Architect, M.Phil. Urban Design & Regional Planning (Edinburgh); Director of U & A - Urbanism & Ambient; Professor - Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul

Address: Rua Marquês do Pombal, 1385/201, 90540-001 PORTO ALEGRE, RS. Brazil

e-mail: kastello@conex.com.br

Environmental design may impart changes on environmental perception, thus influencing cultural identity and behaviour. Actual trends in urbanism signalize to the creation of fantasy places in which perceptions are designed by market intentions. The role of Planning in such a context is discussed.



Environmental perception research is said to be a valuable tool for urban planning because of its aptitude to singling out the most important features the environment offers to its users. The theory runs that to reinforcing the most significative preexistent stimuli already perceived in the environment enhances the tasks of planners (e.g.:BANERJEE & SOUTHWORTH 1991). Notwithstanding, environmental perception studies face new sorts of challenges in the threshold of the 21st century. Tendencies presented in today’s urban planning bring variations in the perception people have about their built environment. Research on a topic I call meta- urbanism collaborates to explain the mechanisms related to these changes in perception, as well as to the need to deepen the approach about the topic in the realms of architecture and urban design studies. The present notes deal with selected points that may contribute to bring some light into the topic. They start by quickly recalling the association between environmental perception and urban planning. Next, they discuss some actual trends in urbanism and their power to produce changes in environmental perception, since the balance between human cognitive processes and the perception of the environment gets stirred by changes in the environmental design. A point stating that design guidelines can be used to incentivate desired perceptions is argued in sequence. It follows a note that in a globalised society changes spread very rapidly throughout the world, and can be found even in the most unexpected and remote places. Finally, selected findings of a research work in the Brazilian region known as the ‘Serra Gaucha’ contribute to deepen the discussion about the role of planning in a context where perception is being designed by market intentions.


Environmental data gathered by means of environmental perception techniques can offer a worthy assistance for urban planning operations. In fact, this sort of procedure can provide good opportunities for shaping more carefully the process of formulating planning objectives, in order to calibrate them according to the values people perceive as genuinely rooted to their own environment. Furthermore, there is a logic behind such a reasoning which is in direct accordance with recent progresses in philosophical debates. Recent advances forwarded by postmodern thinking, questioning the legitimation of scientific knowledge in the postmodern condition, proposes that the world now should be understood in terms of the local narratives instead of the ‘Grand Narratives’of Science, as it was assumed in Modernism times (LYOTARD 1988, apud SCHNEIDER 1997). It is understood that a closer connection to the "local narratives" would be forwarded by people’s cognition about the environment. Moreover, an approach grounded on people’s cognition would somehow revive and reaffirm the bases postulated in BACHELARD’s and HEIDEGGER’s (LEACH 1998) thoughts, when addressing the need to refer to phenomenology for better understanding people’s interaction with their urban surroundings. As a matter of fact, applying the findings of environmental perception research to the postulation of planning guidelines is capable to interrelate more intimately environmental design and people’s behaviour. It is within these lines that urban projects that fully incorporate the environmental stimuli people perceive spontaneously in their urban environment - that is to say, urban projects that pay attention to the phenomenological manifestations that occur in space - have best chances to achieve their goals.

Notwithstanding, when employing perception-based information in planning, there may be two lines of possibilities. Perception-based information may either be used to confirm the perceived environmental stimuli that were responsible for affecting the perceptive process in the first place; or, alternatively, may be used to direct perception towards new environmental stimuli, designed so as to attain certain desired intentions. It goes without saying that in the latter case, new perceptual directions are to be unleashed from the urban design process, as will be discussed as follows.


The basis for studies and researches in environmental perception is that human interaction with the environment is guided by perception, that is to say, people exercise a recognition of the environmental conditions by using their perceptive processes. Perception of the environment is a cumulative experience starting by the aprehension of sensorial stimuli communicated to the brain via the five senses. But the process does not end in this reception alone. People not only get informed; they also share the experience of living and feeling the environment. Both sensorial and experiential feelings influence people’s cognition about the environment, allows for processing an evaluation of its values and, eventually, renders the knowledge on how to behave on it. Perceptions, then, are not solely restricted to the sensorial field. Perceptions allow people to understand their surrounding environment, addressing the information to their cognitive level, to intelligence. As such, environmental perception starts with people’s sensorial response to external incentives, and leads towards the adoption of certain behaviours in relation to phenomena they are exposed to in their daily environmental experience. In other words, people would tend to adopt certain attitudes on their spatial behaviour according to the environmental stimuli they perceive on the environment. Nevertheless, in present globalisation times, with the cultural assets of cities being merchandised as if they were marketable commodities, and cities themselves marketed as entertainment products, perception of the urban environment becomes increasingly designed by market strategies instead of being spontaneously designed by the stimuli originated from people’s existential practices. This is a crucial circumstance affecting today’s people-based planning.

