In this article I explore some thoughts about…

  • What environments say to us about individual’s rights and societies expectations and culture?
  • How can the design of environments and spaces in the public and private realm shape how we feel?
  • Is a focus on function and form enough when planning street furniture, spaces and buildings?
  • What do we understand by function? – As in the literal function of something, e.g. as a bollard to stop cars damaging a tree, property or people, or its wider cultural and emotional affordances, as an indicator of the value placed on pedestrians as opposed to cars?
  • Does it matter and how might it help better shape environments for children?

Take a look at these bollards on two Budapest streets and jot down any thoughts and reactions that they evoke. I did just that and this is what my list included. I then grouped these into the following different themes:





Eye catching







THEME Novelty

Sense of humour




THEME Playful


Art forms

Public art

‘Look at me!’


Reclaiming the streets

Pedestrian power THEME Control


Influenced by the world of design and planning (the focus of my MA); our knowledge of the emotional benefits of the environment and the importance of sensory engagement for wellbeing; and the exciting field of new materialism (the idea that environments and objects shape us as much as we them, and the potential in the ‘space’ in between this intra-action, for creating and experiencing a unique assemblage), four qualities of spaces and environments emerge for me:

Legibility – how clear it is about how spaces, structures or environments can or should be used and experienced?

Emotion – if and how spaces, structures and environments influence our feelings?

Safety – how safe or unsafe these spaces, structures and environments feel?

Engagement – if and how these spaces, structures and environments invite or resist interactions and if so, whether as individuals or groups?

All the above factors will influence an individual’s and community’s sense of Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence within the space. These three psychological needs are cornerstones of Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination theory (2000) which is founded on the idea of humans being naturally curious, and provided they feel secure, intrinsically motivated to explore their environment. Relatedness encompasses caring for others and feeling connected and belonging to a community, while ‘competence is defined as the need to experience oneself as effective in interacting with one’s environment’ (Whipple, Bernier & Mageau, 2009). Autonomy is about having a sense of being able to make your own choices and is not at all equated with independence. If all of this seems unrelated to those bollards let me try to make the connections!

ARC in Action

If we view bollards simplistically as a barrier to movement, then we see that a barbed wire fence will fulfil much the same function as the bollards, but with startling different effects:SMALL arc BOLLARDS

Of course, barbed wire is an extreme, but there are a plethora of other barriers to our entry in streetscapes around the world, which have been created with their function, (primarily as a device to keep people out), prevailing over form. Without much if any consideration, these utilitarian designs will be subtly influence if and how we interact with environments, how we behave, how we experience these environments and how they make us feel.

Returning to the 4 qualities identified above, lets compare our potential experience of the following environments as pedestrians:

  1 2 3
LEGIBILITY I can choose to move quickly or slowly. I feel safe and protected. I have permission to move within the barrier. The barrier is to keep me and the tree safe not to restrict my movements. This space is part of the public realm and I can use and enjoy it. This is not intended for me. If this sturdy building is at risk from cars then I must be too. This is a space to move quickly through. I need to be cautious and vigilant as there is a danger of hazards. I am not allowed to access this area. I don’t belong there and it is not mine to use. I mustn’t be curious but accept the limitations. I can’t interact with the environment.
EMOTION A sense of fun, laughter and playfulness. I feel positive and enriched. I feel capable and in control of myself. I feel like a valued member of the community. I feel liberated not trapped. Austere, harsh and jarring. An eye sore and reminder of the power of the car. I feel on the periphery. Excluded and caged. Trapped and not free. Negative and controlled. Questioning why the area is restricted and is it safe.
SAFETY I can interact with the environment and feel empowered by it. I don’t need to rush. I could pause perched on a bollard and children are beckoned to run around the bollards. I must be unsafe. Accidents are likely. I need to be vigilant, cautious and not linger. Cars are threatening and powerful. I am vulnerable. Is the fence protecting something or keeping me safe? What’s the threat? How could I safely get over the barrier if I needed to escape? Am I being watched to see if I behave?
ENGAGEMENT My interaction is welcome and invited, whether as a positive feeling when quickly passing by or as an open invitation to linger and pause.  I have a strong sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence (ARC). My interaction is not welcome. The colour and stripes make me cautious and alert. This is not a place to linger. I don’t have rights of way. I don’t feel valued, capable or in control so have a poor sense of ARC Keep moving and don’t come too close. Lingering here could be seen as loitering with intent. If I look round, I’ll look guilty.

I don’t feel included, able to make choices or interact with the environment so have a poor sense of ARC.

These are just four possibilities and you may have come up with your own equally, if not more valid tools for appraising spaces, structures and environments, in which case I’d love to hear these. Of course, I’ve purposely picked extremes of environments for maximum effect, but I hope in doing so it has made apparent the effect, whether intentional or not on our experience as pedestrians. So far we have viewed this through the lens of an adult, but change the scale to introduce the child’s perspectives, and these positive or negative consequences are potentially considerably greater.

Context is Key

Returning to those delightfully animated bollards, their designer clearly understood the importance of context and consistency, ensuring that the paving and other street furniture – in this case the wonderful eye-like tree openings, acted in harmony with the jaunty bollards, so that they complemented rather than competed with each other. Quality materials were also key, as was a natural palette of colour that would have been intrusive. Rather than creating them in highly visible colours and uniformly spaced and angled, which would facilitate quicker and easier parking, the bollards serve as a traffic calming measure, effectively slowing down manoeuvres and reclaiming the streets for pedestrians. For a child coursing down the street the quirky angles break up the bollard’s height, provide a sense of movement and invitation for a child to run round them. They also create exciting shadows to be noticed and delighted in.

I’m conscious that by trying to quantify something ethereal I may be devaluing the very source of wonder and delight which was worthy of sharing! Like Maria’s Montessori’s plea that we don’t try to ‘pin the butterfly to the board’ in our eagerness to understand a child’s actions. The best design solutions are not born out of a checklist of do’s and don’ts, but an awareness of the power vested in environments to shape people’s experience, emotions and perception of rights and values.

Food for thought

Having praised these bollards for their playfulness and appeal to people, unfortunately this is the very thing that’s missing from the photo! So picture a child you know (or the child within you!) and think about if and how they would notice, react to, interact with and be affected by these quirky structures? What might they do? How would they use them and the space? How might their experience of these differ to the utilitarian bollards in the article? Now think about the environments in which children spend much of their time – these are likely to be early childcare centres. Next time you have an opportunity, position yourself at a child’s height and consider how does the existing design, layout and qualities affect children? Try to view he environment and spaces through the lens of a child. What messages and emotions do the spaces and designs convey? What changes if any, could improve children’s experience? Whose purpose do they fulfil? What impact, if any, do they have on children’s sense of safety, control, rights and values?

I’d love to hear your ideas and any challenges you may have to my wonderings!

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Sue’s inspirations and background

Sue Gascoyne is a qualified Town and Country planner with a focus on design, conservation and architecture.

Sue is also a qualified Creative Arts & Play Therapist – an area which has given her an insight into the impact of environments on children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive wellbeing.

As an Early education researcher, with a specialism in sensory engagement, environments and new materialism Sue has an interest in not just the affordance of environments but how these actively shape human’s actions and experiences as agents in intra actions.