Learning about how people experience built environments – Dr Begum Basdas, Dr Monica Degen and Prof Gillian Rose

DATE: April 2009

INTRODUCTION: Dr Begum Basdas, Dr Monica Degen and Prof Gillian Rose report on their research into how people experience the urban environments of Milton Keynes and Bedford. They focus on the methods they used to understand how elements of the built environment – like public artworks – are engaged with by the people using those environments.


Introduction to the project: experiencing built environments

Many commentators on contemporary city life have remarked on how important design, public art and stylized environments — in other words, ‘aesthetics’ — have become to town centre redevelopment (let alone to world cities like London and New York [Harvey 1989; Featherstone 1991; Hannigan 1998; Jacobs 1998]). More recently, the debate surrounding urban aesthetics in the UK has been reinvigorated by a report from the independent Urban Taskforce (2005) which concluded that British cities were still defined by poor design quality and consequently a poor quality of life.  In other words, urban design and an increased preoccupation with the visual impact of places has informed new urban planning practices.  Hence in many towns and cities now, landscapes are being designed to look visually coherent and attractive; green spaces are planned; benches and rubbish bins are carefully considered; and public artworks are installed.

The reason for the current intensification and interest in the aesthetics of urban centres is due to a number of trends.  Most important, perhaps, is the increasing importance of urban design to developers and local councils keen to sell themselves in a global market as attractive investment or tourist locations (Deutsche 1996; Degen 2003; Warde 2001; Julier 2005). Some have argued too that the increasing importance to urban social life of commodity capitalism and consumption has spectacularised urban space (Boyer 1988; Urry 1995; Zukin 1995); here the emphasis is more on ubiquitous technologies of branding (Allen 2006, Lury 2004) and advertising (Cronin 2005).  All of this work, if in different ways, emphasises the importance of the visual to urban aesthetics.

As importantly, many commentators have assumed that such changes in how towns look have implications for how towns feel to the people who use them. A causal link between urban design and the quality of urban life is often assumed in policy circles (Hall and Robertson 2001).  Several academic theorists have returned to earlier generations of critics writing in different moments of intensified specularity – Benjamin, Simmel and Debord – that seduction (Allen 2006, Jewell 2001) and distraction (Friedberg 1993, Urry 2002) are now key urban experiences.  The influence of Debord (1977/1999) has meant that these experiences are often argued to be articulated visually, as aspects of ‘spectacularisation’. In ‘aestheticised’ town centres, so the argument goes, people become pacified: they find it attractive, they are seduced, even dazzled, by its visual appearance.  They enjoy these spaces and what they offer, and all the glitzy surfaces distract people from asking too many questions about the processes underlying such redevelopments.

None of these claims have been interrogated empirically, however.  The assumption that the aesthetics of town and city centres are about seduction and spectacle has not been systematically tested; the experiences of people more generally using designed town centres are rarely examined.  And this is exactly what this project aimed to do.  By undertaking both large-scale surveys and observation, and small-scale, more intensive research with individuals, this project aimed to think more carefully about the ways in which town centres are experienced as aestheticised.

This meant paying careful attention to the wide range of ways in which people visually encounter urban environments: as seductive, sometimes no doubt, but also as amazing, saddening, or just plain boring.  This project thinks about aesthetics as something created through encounters with all sorts of urban spaces and objects, not just designed or beautiful ones, but by all sorts of things and people in a range of different ways.  In this project, then, ‘experience’ does not simply mean ‘perceived’.  ‘Experience’ points to the multisensory, embodied practices that take place in two ordinary town centres.

Milton Keynes and Bedford

The project focused on the retail core of two middling-size towns in the UK, Milton Keynes and Bedford.

We chose these locations for a number of reasons. First, as most academic research on urban experience focuses on a narrow range of global cities undergoing large schemes of urban regeneration we wanted to focus instead on middle-sized towns that were undergoing more nuanced transformation and were more mundane spaces. Second, both places are redesigning their city centres as Milton Keynes and Bedford have been identified by the government’s Sustainable Communities Plan (2003) as areas for potential expansion in the South East.

