man-made realm.

2.2 Space, Distance & Time

According to Pallasmaa (2012), architecture established limitless space to be inhabited by humans. Similarly, time enables us to inhabit space endlessly. The scale and proportion play an important role which are simple dimensions. The perception of space is always in relationship with the scale.

According to Alois Regel (TMD Studio Ltd, 2017), there are three main scales:

  • Small/Near: We experience individual piece at a time;
  • Medium/Middle: Beyond Human scale understanding the texture and clarity; and
  • Large/Far: The ability to understand, fades out a complex series of information that is found in these main scales.
2.3 Aesthetics & Emotions

Natural elements like water & vegetation can deliver experience and awareness of a place.  Thus, the aesthetic response is a subjective experience through emotional stimulation.

There are four modes of involvement:

  • Arousal: The active emotions are due to newness, complexity & confusion;
  • Arousal-moderation: Overlapping of change in order and unity;
  • Intrinsic aesthetic emotions: Uncertain patterns into everyday experience. Cities like Canterbury are unpredictable; and
  • Symbolisms: Discreet images and fantasies.
2.4 Values in Social Spaces

There are four levels to measure the values:

  • Facsimile: To maintain the ethos of a place;
  • Correlation: Creating harmony in an experience;
  • Simile: Assimilate the urban fabric; and
  • Metaphor: To describe the architectural situation.

(Smith, 1977)

From L to R – Fig. 5: Scale & Proportion – Salk Institute, USA (Source: Iwan Baan,; Fig. 6: Assimilate the urban fabric – High Line, New York, USA (Source:×420/)

Urban spaces need a sense of orientation in all the above factors to make a positive city. Each space has patterns and values that need to be marked to make further decisions in creating a space. More than the function of the space, the context needs to be taken into account. Designer creates more visible obstacles by shaping a space. Cognition identifies the scenario of space through its social context.

 3.0 A Psychological Scenario in Queen Square, Bristol, UK

From L to R – Fig. 7: Historic Queen Square, Bristol (Source: Bristol City Council); Fig. 8: Crossing Pathways, Bristol (Source:

One of the largest squares in Europe, Queen Square is crossed diagonally from corner to corner, and from the midway point on each side. The integrity of the historical identity was the essential character of the place. The new proposal changed the square into an anti-traffic zone. The buildings surrounding the square have multiple usages by bringing in different people together. The space also acts as an events zone.

Bristol’s Queen Square comes under the category of formal space of impressive size where most events happen, for example, the Bristol harbour festival. The space is dynamic for casual events—Trees and historic buildings make the perimeter wide while the William statue in the centre acts as a focal point in this formal space. The layout was changed in 1996 for contemporary use as a quiet and restful place.

From L to R – Fig. 9: Diagonal Pathways (Source:; Fig. 10: Places of Meaning (Source: Jack Tanner)

The space that surrounds the central landscape area creates meaning which differs from person to person. Everyday places are situated within the canopy of the tree where parking bays are located. The simple fences that separate the gravel pathways and parking bays are the negative space. The diagonal pathways create an environment suitable for social activities. The restoration of the historic landscape resulted in the creation of a vibrant public space for the local communities to sit and relax. There is a complete awareness of the space with nature and sunlight making it an experience.  The space is devoid of organisational boundaries, making it more flexible and adaptable for various events.

Fig. 11: Negative Space (Source:

The central node is equidistant from all corners. It creates local views of the area surrounding it. The long view approaches a landmark, connecting another space to it. The levels of scale in this space are small when they are close to the lawn. The medium view gives a 3D atmosphere of the historical context. Long views fade out landmarks creating eagerness while walking.

 The space is a visual dimension—it would have been less attractive if the dimension of the single section was higher than the other. There are moment and pauses in the sites at various junction creating time for cognition. Previously, the square was divided, destroying the unity of architecture in the site. After the restoration, it is now a graceful square for varied activities. The heights and materials make the green space more prominent. The sun rays on the gravel pathway create a reflection of the past glory. This comes under intrinsic aesthetic emotions because the site experience differs from person to person.

The place is for varied users, creating levels of correlation. The space has inherited the situations of the past, making it poetry through experience. It has lent itself to urban occasions. The resulting transformation adapts to the different needs of users which further balances out social and economic growth. The details under the canopy created an epitome of harmony with nature. The space can never work 24 hours. It is left empty during the night. The place needs some breathing space as we treat it as a living organism. The restoration understood the context of the space to redefine it. All these small elements play an important role in creating a human-oriented space.

Fig.12: Visual Link – St Mary’s Church (Source: Alamy)

Outdoor environments are more flexible in movement than indoor and people tend to behave differently in each. This indicates that the dynamic movement needs to be characterised. The methodology is to understand the language of the space with its usability, users, and its type. This helps in relating to four major aspects—Sensation & Perception, Aesthetics & Emotions, Space, Distance & Time, and the values in those spaces. These new ways of thinking are essentially important in theory and practice. Space becomes more social when our mental process understands it through experience. As a designer, one recreates the comprehensive imaginations into existence. Hence, one looks for spaces to reflect and satisfy themselves. The existence of stories in space leads to diverse experiences.


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Akshaya Arul received her Master of Architecture in Sustainable Urban Design from University of Nottingham, UK and her Bachelor of Architecture from Meenakshi College of Engineering, Chennai. Her interests include architecture, urban design, master planning and placemaking.

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