Multisensory Design

Journal of Biourbanism Volume VII #1/2018

Letter from the Editor

by Kay Pallaris

Editor in Chief

The links between the environmental conditions and human health have long been known and reported. In the last few years, we have seen a resurgence of efforts to rekindle the disciplines of public health and planning. Our early preoccupation with ensuring a healthy population was concerned with ridding environments of the factors that allowed diseases to spread. While this is still important, we have come to better understand the complex interactions at play—especially the people-environment interactions in the urbanising world we are rapidly creating. Designing for human health has become a contemporary health focus for the built environment practitioners, albeit a challenging one.

“Safer-by-Design”, “Active-by-Design,” “Healthy-by-Design” and other manifestations of similar guides would have us think the answers are a given; and maybe they are. However, we have a long way to go before we can safely say that practitioners are actually implementing the learning in earnest. Worse still, our understanding of how the “designed environment” is impacting our physiological and mental wellbeing is still relatively in its infancy.

The field of Environmental Psychology is still relatively young, but has long been concerned with the interaction of people to their environment. More recently, the expanding studies of the senses (bringing together knowledge from various disciplines, including philosophy, anthropology, psychogeography) have presented a cultural inquiry into the sensory qualities of the material world and their social significance which have led us to speculate on how “Architecture of Senses” (Howes, 2005) can aid the creation of different place experiences.

We experience our surroundings through our senses; through what we see, hear; what we smell; how we experience temperature and balance in space. Understanding these sensory interactions offers an opportunity to design and arrange urban spaces and buildings in a manner that “fit the people who use them” (as Salingaros phrases it), much like the discipline of ergonomics did for creating healthier workplaces. The Flourish Model introduced by Clements-Croome (2018), begins to link design physical factors of buildings—such as temperature, lighting and ventilation controls and subjective factors like color, décor, aesthetics, natural views—as all playing an equal part in ensuring we create environments that are flourishing and provide buildings where people thrive for living or work. The model also considers the impact of these factors on feelings and value economics.

People’s experiences of environments are mediated by physical mobility, state of mind, and cultural dispositions, bringing about perceptual conclusions that inform how we feel in those spaces and how we chose to use them. We know that the natural world has restorative qualities, but as we slowly redesign the natural world into an urban one, our connection to those natural design qualities of that world are progressively deteriorating. In Volume VI (1&2/2017), the Journal of Biourbanism took an in depth look at Biophilic Design. Biophilic Design, by its very nature is multisensory design.

Urban designers concerned with designing environments conducive to human health know that a place that is truly biophilic, or multisensory, is designed not only with access to nature in mind, but incorporate design qualities which exhibit analogues or geometric properties akin to nature, which our sensorial system favourably reacts to. Together nature and natural analogues create an environment that both excite and stimulate, as well as calm and heighten our attention, to create places, which help us meet our human potential.

More recently, E. Wilson’s (1984) biophilic theory is being corroborated by empirical research, notably advances in neuroscience, which are now not just concerned with studying the brain for its own sake, but looking at these people-environment interactions using wearable technology. These studies are showing how we instantly become calmer and more attentive in natural landscapes. This provides an exciting research frontier, which potentially brings closer the medical sciences and the cultural aspects of sensory studies to help us better understand what exactly constitutes a “sense of place”. We do not have to go too far into the future for this knowledge to know the true essence of this phrase; McHarg’s (1969) “genius loci” somehow already captures the notion of how fundamentally important it is for us to consider the geographical/environmental context of a place when re-imagining it as an urban realm. When captured correctly, we create the “wholeness” that Christopher Alexander (1979) speaks of. In the contemporary discipline of urbanism this translates to the idea of creating liveable ambiances through the process of “place-making.” The art and science of this over-used word is not just concerned with the visual physical environment, but that of the functionality, cultural, and the other scenescapes that come together.

A call for “sensorial urban futures” has been long postulated and so the call of this edition is not unique: cities are inevitably “sensescapes—landscapes of sounds and sights, smells and textures, and the flavors of its characteristic foods. As we rethink urban design within a context of ecological sustainability, we need to look for urban models that can fruitfully sustain our sensory lives” (Classen, 2013).

Multisensory design allows practitioners to, perhaps, think more holistically and broadly about the different dimensions of the designed “urban” environment, since biophilic design is (wrongly) often just associated with our access to the natural environment, whether visual or immersed within it.

The next question to grasp is “what is multisensory design?” While as practitioners we seem comfortable to accept an understanding of “good” and “high quality” design in policy and guidance, the use of “multisensory design” is less well recognised or understood. We need to go back to basics to understand what elements or qualities in our surroundings create a positive wellbeing response. “Good design” may lead to creative, unique places, but if we stick to this basic notion of design, we will not necessarily always get healthy environments. If we get the “multisensory design” elements right, then in theory, we can have environments that are creative, unique, and conducive to human health that nurture wellbeing. To some extent, there is a danger of over- interpreting the essence of the intention, in the same way we have come to widely and sometimes inappropriately interpret policy and guidance on “good,” “high-quality” design. For example, cities are “multisensory”, but they are mostly multisensory in the hedonic sense–creating embellished superficial environments that over stimulate and excite to the point of creating sensory overload. What we need is to design eudemonic sensory environments. If planning and health are to grow closer together again, the multisensory dimension must start to come to the fore.