The two towns also offer important contrasts: Milton Keynes is a new town built in a grid structure and with a shopping centre functioning as its high-street. Its recent urban transformation can be described as one of development and growth. Major regeneration schemes are underway in its city centre including a £20 million redevelopment of the shopping centre. Bedford’s urban transformation is more about regeneration and renewal. Since 2001 Bedford Borough Council has been involved in an extensive redevelopment programme of the town’s centre. The redesign involved environmental improvement schemes such as its pedestrianisation, the updating of seating and lighting design and the introduction of a range of public art schemes such as dance chimes, a whirlpool and a kaleidoscope.

Milton Keynes’s planners define its centre to include a number of different spaces, including new residential and leisure developments and a park.  We however focussed on the two buildings that were designed originally to be the at the heart of the city’s central public space, thecentre:mk and Midsummer Place.

Thecentre:mk (hereafter CMK) was designed in the 1970s as a covered high street, open to its surroundings and including a large space inside for communal events as well as several large public art pieces.  However, the building’s private owners very quickly turned it into something much closer to a shopping mall than a public high street, with doors, opening hours, and security guards on patrol. The centre was extended at its western end by another shopping centre in 2000, Midsummer Place, which again included public artworks.  Both the old and new parts were built to high quality specifications, the old part reflecting modernist design criteria, the new one more influenced by post-modern design. The shopping centres are privately owned, although any external changes to their design require agreement from planning authorities.

Milton Keynes: left, Midsummer Place; right, CMK

Bedford, in contrast, is an old market town. Its architecture reflects a mixture of styles from Victorian brick and plaster, turn of the century art-deco, white and black mock-tudor, and concrete 1960s developments. Its town centre was pedestrianised in the 1980s. More recently, reflecting Britain’s urban regeneration trends, its town centre has undergone an environmental improvement scheme which has included raised flowerbeds, a small sculpture playground for children, a number of sculptural play installations and some newly designed street furniture. The redevelopment was funded by the local council, and more recently was also supported by BedfordBID (Bedford Business Improvement District), who contribute to the regeneration practices by marketing the town centre, improving its businesses, and making it a safe space. BedfordBID introduced the ‘bluecaps,’ who patrol the town centre, ensure security, and provide local information.

Bedford town centre

The methods used

Our data-gathering happened in two stages, each followed by a period of analysis and reflection.  We also interviewed a range of design and development professionals in both towns.

Stage 1 experience and practice: an overview

The first stage aimed to develop a broad overview of just what was going on in these two town centres, paying particular attention to embodied practices and visual and other sensory experiences.  Two methods were used:

a) ethnographic observation.

Method.  Intensive observation of the town centre, timed to examine both daily and weekly shifts in the town centres’ routines and rhythms of use.  In three different locations in each city centre, using photography and note-taking.

Aim.  To record the everyday practising of these town centre spaces such as routines and swerves, bodily comportment, gestures, objects, different ways of looking.

b) questionnaire survey.

Method.  Two large-scale surveys in each town centre, one on a weekday and one on a Saturday, each gathering around 400 tape-recorded responses to a five-question, open-ended questionnaire, ensuring that the full range of users are included.  The five questions were:

1   What are you doing here?

2   How often do you come here?

3   Has anything particular caught your attention here today?

4   Do you like this bit of MK/Bedford town centre?

5   If you had to describe this place which three words would you use?

Aim.  To examine the ways in which different practices produce different visual experiences of those spaces.

Stage 2      analysis I

Both data-sets from the first stage were analysed in order to understand how specific practices entail a particular range of experiences in the two urban spaces.

The survey responses were transcribed.  Various responses were totalled, and the responses to the final open-ended question were collated and summed.

The ethnographic notes and accompanying photographs were studied and analysed, paying special attention to visual and bodily comportment.

From this analysis, four practices emerged as key to what went on in Bedford and MK town centres:

  • shopping
  • socialising
  • caring
  • maintaining

These four practices then became the main aim of the next stage of research.

Stage 3     experience and practice: detail and differences

Three methods were used to connect these four key practices to the everyday experiencing of urban environments.

a) walk-alongs.

Method. Individuals were accompanied on a routine trip to one of the town centres.  Thirteen participants were recruited in both MK and in Bedford, although thirty-three people took part in total as sometimes an individual did their walk-along with friends or family members.  One of the research team went along with them, they recorded the conversation, and occasionally prompted the participant to comment on the environment. The walk-alongs lasted from 45 minutes to several hours. We recorded the conversations and where they went, what they did, and observed how they moved and used their bodies.  We also asked them to take photographs of things that particularly struck them on our walk, and we used these photographs as a basis for a follow-up interview in which they reflected on the walk and on the town centres more generally.