The creation of themed environments, such as theme parks, themed malls, the ‘modernised’ reurbanisation of old historic central areas, ‘disneyfied’ environments and other manifestations of similar phenomena that increasingly spread all over the world - rich, poor and emergent - are another noticeable feature of today’s planning. As a matter of fact, they represent a typical spatial facet of the present globalised market economy society - and the consumption patterns it entails - and are responsible for producing urban landscapes marked by undifferentiated homogenization, with consequent losses on the major character and identity traces of each urban environment individually. Furthermore, if on the one hand, some of these theme-places are newly built constructions (usually comprising artificial replicas of old traditional places), most of them, on the other hand, are located in old historic places, where they can capitalize upon the cognition people have already acquired about the place throughout time. In this way, the urban-architectural design of theme places becomes also responsible for inserting images of fantasy into real places (and the ‘disneyfication’ of some European historical city-centres brings good examples of that). As an outcome, reality may become altered in the end. And perception, which is traditionally inherent to what used to be the genuine reality - and even derived from it - may also become altered. As a consequence, practices more akin to a meta-reality might be expected to arise, altering the contextual structural coherence of a place. Traditional urbanism gets converted into a sort of meta-urbanism - a concept which can be expressed here as a working hypothesis. As such, it moves towards designing environments that transcend day-to-day reality. In meta-urbanism the cultural assets of cities are merchandised as commodities, and cities themselves become marketed as entertainment products. In this vision, perception of the urban environment becomes designed by market strategies instead of being spontaneously designed in accordance to stimuli originated from people’s existential practices. An assumption such of this, of course, disturbing as it may be, demands utmost attention by urban researchers and planners, since it may lead to changes in urbanity itself.

One major argument to rise from the discussion is that meta-urbanism is generating new urban scenarios which, in the end, will lead to new processes of cognition. And consequently, to influence meanings. Although any definite assertion on this matter would sound premature, it cannot be denied, however, that meta-real urban environments may be responsible - to say the least - for blurring the cognitions people already have achieved about certain environmental characteristics. Yet, an implicit menace remains enclosed in this sort of practice, and it involves power. Power to influence people’s perception, power concentrated on just a few hands who can wilfully orchestrate new processes of perception, and to guide them towards a predetermined goal. In this way, it becomes clear that one cannot speak about environmental perception as a helpful tool for planning in its more straightforward sense any longer. Not after the ascent of meta-urbanism operations: after these operations are accomplished, perception of reality may not be what it used to be any more. Nor reality itself. Environmental perception tends to concentrate on what some people intend others to perceive about the environment, by means of strategically passing them the selected thematic images they intend to communicate, and by designing livable ‘stage sets’ to suitably accommodate the images. The neighbourhood units of Disney’s new town of Celebration, USA - the ultimate paradigm of the New Urbanism current - would suffice to illustrate the main ingredients to be included in the design of such sets.

In point of fact, it can be said that in most cases of meta-urbanism, perception is being designed by the market. And when perception gets designed by the market, cultural identity becomes a marketable product, culture itself becomes manipulated and turned into a commodity (ZUKIN 1995).


The majority of studies linking environmental perception to urban design projects address perception usually from the viewpoint of the stimuli spontaneously perceived by people on their daily enviromental interaction. In my present approach this viewpoint is somehow reversed. What matters the most is to concentrate the research on the perceptive mechanisms that are intentionally stimulated by the urban designers’s work upon the users of the designed space. Obviously, this comes off as in opposition to the works routinely carried out in the area. Usually those works address the spontaneous stimuli, whereas in the present approach, the object of interest focusses on the perception of the intentional stimuli subjects are submitted to. This sort of observation is better witnessed when understood under meta-urbanism lights, since a good number of meta-urbanism procedures are linked to the creation of fantasized images. And towards communicating a message that permeates through the forms exhibited by a place. And, more importantly yet, to facilitate the marketing of such a place. This is why the concepts of placemaking and place-marketing (HUXTABLE 1997; ELLIN 1999) are so closely associated to the practices of meta-urbanism (CASTELLO 1999; 2000).


