City environment by non-visual senses



It is known to all, the visual impression of city environment is intuitively the most direct and powerful sensory experience for citizens with good sight. It is beyond doubts that visual sense plays a dominant role among all the senses. Visual sense provides more information for people when they situate in a new place, especially the orientation in space. Porteous (1996, p. 3) once mentioned, vision is active and intensive: 'we look; smells and sounds come to us.' The bias of visual sense can also be easily found in the most of the construction process - Architects nowadays focus more on visual environment. Although vision is the very important sense, the urban environment is not only perceived by eyes. The changing of the information we receive from eyes is only the very initial step of the sensory experience. The underdeveloped and underexploited non-visual senses also contribute immensely to the richness of the perception and cognition. In this research, the researcher will examine what roles do non-visual senses play in urban spaces and how/what will people perceive a place without sight. In particular, the research will focus on the different functions of each sense and how to the use them (e.g. sound, touch, smell, taste) to make a public space work successfully and unique.

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The goal of this study is to refine our current understanding of sensing a place and to provide an intensive interpretation of non-visual senses which has been ignored by most of designers and users. From a long-term perspective, the results of this research can also shed some new light in creating a public space which is combined both the visual and non-visual senses and offers more sensory experiences to people.


Constricted, we understand and interpret the city through the technical rather than the sensory, yet it is the sensory from which we build feeling and emotion and through which our personal psychological landscapes are built. These in turn determine how well or badly a place works - even economically, let alone socially or culturally - and how it feels to its inhabitants and visitors. (Landry 2006 p40)

If our understanding is limited to a visual understanding, we only concentrate on shapes. If, however, we go beyond appearances, we start a spatial understanding, a three dimensional experience. We can enter this space, rather than just see it. The same applies to the design of spaces. We do not create mere appearances but spaces that we can use for different purposes. (Madanipour 1996 p99)

As the quotations at the beginning of this chapter highlight, citizens are affected intensively by the spaces and places - not only the body, but also the minds and senses as well. Since the early 1960s, the cognition of environmental perception has developed. Along with the increasing studies being conducted, there now generates a vital body on people's perception of their urban surroundings. The conception of mental 'maps' and images of cities are the core studies for sense of place in the field. More importantly, the publishing of Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City (1960) is the significant work in the field of urban imagery. Furthermore, according to the reactions of human sensory system, the four most valuable senses in sensing the environment are vision, hearing, touch and smell. The research and articles around the topic 'sense of place' were then flourished. It is widely considered that most public spaces is a visual one, as François Molnar (1997) points out, 'visual system is sensitive to spatial frequencies, of which some seem privileged.' and 'responds directly to each of a number of different spatial frequencies' (p.227)

However, it has been argued that the experience of public spaces also affect the senses in other ways. In the preface of the October 1991 issue of The Architectural Review, the editor states: 'we appreciate a place not just by its impact on our visual cortex but by the way in which it sounds, it feels and smells.'(p.5) The explorations of the relationship between each different sense and how they relate with space are also well developed. For instance, Lang (1994) points out that an environment's 'soundscape' 'can be orchestrated in much the same way as its visual qualities by the choice of materials used for the surfaces of the environment and the nature of objects within it.'(p.33) Furthermore, another architect, Juhani Pallasmaa examined the representation of touch in his book The Eyes of the Skin (2005); he claimed that 'Vision reveals what touch already knows. We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision.' It is true that architects and researchers have already noticed the importance part that both the visual and non-visual senses play in urban space. Therefore, based on the previous studies and arguments, this research will prove the functions of non-visual senses according to a series of methods and the results of the research will be useful in later relevant design project.

Theoretical framework.

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Although some recent studies enriched the literature of sensory design, there is still nonetheless an ignorance of non-visual senses for majority of people. Furthermore, it is common to notice that non-visual senses are underplayed and underdeveloped in practice. Although non-visual senses contribute to a richness of perceiving a place, it seems that the fundamental functions of non-visual senses are totally forgotten by most of designers. For this reason, the creation of some public spaces nowadays is lack of various or exciting experience for users. To address this ignorance in designing, this research is conducted to specifically explore what roles do non-visual senses play in urban spaces and how people perceive a place without sight. These are two core research questions of this proposed research, the research is conducted through two steps - the observations and interviews of blind people and blindfolded experiments in sighted people.

