Urban Design Dimensions: 2.Perceptual Dimension



Awareness and appreciation of environmental perception and, in particular, the perception and experience of ‘place’ is an essential dimension of urban design. Perceptual dimension of urban design can be studied three main parts-

  • environmental perception.
  • construction of place in terms of place identity, sense of place and placelessness.
  • place differentiation and place-theming.


We affect the environment and are affected by it. We must perceive – that is, be stimulated by sight, sound, smell or tactile information, which offer clues about the world around us. Perception involves gathering, organising and making sense of information about the environment.

The four most valuable senses in interpreting and sensing the environments are vision; hearing; smell; and touch.

  • Vision – The dominant sense, vision provides more information than the other senses combined. Visual perception is also a highly complex phenomenon and relies on space, distance, colour, shape, textural and contrast gradients, etc
  • Hearing – While visual space is sectoral – our arc of vision involves only what lies before us – ‘acoustic’ space is all-surrounding, has no obvious boundaries, and, in contrast to vision, emphasises space rather than objects in space. While hearing is information-poor, it is emotionally rich – screams, music, thunder arouse us; the flow of water or the wind in the leaves soothes us.
  • Smell – The human sense of smell is not well-developed. While even more information-poor than sound, smell is emotionally richer than sound.
  • Touch – Much of our experience of texture comes through our feet and through our buttocks when we sit down rather than through our hands.

Place Images:

To make sense of their surroundings, people reduce ‘reality’ to a few selective impressions – that is, they produce place images. Such images are partial (not covering the whole place); simplified (omitting much information); idiosyncratic (each individual’s place image is unique); and distorted (based on subjective, rather than real, distance and direction)

Beyond the Image of the City:

Environmental Preference Network
Environmental Preference Network

There are different ways different groups in different place structure their city images. Some cities are more legible to its inhabitants than others. While some cities were highly legible they were legible in different ways. For example, Amsterdam is more legible than Rotterdam; Milan and Rome both are highly legible but in different ways.

Kaplan & Kaplan (1982: 82–7) suggest ‘coherence’, ‘legibility’, ‘complexity’ and ‘mystery’ as informational qualities of environments that contribute to people’s preferences for particular physical environments. For an immediate appreciation of environments, understanding is supported by environmental coherence (to make sense) and complexity (to encourage involvement). In the longer term, legibility and mystery encourage further exploration

Environmental Meaning and Symbolism:

All urban environments – or ‘landscapes’ – are repositories of symbols, meanings and values. Different types of sign are usually identified:

  • Iconic signs – have a direct similarity with the object (e.g. a painting).
  • Indexical signs – have a material relationship with the object (e.g. smoke signifying fire).
  • Symbolic signs – have a more arbitrary relationship with the object and are essentially constructed through social and cultural systems (e.g. classical columns representing grandeur) (from Lane 2000: 111)

Symbolism and Architectural Modernism:

Symbols and Architecture
Symbols and Architecture

Modernist buildings were to carry no associations beyond their own ‘magnificent declaration of modernity’. Intended to be capable of reproduction anywhere, their universally applicable ‘modern style’ transcended national and local cultures.

Three ways of expressing a building’s function or meaning have been identified (Robert Venturi):

  • The ‘Las Vegas way’ – placing a ‘big sign’ in front of a ‘little building’.
  • The ‘decorated shed’ – designing a simple building form and then covering the facade with signs.
  • The ‘duck’ – making the building’s overall form visually express or symbolise its function (a deliberate strategy in attempts at iconic sign)


The sense of place is often a notion suggesting people experience something beyond the physical or sensory properties of places and feel an attachment to a spirit of the place. Many places have retained their identities through significant social, cultural and technological changes – and, hence, though subject to constant change, some essence of their place identity is maintained.

Sense of Place:

It is often argued that people need a ‘sense of belonging’ to a specific territory or with a group of people, who, in turn, may or may not occupy a specific territory.

Sense of a Place
Sense of a Place

Territoriality and Personalisation:

Individual identity is associated with ‘personalisation’ – the putting of a distinctive stamp on one’s environment. Although generally designed and built by someone else, individuals adapt and modify the given environment – re-arranging furniture or changing decoration, external planting in a garden, or front door colour.

