Young LeadersYoung Leader Khate Torres: Using Environmental Psychology to Create Healthy Urban Spaces

Young Leader Khate Torres: Using Environmental Psychology to Create Healthy Urban Spaces

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Achieving climate and sustainability goals requires a willingness to change. Without this, the urban transformation would lack substance. We already have so much of the knowledge we need to make a significant impact, but, unless populations are suitably informed, they are unable to adopt the behaviours that make that knowledge worthwhile. Young Leader Khate Torres argues that environmental psychology fills this gap, and she presents a worthy case for why it may actually be the rising star of sustainability.

Environmental psychology explores how our surroundings influence human behaviour – and vice versa.

Although not much spoken about, this field of psychology is helping urbanists unlock ways to nudge citizens to take up more sustainable behaviours and identify new human-centred and nature-based solutions.

“It’s about knowing the relationship between the built environment and the individual and how design elements could affect individuals,” says Khate Torres. Our CityChangers, who studies BS Psychology at Miriam College in the Philippines, approaches the subject with a profound interest in the particular field of environmental psychology.

Khate represents a growth in appreciation for the subject among scholars, and for good reason. “Environmental psychology is really promising,” she enthuses, which dedicated scientific journals seem to attest to.

Benefits of Environmental Psych

Understanding human behaviour is crucial to integrating existing knowledge into our lives and cities. There’s no use developing flashy new sustainable solutions if no one is aware of them or willing to implement any.

That’s why environmental psych “is essential”, expresses our Young Leader. It brings us to this understanding, which in turn will “narrow the gaps between individuals and the environment”.

It’s baffling then that environmental psychology seems to be such an untapped, maybe even neglected, field in sustainability circles.

Khate’s story stands out because she demonstrates the passion that drives someone to persevere for the greater good, regardless of the challenges set before her. Not many of us would be so persistent. And that’s essentially why environmental psych is so sorely needed!

When It Doesn’t Exist, Create It!

“Growing up, I was into community development, architecture, urban planning… I was supposed to take up architecture but I’m more into intangible concepts, like human thinking.”

Early on Khate had an interest in psychology, but the limited exposure of environmental psychology meant that she was unaware of how to combine this with her concern for the environment and keenness for sustainability.

Only through personal research did she discover a field where her interests intersect.

Even now, this is an unconventional study route in the Philippines, which is, she points out, “a place that’s not very open to that kind of idea”.

The majority of psych students still opt for clinical or developmental psychology or get into research instead, which is a reflection on the profession at large.

“Every time I go to a conference or workshops about the environment, psychology is rarely tackled. It’s rare for me to attend an event that’s aware of this field or the intersectional ideas of it. It’s not being talked about.”

I don’t really identify myself in the conventional fields of psychology.

Rather than claim defeat, Khate approached her psych professors to reinstate this long-dormant elective on her degree course. “Fortunately, they were very supportive.”

It only took this one person to set the change in motion, prompting the department of psychology to re-open this elective after years of it laying dormant.

Khate also signed up for and audited courses in Environmental Planning.

Exemplary action like this is what makes our CityChanger a perfect candidate for Urban Future’s Young Leaders Programme in Stuttgart.

Addressing a Lack of Urban Green Spaces

Manila Environmental Psychology -
Manila’s streets – in need of a sustainability transformation? Image credit: Pexels / Mic Oller

The Young Leaders gather to share transformative knowledge and strengthen their efforts via collaboration. They are the forerunners of the next generation of change-makers, as Khate proves with her extra-curricular experience of environmental psych.

In 2022, she joined the NGO, Philippine Parks and Biodiversity as a project intern, which jumped at the chance to welcome an environmental psychologist to their team.

Although she didn’t realise it at the time, the organisation had joined forces with the Department of Health to develop an Open Green Spaces Toolkit. This sits right at the intersection of environment, behaviour, and sustainability.

“It was like divine timing,” Khate jokes.

Having helped develop it, Khate tells us that the Green Open Spaces Toolkit has now moved to the pilot phase.

The framework provides local governments with everything they need to know about setting up healthy urban spaces. It even includes recommendations for monitoring and capacity development.

This plugs a significant gap in knowledge and urban planning practice.