Aim. This method is very successful at giving immediate and intensive access to very detailed ways of seeing, talking, touching and hearing, over a period of an hour or two.  It allowed us to chart the multiple and various ways in which the potentialities of the environment are realised by different bodies moving through and sensing the two town centres.  It thus produces rich and fine-grained accounts of ways of ‘doing’ urban space.

c) changing the urban environment.

Method. The project intended to make some change to the town centres, and record people’s responses.  In the event, permission was not given to do anything in CMK, so the project simply placed some pink and purple silk cushions on a bench in Bedford town centre and Midsummer Place and recorded the results.

However, during the course of the project, two significant changes occurred in the environments under study: in Bedford, Church Square was remodelled, with the existing trees being replaced with smaller ones and benches also being replaced; while in MK, the oak tree at the centre of Midsummer Place became ill amidst rumours that it was dying.  We therefore undertook a survey in both these places, asking:

1     do you know what’s going on here/have you heard the oak tree might be dying?

2     how often do you come here?

3     what do you think of the changes/what would you like to see if the oak tree does die?

Aim. The previous two methods focus on the everyday and routine. This method focuses on what disrupts the routine.  By seeing if the changes are noticed or ignored by people, it allows the object’s role in everyday spatial routines to be assessed.

Stage 4      analysis II

All of these materials were brought together and interpreted by the research team.

The findings

The key findings were:

  • a shared sense of place
  • attention to specific details
  • different intensities of experience
  • persistent inattention to the built environment

A shared sense of place

Both MK and Bedford have a very distinct sense of place that is shared among almost all participants.

It was striking that research participants in MK shared a strong sense of the centre’s atmosphere, regardless of what kind of visit they were making there: rushing on their lunchbreak, leisurely browsing.  This was an overall ‘feel’ of the place, which one participant described as being “like stroking a tile”.

In Bedford too, there was a distinct overall ‘feel’ to the place, which is much more rough and textured than CMK “like brushing your hand over brick, so rough, not smooth at all”.  People also tended to pick out specific aspects of Bedford’s centre as particularly meaningful to them: the river, a particular shop, for example.  Bedford also prompted a lot of memories of how it used to be, from many of our participants.

Attention to specific details

It has already been noted that part of experiencing Bedford is to have a more detailed sense of the urban environment than in MK.  As well as this, in both Bedford and MK, people’s attention was caught by specific aspects of the built environment.

  • interactive objects. Objects that perform, or change when someone does something with them, were very popular, especially with people in couples or groups. Examples include the Frog Clock in Midsummer Place, which plays music and releases bubbles every hour, and the ‘chimes’ set into the pavement in Silver Street in Bedford. Popular objects could also become interactive by people doing things that the objects perhaps were not designed for: a large statue in Queen’s Court in CMK was used as a climbing frame for example.
  • water is very much liked, especially fountains. The redevelopment of Bedford’s Church Square into what is sometimes now being called ‘Fountain Square’ is an excellent example – people of all ages are intrigued by the changing height of the water, and walk through the jets.
  • trees. Everyone loves trees (unless they shelter too many pigeons or obstruct the view of security cameras). When we asked people in Midsummer Place what they would like to see there if the oak tree died, they overwhelmingly replied that they wanted to see another tree. Similarly, in Bedford people liked the Church Square trees, and also frequently commented on the tree-lined river embankment as the town’s best feature.
  • benches. Although very few people talked about benches in the survey, the walk-alongs or the interviews, it is obvious from our observation that benches are a heavily-used and important part of the urban environment. They are used for having a rest, sorting out shopping, feeding kids, people-watching, eating, waiting…

Different intensities of experience

The different practices that people were involved in informed how they would experience their surrounding environments. This draws attention to the ways in which experiences constantly fluctuate through different intensities of interaction with the built environment. Let us explain. A man we walked with during his lunch-break was rushing through the MK shopping centre to get a present for his wife in a specific shop. He walked purposefully, quickly, with his head either down or gazing straight ahead; his eyes did not focus in detail on the immediate surroundings but concentrated instead on navigating the space to the required destination. This is a gaze that pays attention more to material spatial arrangements than to visual delights: straight here, left here, usually respecting the dominant movement pattern of other bodies, however, often frustrated at its slow pace. Perception is relegated to scanning visually the environment, blocking out noises and focusing on mobility. Yet, when reaching the desired shop, the body starts to relax, vision scans in and starts to focus as he finally holds in his hand the desired book.