Regarding the question which mentioned at the beginning of the proposal that why non-visual senses are easily ignored by most of people? Although the experience of a space is composed of the information from every sense, as Landry (2006) mentioned 'sight are better articulated, because in general we have a rich vocabulary around physical appearance' (p50) and most of users, include designers for public space are the people with good eye-sight. Therefore, in order to answer the questions of what kind of information of the surroundings will users receive via non-visual senses and what will the space present without the sense of sight, blind people is chosen as the sample to study, as they correspond with the research conditions - they can only read the surroundings by sound, touch, smell and even taste.

The second part of the research is to blindfold sighted persons and ask them to walk through the city. During this process, they simulate the behaviours of blind participants and perceive the surroundings from the blind people's perspective. Catherine Thinus-blanc & Florence Gannet (1997) claims in their research paper Representations of Space in Blind Persons, the evidence that other sensory modalities also contribute to spatial experience is 'when sighted participants are blindfolded and asked to perform spatial task with non-visual-relevant information, which they accomplish without difficulty' this is why the researcher choose this approach to do the experiment. It will not only re-prove the results from first step that how other senses conveying the feature of city environment, but also give a direct and strong comparison between visual and non-visual senses to the sighted participants. And the comparison between these two kinds of sense will be clearly suggested once the data was collected.


The research adopts a qualitative methodology in order to contribute the richness of the literature of the field. It is very important to point out that any specific method or technique is selected after serious consideration on what is theoretically desirable and what is practically and ethically possible. Finally the research selected observation and qualitative semi-structured interviews which are identified as the most suitable techniques for the research according to the specific research objectives and context to explore the function and status of each non-visual sense, like sound, touch, smell and taste. The rest of this section describes the details of the conduction of this research.

Individual observation and interviews

As mentioned above, the first part of the research is to observe blind people's behaviours. The sample is consisted of 10 individual participants. Considering the ethical issues, all the participants will be informed before observation and interview conduction that the information obtained in the research would kept confidentially. Those participants will be observed two hours per day for their behaviour in the daily life and the observation of the spatial performances of blind people will be undertaken in places where participants carry out their daily activities, like restaurants, street, or cafe shop. In order to explore in depth, some of participants (about not more than five) are chosen as the informants to conduct the interview. Semi-structured interview technique was also employed with the consideration of the objective of the research, which is conducted in random time after observation finished and arranged between thirty minutes to one hour long. The main aim of the interview is to complement the missing part of observation and to re-prove the arguments from the relevant documents and studies. Therefore, it will begin with broad questions and follow up according to participant's answers. Participants are encouraged to talk freely during the whole process. The qualitative semi-structured interview questions are listed below:

  1. When you walking through the public space, which part will you notice at the beginning? Which sense (touch, sound, smell, and taste) will help you to perceive it?
  2. Is there an imagery map in your mind when you walking through the city?
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(If yes, ask the participant to describe generally how it forms)

  1. Which sense offers more information and help you more to perceive city environment when you walking through the city?
  2. Have you got the cognition of colours?

(If yes, ask the participant to (a) specify what colours are, (b) describe what the colour look like in his mind, and (c) how this cognition forms by non-visual senses.)

  1. Which sense will help you to determine the directions and how can you determine it?
  2. Have you got an understanding of different distance? How can you understand it?
  3. Are there any approaches for you to tell the differences from different kinds of space?
  4. Have you ever traveled to another city?

(If yes, ask the participant to describe the city impression in his mind and specify how he feels that by non-visual senses.)

Due to the length of interviews, each interview was recorded to enable subsequent analysis of data and word for word quotations and permit the researcher to fully concentrate on the conversation and not distracted by attempts to take notes. The common points of each participant should be summed up after analysing. The researcher will compare the results with the argument from previous studies and refine how non-visual senses contribute when perceiving a public space.

