photo-elicitation and the sensory experiencing of urban design

I’ve rather belatedly realised that a paper I have co-authored with Monica Degen is now available online.

The paper is called ‘The Sensory Experiencing of Urban Design: The Role of Walking and Perceptual Memory’ and it’s online at Urban Studies here.

Its abstract says: “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 understood 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.”

The paper uses a visual research method – photo-elicitation interviews – but in writing my bits of it, I was actually most interested in how people’s very ordinary, everyday memories of how familiar places used to look and be different – in the past, in their memories – work as a screen that mediates their perception of those places in the present.  I think that’s one reason that asking people to talk about the photographs they’ve taken of those places often seems to generate talk that has very little to do with the actual photograph.  In a way, it’s the differences between how people see things, and what photographs show, that generates the interesting talk in photo-elicitation interviews.

One of the case studies discussed in the paper is the town of Bedford, and here are some postcards from a series for that town, designed by Kristina Bullen, that perhaps evoke something of that screening effect of memories.

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