A different intensity of experience is illustrated by two young men that we accompanied to Bedford. They regularly meet up in Bedford town centre to browse through a range of shops for video games, DVDs, clothes or guitars. They would slowly stroll through the high-street scanning people’s faces in search for acquaintances. As they meander, they would point out the independent stores that are in the process to close down or already have. Once in a shop, their bodies would gently bop with the music, while different video games would be picked up, talked about, compared. Most telling was our visit to a guitar shop, where these men would let their gaze slowly move from one guitar to the next, appreciating their colours, forms and textures – getting closer to one to gently stroke it.

The two walk-alongs illustrate how experience is very much ‘situated’ not only within certain bodies: young, old, shopper, mother, etc but also through the specific practices one is engaged in.

Midsummer Place, Milton Keynes

the chimes and a ‘whirly thing’, Bedford

benches in Milton Keynes and Bedford

Persistent inattention to the built environment 

Linked to the above point, it is important to recognise that, while people are very articulate about the built environment of both Bedford and MK town centres, they are not paying consistent attention to all aspects of that environment.  Some things that seem well-used were not deemed worthy of discussion in our research interviews – benches in particular – and other objects, often apparently quite prominent, got no attention at all – particularly some of the large public art pieces in CMK.  On top of this, it was very clear that paying attention to another person while in a town centre radically changed the experiencing of that town centre.  That is, having a conversation, in person or via a phone, or giving attention to a child, seems to make most of the awareness of the built environment disappear, leaving only the most minimal engagement necessary in order not to walk into anything.  But beyond that, both the ‘feel’ and layout of the centre can fade away:

on a walk-along with a woman needing to buy, wrap and post presents to her family in Australia, we keep talking about her family and how she strategizes about sending the parcels as one pack or in groups. She keeps talking fast giving me all this information about how much she needs to get things sent and how she is behind on this. …During her talks, I realized we passed the Post Office. I paused and asked her if we passed the Post Office. She was not sure. We looked back and forth trying to figure it out. Then she approached the map to look where the Post Office is located and commented on how often she gets lost. (walk-along notes)

Given the effect of such social interaction on perception of the built environment, it is important to note just how many people say that they are not in either town centre just to shop.  Our survey suggests that just over a third of people in both towns are not there to go shopping – and even those that are, from our observations, are very often with friends and family and socialising as they browse and search.  This confirms work by Jackson and Holbrook on Wood Green and Brent Cross shopping centres in north London a decade ago.  As they note, shopping is “an intensely social activity that involves far more than the simple purchase of goods” (Holbrook and Jackson 1996, 202; and see also Jackson and Holbrook 1995; Uzell 1995).  Because of this high level of social interaction, interaction with the environment shifts and changes.

This persistent, sporadic inattention made our ‘experiment’ with the silk cushions hard to interpret.  In both places, in the hour or so we observed, only once were they picked up, in both cases by a young person.  In Midsummer Place, two young women sat on them without comment to drink their coffees.  Occasionally other people glanced at them; mostly it seemed they were ignored.  Our sense is that this shows an awareness of, but also a general indifference to, small changes in the urban environment, particularly ones that are not negative or confrontational.  Attracting attention seems to require something with much more impact than simply placing attractive cushions where people sit anyway: particularly something that can be played with.

Finally, it’s also important to note one group that, in our research had quite a distinctive view of the built environment: young people.  Although we did not work with many young people in both towns, it was very clear that those we did work with had a particular view of the built environment.  In particular, they did not pay much attention at all to the architectural qualities of the towns.  Instead, they used the town spaces as places to meet their friends and check others out.  That is, their uses of these spaces were intensely social, and they therefore did not give anywhere near as much attention as our other research participants did to their town centres’ overall, shared, multisensory sense of place, as described in a previous section. However, they were very aware of the centres’ layout, in the sense that they were aware of where they were allowed to congregate and where they would be moved on.  This was particularly the case in CMK, where teenagers in groups of four or more seem to be prevented by security guards from standing or sitting together.  As a result, these young people’s sense of CMK was far more a sense of where they could meet than what the atmosphere of its built environment was.

summary and questions


  • people engage in many more activities in urban public spaces than shopping
  • the overall atmosphere of a place is powerful and shared by different people doing different things
  • some specific objects in the environment get a lot of attention and affection: trees, water, interactive objects or things that can be interacted with
  • the practices one is involved in influence how we experience our surroundings
  • socialising with friends or family induces an different degrees of attention, ranging from focused, superficial to inattentive modes of experiencing these town centres.