Blindfolded experiments

The amount of the participants is around 20 or more sighted people. Experiments will take place in the city centre of Nottingham. Participants will divided into small groups with maximum three people, a blindfolded one, a guide and a recorder, for the purpose of convenience and effective. A route map will also be determined before starting - from Old Market Square to Victoria Centre. The experiment starts in front of the City Council. The participant will walk across the central of Old Market Square in darkness only by following the voice instructions from the guide. When arrives the water pool located in the west of the square, the participant need turn right and walk along the south side of the square. Then, after walking through the busy pavement and crossing the traffic road, they will arrive at Victoria Centre. The final step is to walk into the building and experience the interior of it from non-visual aspects. As is can be seen from the descriptions, the route of the experiment includes various changes of the surroundings - from flat ground to inclined surface, from exterior to interior and from the open space to linear space as well. Therefore, every tiny change that represent on the participant should be recorded carefully. More importantly, after the blind journey, the blindfolded ones will be asked to retrace the route with sight and the retraced route will also be drawn down in order to contrast to the former one. Furthermore, they will also be required to express their perceptions of surroundings by drawings - abstract drawings about spatial feelings when they are blind. Each member in the group will do the experiment in turn. More participants can be chosen randomly from the Old Market Square.

The purpose of the experiment is to have a comparison between visual and non-visual senses and find out the main characters of non-visual senses when vision is not the dominant one. Interview them after or during the experiment about their feelings. Similar with the previous one, it will begin with broad questions and follow up according to participant's answers. The list of question for interviews is stated as following.

  1. Is the space represents as same as before when you blindfolded? Can you specify the differences?
  2. Can you describe your feelings now? Are there any changes in the surrounded space?

(Ask these questions when participant is closer to the water pool which is located in the west of Old Market Square.)

  1. Can you notice the change of the ground/change of the wind direction?
  2. How does the space represent now? Which sense help you feel like that?

(Ask these questions on the way to Victoria Centre. e.g. walking through the pavement/crossroad.)

  1. Do the spatial feelings change when you enter the Victoria centre?

(Ask this question when entering the Victoria centre and if yes, ask the participant to specify the differences.)

  1. What is the difference between exterior and interior space?

When experiments have been done, the characters of non-visual senses will be summed up according to the experiment and interview records. The researcher will explore the roles that non-visual senses play in presenting the city environment and undertake a situational analysis on the abstract drawings and compare the retrace route with the previous one.

Experiment example.

The following is the record of a blindfolded experiment conducted by the researcher and her group members. It follows the steps that described previously in the proposal. The experiment lasted approximately one and half hour and took place in city centre of Nottingham on 19th October 2009.

The following are some extracts of the answer to the interviews:

"...After my eyes covered by my scarf, I cannot see anything in front of me. Everything seems to be unknown and dangerous. The previous familiar surrounding now turns into a world which is like a mysterious black hole... "

" the time I lost my sight, the non-visual senses become stronger and more sensitive than usual, especially audition and touch...I received tiny changes from surrounding more easily and quickly. Furthermore, I found that I can perceive the environment in shaping the space by voices around me..."

"...while I was walking through the street, the adjacent space seems to be composed of numerous faces and lines. I have to say this is the very interesting and creative part of the experiment... "

"...interestingly, at the time I entered the Victoria centre, the character of the voice changed obviously. This helps me to know that I have already entered the interior of the seems like we are now in a huge glass box. Voice no longer represent on planes, but comes from every direction in three dimensions..."

These are some abstract drawings that drawn by the participants after the experiment. The participant is required to use simple phrases or sentences to explain the abstract drawings.


  • Malnar, J.M.; Vodvarka, F. (2004). Sensory Design, University of Minnesota Press.
  • Henry, S. (2008). Convivial Urban Spaces: Creating Effective Public Places, Earthscan Publications Ltd. Press.
  • Pallasmaa, J. (2005). The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Academy Press.
  • Carmona, M.; Heath, T.; Oc, T.; Tiesdell S. (2003). Public Places-Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design, Oxford: Architectural Press.
  • Kevin, L. (1960). The Image of the City, The MIT Press.
  • Catherine, T. B.; Florence, G. (1997). Representation of Space in Blind Persons: Vision as a Spatial Sense; Psychological Bulletin, (1997). Vol. 121, No. 1 20-42, American Psychological Association Press.