My research project, sponsored by the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq) and the Regional Research Council (FAPERGS), investigates the genesis of places in meta-urbanism. Ongoing research deals with the region known as the ‘Serra Gaucha’ (Sierra Hills), located in the southern Brazilian State of Rio Grande do Sul. Research areas are two urban communities in the region, namely Gramado and Serafina Correa. They are both located in a mountainous region originally populated by a huge bulk of european immigrants, italians and germans, who came to the area in the end of the 19th century. Traditional architecture and traditional customs ended up by differentiating the region, branding in it a special character built on strong cultural ties. Nonetheless, the end of the 20th century brought to the region a crucial change in the management of its traditional characteristics. As a matter of fact, traditionality itself became a marketing commodity. The fashionable (and lucrative) world of theme parks was detected by the regional decision-makers as a reliable source of economic growth, and was immediately introduced to the region’s planning guidelines. Thenceforth, the marketing of tradition quickly accelerated its pace, and new perceptual references soon started to be diffused to visitors and residents alike.

Nowadays there are several centers in the region ‘specialising’ in marketing tradition. In the small town of Serafina Correa (8.418 inhabitants in 2000), one can pay a visit to the ‘Via Genova’, where meta-reality reaches a climax (FIG.1). There, the Italian rootedness as a cultural commodity became so extremely celebrated, that the visitor today is offered the vision of such diverse urban phenomena as a replicated house of Romeo, a duplicate of Juliet’s home, a copy of the Marostica castle, a Palladian Villa Rotonda, a gigantic gondola and, of course, the Roman Coliseum, among other fantastic reproductions of Italian icons of different times (FIGS.2-5).

FIGURE 1 - The ‘Via Genova’ Project, designed in 1994. Photo: L. Castello

FIGURE 2- The replica of the "Castello Inferiori di Maróstica" lodges a cafeteria. Photo: L. Castello

FIGURE 3- Romeo’s house (front) is a restaurant and Juliet’s home (next) is a discoteque. Photo: Tourist folder


FIGURE 4- A copy of XVth century Palladio’s villa ‘La Rotonda’, in Vicenza, provides room for a souvenir shop and artisan crafts. Photo: L. Castello

FIGURE 5- The local modest Roman Coliseum remains unfinished but acts as a symbolic icon. Photo: L. Castello


Gramado (23.317 residents), a renowned tourist center, saw in the last times the insertion of interesting attractions, all accompanied by strong marketing strategies. An intentional resemblance of its architecture to that of an European alpine village was introduced to the city’s landscape (FIGS.6-7). Benefiting from the temperate climate (there are even occasional snowfalls in Gramado), Tirol roofs, Swiss chalets, Bavarian gables, engraved friezes, the whole lot of alpine architectural artifacts intertwine today in Gramado’s cityscape, so as to create an intended perception. Needless to add that real estate businesses are booming today, besides tourism.

FIGURE 6- The cityscape of Gramado emulates that of an European winter resort. The lake is artificial. The woods include species imported from Germany’s Black Forest. Photo: L. Castello

FIGURE 7- Gramado and the Italian Alps style of the Film Festival Palace. Photo: K. E. Santo

 Initial research findings pointed out not only to the identification of the environmental stimuli through which people spontaneously perceive their local environment; but also to the perception people have been induced to perceive after artificial stimuli have been introduced by means of meta-urbanism practices. Today, residents of Serafina Correa, for example, when asked to outline their views on the local environment, do not hesitate to acknowledge the meta-real images they were induced to receive, and to include immemorial Italian simulacra in the sketches of their cognitive maps (FIGS. 8 to 10).

FIGURE 8- Mental map sketched by a resident of Serafina Correa. Via Genova is already perceived as a landmark, even if introduced only a couple of years ago.

FIGURE 9- Mental map sketched by a resident of Serafina Correa.

FIGURE 10- Mental map sketched by a resident of Serafina Correa.