There are not a lot of green spaces in cities in the Philippines, Khate observes. Only about 13% of Manila, the capital, has green land cover. The recommended minimum green land space for human wellbeing is around 30%.

Environmental psychology, Khate believes, will change this picture by educating citizens and decision-makers not only about the importance of healthy urban spaces but also how they play a role in creating them.

I really want to educate other people and just awaken their minds that this is really urgent.

And believe it or not, it may not be so tricky to get people to change.

Psychology As Nature’s Ally

Khate lives in Antipolo City, a metropolis of almost one million inhabitants as of 2023. The biggest place in her home province, Iloilo City, is only half that size.

“They’ve got great parks there and open green spaces. My home is like a farm.”

This region is where our CityChanger still retreats to when she needs respite. “That would be the first place I would go to if I ever feel overwhelmed. I would stay there for maybe two weeks without any outside communication. It’s restorative to me.”

Looking back, this environment must have set Khate on her path to environmental psych long ago.

Getting in touch with nature really fuelled my interest in environmental psychology. It really fuelled my passion to integrate these two fields into coming up with solutions.

Others, too, are beginning to make the connection between nature and personal wellbeing, and this is leading to change.

In another case of fortunate timing, the Department of Budget and Management launched its Green, Green, Green programme in 2018, just shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. When it did, parks became refuges, places where people could escape their homes during lockdown, socialise at a distance, and get some exercise. Green spaces became synonymous with city liveability, which, Khate adds, gives us “an opportunity to really, truly improve, and to encourage the local government units or policymakers”.

Iloilo City -
Khate’s place for respite, Iloilo City. Image credit: Pexels / Janssen Panizales

A Reformed Sceptic

Building on the innate association that people develop between a healthy environment and a happy lifestyle, Khate believes, “could fuel change in the future”.

As you may expect from a psychologist, her attituded is balanced, making her arguments formidably reasonable.

In her younger days, our Young Leader admits to being “really sceptical of environmental initiatives” such as the move to ban plastic straws. Not because of their purpose, but because she thought it should be our natural behaviour.

“Why does it have to be an initiative? Why is it not innate to each and all of us that we should take care of the environment?”

This explains her choice to use human cognition as the basis for transformation: it aims to tackle a problem at its roots – preventing it by changing habits – rather than solving an issue that could be ongoing.

Advice from a Psychologist

If we want to influence behaviour change, we must make an effort to raise awareness, educate, and inform. Never assume that individuals know the most suitable behaviours unless they are told. If they did, they’d probably already be doing it.

What Khate has discovered is that CityChangers shouldn’t underestimate how simple we can – or even need to – be when educating communities to embrace change.

That’s something that we should embed in each and every individual, so that it can be passed on to the next generations.

Don’t rely on common sense, she advises. What’s obvious for one person is not the case for another.

“When you think that something is a given, it’s not usually a given.” That’s as true for the ‘obvious’ problems as it is for the solutions.

Encouraging pro-environmental behaviour among corporations and municipalities might be a bigger challenge, but the roots still lie in environmental psych. After all, they’re all run by people.

“If this is tackled by collective evidence and in the lens of psychology for nature-based but human-centred solutions, that would really have an impact on these issues.”

Architects, urban planners, and policymakers should consider psychological evidence when designing and operating cities, especially – Khate notes – public buildings such as schools, jails, and hospitals.

“How else would you know the relationship between the users and the building?”

An environmental psychologist will continue to monitor how the users interact with a building long after it’s constructed. Their ongoing recommendations can help us further improve the built environment to ensure it remains fit for purpose long into the future.

As for Khate, she foresees a career stretched out ahead of her in research that advances the field she’s chosen, which she says we should approach with an open mind: “Research that is not just quantitative, but also qualitative.”

She believes that being “objective, but not too objective” will allow us to see and acknowledge the perceptions of diverse individuals and make suggestions for the built environment based on real human need rather than purely on statistics.

Maybe this is a little idealistic, Khate ponders. But she realistically knows that both empirical and anecdotal accounts have a place in creating optimum nature- and human-centred cities. And anyway, isn’t the whole point that we dream up our ideal cities and try to make them a reality?

Despite all our problems, we can still wish for a better future.

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