The Dimensions of Place:

Personal or group engagement with space gives it meaning as a ‘place’, at least to the extent of being different from other places.


Placelessness in Row Housing
Placelessness in Row Housing

The quality of being a distinctive and meaningful place – which, in the absence of a more elegant term, could be called ‘placefulness’ – is a continuous quality, with real places existing on a continuum from placeful (i.e. a strong sense of place) to placeless (i.e. a lack of place distinctiveness).

Placelessness tends to signify absence or loss of meaning. Various factors that contribute to the contemporary sense of placelessness are:

  1. Globalisation: The world is increasingly interconnected, with centralised decision-making exploiting efficiencies and economies of scale and standardisation. Globalisation leads to an erosion of place meaning.
  2. Mass Culture: With globalisation has come ‘mass’ culture, emerging from processes of mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption, which homogenise and standardise cultures and places, transcending, crowding-out, even destroying local cultures.
  • Loss of (attachment to) territory: Placelessness is also a reaction to the loss, or absence, of environments that people ‘care’ about because they do not feel that they belong and no longer care for their environment.


place differentiation
place differentiation

A response to the standardisation of place and placelessness is the deliberate creation (or invention) of place distinctiveness and differentiation through design. Place marketing and city branding have thus been seen as important dimensions of city development.

Urban design is often complicit in this, with iconic buildings and the serial repetition of exemplary urban design projects.

Place Marketing:

Imagineering – manufacturing place identities – involves deliberate use of symbols/themes (often drawn from existing places) to enhance place distinctiveness. At a larger scale, this is termed place marketing, which attempts to change place identity by presenting carefully selected place images to identified local and non-local audiences.

Icons and Iconicity:

Iconic Structures
Iconic Structures

Most architectural icons are landmarks in the sense of being physically distinctive and identifiable within an urban landscape. Distinctive buildings symbolise their city and thus the lure of new iconic buildings is to create similar distinctiveness quickly.

Iconic Buildings and Civic Boosterism:

Iconic buildings are typically intended to signify a city’s cultural significance, its economic dynamism, the quality of life possible there and other desirable attributes.

Place Theming:

Villagio Mall, Doha, Qatar- Place Theming
Villagio Mall, Doha, Qatar- Place Theming

Place-theming involves a deliberate shaping and packaging of place and place images around a particular theme. Depending on the extent of the existing source material, place-theming can involve reinventing or inventing places.

Invented Places

Theming acknowledges the significance of place and place values. Theme parks are perhaps the epitome of invented places. Invented places and place-theming provide opportunities for urban design and place-making issues.

Chawki Dhani- Place Theming
Chowki Dhani- Place Theming

Criticisms of Place-Theming and Invented Places:

  1. Superficiality: It is a superficial attention that undermines and even destroys, rather than reinforces, the real place identity.
  2. The commodification of place: By seeking to sell or market the place, place-theming actions, and place-marketing images, necessarily commodity, and distort, the place, by making its exchange value its primary quality.
  • Simulacrum and the real: There are situations when the public is unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
  1. Authenticity: Sense of place may be ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ or, equally, ‘inauthentic’, ‘contrived’ or ‘artificial’. Development that copies or draws explicit reference from historical precedent as ‘false’ and lacking authenticity.


The value of the perceptual dimension of urban design is the emphasis placed on people and how they perceive, value and both draw meaning from and add meaning to the urban environment. Places that are ‘real’ to people invite, require and reward involvement – both intellectual and emotional – and provide a sense of psychological connectedness. Urban designers thus need to learn how to make better people places by observing existing places and through dialogue with their users and stakeholders.

This is a Summary of the Dimensions of Urban Design from the Book “PUBLIC PLACES- URBAN SPACES by Matthew Carmona, Tim Heath, Taner Oc and Steven Tiesdell, Architectural Press


  1. The text is from the book Public places Urban spaces- dimensions of Urban design by Oc and Heath . Kindly provide the reference to the original authors. Regards,


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