There are curious situations arising from the cases discussed in the research. To start with, the simple fact that Brazilian cases, though representative of a newly-industrialised society, are able to offer fresh references about manifestations typical of post-industrialised environments. Another interesting finding is to register in the two towns studied questions typical of the most advanced urban centers, even if both of them are nothing more than small villages. Yet, it is believed that the same urban phenomenological turnabouts, analogous to those portrayed in globalized centres, are to be found also in local situations. Indeed, both globality and locality practices are present in the regionalisation process contemplated in the research. It seems quite clear that the same processes involved with globalisation, in terms of cities’s images being commercialised as market commodities, are being reproduced with similar marketing processes occurring in the regional scenario scale. In fact, the global network of entrepreneurial behaviour seems to communicate very speedily around the world, acting freely relieved from any geographical barrier. This is a first lesson to learn from the Serra Gaucha region experience. Echoes of the concept of metapolis (KOOLHAAS et al. 2001) seem to be loosely sprinkling there. The metapolis is said to be the bearer of a new reality: the globalization of the urban condition. According to the concept, "Metropolization and the formation of metapolises are the advanced forms of the urbanization process (...) [from which emerges] (...) a new urban system, with a polarization around metapolises which function in networks at an international scale(...)" (SIMEOFORIDIS 2001 p.418). But the research also helps to raise other rather polemic points. Obviously, both places are just small villages, though actually experiencing proportionally large scale projects. These projects induce to the creation of ‘contact zones’ in certain segments of the urban realm. It goes without saying that implicit in this creation, runs a hectic process of placemaking, and that this making of places is happening by means of designing an efficient iconography destined to stimulate a precise perception. This procedure allows, of course, to set up clean-cut placemarketing strategies, and to include them within market designs (and here it gets clear that the word ‘design’ has really a double meaning, involving also an ‘intent’). Furthermore, one can even hint to the presence in the two cases of two of the key concepts frequently recalled to better understanding current day practices in urbanism and planning, heterotopias and privatopias (SCHNEIDER 1998). The expression heterotopia refers to "(...)the use of a place by different social or ethnic groups(...)" and "Privatopia is explained by the one-dimensional worlds, used by a single group" (FRIEDRICH 1998 p.4). In addition, heterotopias are said to function as a tension between two poles, "(...)on the one hand creating a space of illusion and on the other creating a real space as perfect, meticulous and well arranged as possible"; whereas privatopias, mainly when concerned to the revival of designed territorial ‘communities’ like those abundant in New Urbanism projects, lead "(...)members of socially homogeneous groups to restrict their contacts to members of the same group(...) [and avoid] contact whatsoever with other lifestyles(...)" (BOELENS 1998 p.20-21), thus producing the fragmentation witnessed in today’s cities. The central core of Gramado - and, in a lesser scale, ‘Via Genova’ in Serafina Correa - are not so popular with locals, and, in this view, can be seen as privatopias, since they are intensively and predominantly patronized by visitors and vacationers, rather than by natives. Natives, on the other hand, are used to live within the limits of their own residential privatopias, located in the ‘normal’ quarters of the town. However, it is within the fantasy areas that new jobs are offered, that new advances in the employment sector are introduced, as well as siting the locus for the most innovative opportunities for developing cross-cultural encounters. In other words, for heterotopia. It is in those interface places that natives are transported in time and space to modernity, and that holidaymakers are reintroduced also in time and space to perceiving the origins of their culture. In sum, it is there that new forms of cultural manifestations are permanently being engendered. Rather than being mere generic places found anywhere in the ever increasing generic globe (KOOLHAAS 1997), they are, on the contrary, places where a new urbanity is processed, places where a postmodern way of experiencing urban life is exhibited through blatant signs. Surely, there is an inherent difficulty in accepting an assumption like this one. Nonetheless, to the same degree one accepts that languages evolve permanently, also urbanity can be admitted as facing a permanent evolution, paripassu to the eventual insertion of new cultural behaviours. In this line, a new urbanity would be naturally raising from this. However, as discussed earlier, to new forms of designing the built environment there may be correspondent new forms of perceiving the environment, and, consequently, one can expect the emergence of new forms of societal behaviour. There are clear indications that in meta-urbanism, this new behaviour is to be directed towards consumption, thus a deviation in the natural evolution of urbanity towards a meta-urbanity can be anticipated.

And what is gained in traversing the local in the global, and the global in the local, in oscillating between privatopia and heterotopia, or in going native and becoming modern? What has planning to learn from this? Is it a sign of the times? (and I intentionally underline the word sign due to the symbolic meaning images have in iconographic terms).

Certainly, when perception gets designed by the market, cultural changes can necessarily be expected, because, in a sense, what is being marketed in meta-urbanism is a sort of urbanity in progress, is an outcome of a newly cultural product still under processing. In such terms, the overall reflection summarized on the conclusion of TAN-2 Report is quite revealing when it states that privatopias provoke the final breakdown of the Urban, and that "(...)we cannot program and plan heterotopias. Leaving things open - creating scenarios instead of defining the story - is more appropriate(...). Cultural identity is done by the multiplicity of people - it’s enough when we create the places for it" (SCHNEIDER & D’HONDT 1998 p.66-67). In such terms, "(...)the architect become[s] a detector of new zones and unknown territories, someone whose role, rather than finding solutions to problems, would be that of finding new concepts adapted to a life in perpetual mutation". (Hans Hollein, apud SIMEOFORIDIS 2001 p.417).



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