The authors presenting papers in this edition are at the forefront of engaging in conversations about how knowledge on people-environment interactions is converted into a praxis that creates more human-centric, sensorial, and harmonious environments to ensure every living life can flourish. Whether we break down design elements into the fifteen properties of wholeness, or the fourteen properties of biophilia, or the five plus properties of the senses, we need to do so with a greater knowledge of how these properties affect our basic biology.

We invited researchers and practitioners to showcase their research and how it can be embedded in professional practice if we are to deliver health-promoting, liveable environments. This small selection of papers highlights different dimensions in our knowledge about these people- environment interactions stressing the importance of such considerations in practice.

Sensory walks have become popular cultural props in participatory processes of place-making— revealing interesting stories about places. In Carolina Vasilikou’s paper, we read an interesting account of participant sensory exploration of urban spaces. Such studies are becoming valuable phenomenological interpretations of the urban spaces we are developing, giving clues about how the designed elements come together to create different intensities and qualities of the visual, acoustic, olfactory, and haptic environments along the way.

Nikos Salingaros tells us that if design is to work for wellbeing, then it should follow the “rules” of our own biology and psychology systems. He invites us to stop thinking of building in the urban realm as isolated sculptural objects. No one questions the creativity of these forms, and potentially creativity equals good design, but it does not necessarily contribute to healthy design nor the collective of “healing environments.” Salingaros provokes us to see the analogies between the complex biological system and why we are constructed in this way, and the designed city. He uses the analogy of the built environment as an “exoskeleton” for humans in the same way it is a protector for crustaceans and molluscs. Salingaros highlights how we are “intimately attached to the built exoskeleton”, and so “what we build” should “perfectly fit our needs, both physiologically and psychological, our movements and daily functions”. Salingaros demonstrates how, while we can and do adapt to our surroundings, we are likely to do so more favourably if the environment itself is already built to allow a functioning akin to our innate biology thereby ensuring a more welcoming fit between the city and its users. Salingaros goes further to define three sets of “design qualities” that elicit a positive sensory response, each with their sub elements. As with any rules however, interpretation is key to distinguish between a good “exoskeleton” and a device to manipulate people’s senses and their experience of a place.

Natalie Bouchard’s thought-provoking account on the need to integrate “smellscaping” as part of the urban design process brings to the fore the issue of how we design for mental health―which is very much still an abstract notion. The use of “aroma scapes” are still only thought of as temporary artistic installations, rather than an embedded design intervention. Bouchard presents a series of studies, which have linked olfactory dysfunction and mental disorders to smellscapes and suggests the possibility of using smells as mental health strategies in architecture and landscape urbanism. This paper is thought provoking and challenging at the same time. As planners and urban designers, we have long understood the restorative benefits of pleasant biophonic sounds in the natural environment. However, smells have always been associated with something negative. There is some evidence of this type of intervention, with the use of aroma fragrances to condition the air in offices to help people concentrate by feeling a sense of freshness to offset fatigue (Takenoya, 2006). However, the notion of pumping “aromas” invokes the need for a moral discussion. On the other hand, natural scents evoke a healthy walk through a pleasant place—the smell of fresh air, the sweet aromas of flowers, the earthy smells after a storm.

Rhianon Cocoran and colleagues’ research begins to unpack evidence that tells us which type of residential images create positive or negative emotions and affect how long we chose to “dwell” or engage with images differing in subjective desirability. The paper importantly highlights that we need to further understand what these qualities of subjective desirability entail; particularly, we need to understand the mechanisms through which urbanicity or green-ness might affect our wellbeing, instead of just accepting that increased greenery is good for us. While coming from different experimental and theoretical bases, both Salingaros and Cocoran’s papers establish that there are certain physical characteristics in the urban environment that influence our emotional response. These qualities, such as disorganised chaos and clutter create negative emotional responses. Salingaros’ design rules call for order in the geometric coherence of these physical spaces.

By understanding how we sense the environment, we begin to heighten our awareness of what makes “feel good spaces.” If nothing else, studies such as these should call on all built environment practitioners to slow down next time they take a walk to or from the station for work and begin to interpret the environment through their senses. If we all just take the time to reconnect with our surroundings, and begin to hone into what we hear, see, smell, and feel, then maybe we will begin to reconnect our innate biology to how we therefore design places conducive to our wellbeing.


Alexander, C. (1979). The timeless way of building. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Classen, C. (2013). Green pleasures. In B. L. Ong (Ed.). Beyond environmental comfort. New York: Routledge.

Clements-Croome, D. (2018). Effects of the built environment on health and well-being. In D. rd Clements-Croome (Ed.). Creating the productive workplace: Places to work creatively (3 edition). New York: Routledge.

Howes, D. (2005). Architecture of the sense. Retrieved from research-sampler-arch-senses.htm.

McHarg, I. L. (1969). Design with nature. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press/Doubleday, 1969.

Takenoya, H. (2006). Airconditioning systems of the KI Building, Tokyo. In D. Clements-Croome (Ed.). Creating the productive workplace: Places to work creatively (3rd edition). New York: Routledge, pp. 334–347.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Editor in Chief, Kay Pallaris with Co-Editors Derek Clements-Croome & Briony Turner

Contributions by Carolina Vasilikou, Nikos A. Salingaros, Natalie Bouchard, Rhiannon Corcoran, Amy Richardson, Graham Marshall, Christophe de Bezenac, Antonio Caperna, and Stefano Serafini

Photograph by Angelo Abbate (2018)