The question remains however – what are the implications of all this for public artworks?

some questions in relation to public art

Different kinds of public art obviously aim to achieve different things.  In particular, in relatively small cities and towns like Milton Keynes and Bedford, we would argue that the context for public art is quite different from large cities like London, Glasgow, New York and Barcelona.  It is much smaller, more everyday and less associated with art events.

Neither Bedford nor CMK offered any examples of ‘new genre public art’ while our project was running: that is, art that aims to encourage social criticism.  It is highly unlikely that the owners of either CMK or Midsummer Place would give permission for such art; while in Bedford, both the authorities and local people seem united in their conviction that the town centre needs beautifying above all.

Indeed, in Bedford, the desire to improve the urban environment was shared by everyone we spoke to.  While public art was not raised as a specific issue in these responses, this does suggest the critique of public art as being no more than a cultural whitewash that covers up the depredations of development capital (Deutsche 1996; Duman 2004) loses some of its edge when so many local people also support the development plans.

Some public art has a role in place-making: in developing a sense of local identity.  CMK has an exhibition space in a quiet area of the centre, which did carry some interesting work addressing Milton Keynes’s identity; however, its marginal position and conventional aesthetic suggest a limited impact.  Bedford is in the process of installing a large sculpture Faces of Bedford, which aims to provide a striking landmark in the town centre.  It has the scale to achieve this, at least initially.  However, unless it is animated in some way, our suspicion is that eventually it will become ‘part of the furniture’ and as un/noticed as our cushions were.

However, in terms of animating public space, Bedford has several examples of pieces that were bought ‘off-the-shelf’, as it were, and are highly successful in engaging passers-by in playful activity.  These include the chimes installed in the pavement, and the fountain in Church Square.  This suggests that, if the aim is to give visitors a ‘fun’ experience, site-specific, individually-commissioned public artworks are not always necessary.  Quite simple (and relatively cheap) objects can also be successful (especially in cash-strapped small towns like Bedford).

A further point is that some of the hoped-for effects of ‘public art’ may be achieved by things not usually considered to be ‘public art’ at all.  Trees are the obvious example; trees seem to make places more attractive to many, many people.  Fountains and benches too can make public spaces more attractive and enticing.  A few of our Bedford interviewees suggested that musical performances would enhance the town centre.   And our observations suggest that things that children can do also draw in adults: a more child-centred approach to public art and street installations would have a much wider effect.

It is also relevant to note that at the end of our project, the management of CMK decided to fill in the pond and fountain in Queen’s Court and remove the statue there, in order to fill the Court with four more cafes.  Our study revealed that both the pond and the statue were very popular with CMK visitors.  In private spaces, however, commercial imperatives rule.

The research project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number RES-062-23-0223, and ran from October 2007 to March 2009.  Dr Basdas was, and Prof Rose still is, at The Open University (g.rose@open.ac.uk) and Dr Degen is at Brunel University (monica.degen@brunel.ac.uk).

The project website is at www.urban-experience.net.

other publications about this project

Degen, M, DeSilvey, C and Rose, G (2008) ‘Experiencing visualities in designed urban environments: learning from Milton Keynes’, Environment and Planning A 40 pp1901-1920

Degen M, Basdas B and Rose G (forthcoming) ‘Bodies and everyday practices in designed urban environments’, Science Studies: Understanding Architecture, Accounting Society.

Rose G, Degen M and Basdas B (submitted) ‘Two shopping centres from the inside’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

Rose G, Basdas B and Degen M (submitted) ‘Using the web to disseminate research on urban spatialities’, Geography Compass.

Basdas B, Degen M and Rose G (in preparation) ‘Capturing everyday life in routine and repetition’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.


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