COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Clare Cooper Marcus

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Clare Cooper Marcus is internationally recognized for her pioneering research on the psychological and sociological aspects of architecture, land-use planning, and landscape design - particularly urban open space. Marcus has conducted many open space studies and evaluations of place design and use, and she is particularly interested in the distinguishing elements of public spaces such as the gardens around hospitals, care facilities, and public housing estates.


Clare Cooper Marcus completed her undergraduate studies at the University of London, majoring in Cultural and Historical Geography, followed by a Masters degree in Urban Geography from the University of Nebraska. She worked for several years as a city planner in London, before returning to the U.S. for a second Masters degree in City and Regional Planning at Berkeley, focusing on designed environments. As a student in the 1960s, she began studying the public realm and the built environment with a social science research methodology. Through interviews and observation, she conducted post-occupancy evaluations of several housing schemes, including Easter Hill Village in Richmond, California, and St. Francis Square in San Francisco. In 1969 she began teaching at Berkeley, in the Department of Landscape Architecture.

Cooper Marcus has written and taught extensively on the psychological impact of home. Her use of methods derived from Gestalt Therapy, and concepts from Jungian psychology have allowed her to closely examine people's relationships and attachments to their homes, which is best illustrated in her internationally-renowned book House as Mirror of Self  (1995). Her most recent work, Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations (1999),which won the EDRA Award for Place Research in 2000, focuses on the therapeutic benefits of gardens in hospitals and other health care facilities.

Her book Easter Hill Village (1975) was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Award for Exemplary Design Research in 1983 and the EDRA Career Award in 1984. Funded by a Guggenheim Award, her publication Housing as if People Mattered (1988) received a citation in Research in Progressive Architecture's annual award program in 1992, and People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Space also received a Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1993. Cooper Marcus is an associated partner of Healing Landscapes, a consulting firm that specializes in user-needs analysis related to the programming, design and evaluation of outdoor spaces in health care settings.


Social and psychological factors in open space design. Throughout her work, Cooper Marcus explores the way people relate emotionally to their physical surroundings, the degree to which physical environment affects behavior, and how the built environment can facilitate the creation of communities. She emphasizes that human behavior and social activities must inform and shape the designed environment. Aesthetic goals need to be balanced and merged with ecological needs, contextual issues, and user preferences. Taking this conviction seriously requires a rethinking of the design process, so that it begins with people's motivations and behaviors. Because users of a space differ in age, gender, ability, and interest, these differences need to be addressed in the design of spaces. Rather than asking people to choose between a set of designs, Cooper Marcus promotes context-sensitive design as a way to understand the specific psychological needs of a community.

Communal Spaces. In addition to public spaces, Cooper Marcus suggests that semi-public spaces - communal spaces - are becoming increasingly important. Spaces near offices, schools, hospitals, hotels, day care centers and housing estates are shared by specific groups of people with their own set of needs and expectations, and safety and predictability have become key factors in the success of those spaces. In an era of high mobility, diversity, and fast-paced living, Cooper Marcus argues, many people prefer the relative predictability of social life in the shared outdoor space of a housing cluster, campus courtyard, or office building plaza to the strangeness of the town square, and designers should take these considerations into account.

Perceived Density. Cooper Marcus reminds us that density goes beyond the number of units per spatial area. Depending on landscape, accessibility, and views, users might perceive two areas that meet the same zoning or planning criterion as having different densities. While density is both necessary and desirable in urban environments, Cooper Marcus acknowledges that many people currently hold low density single family housing as the ideal, associating high density with multiple negative factors. Designers therefore face a specific challenge in creating environments that convey low perceived densities, while capturing the benefits of higher-density urban living.

Design Guidelines. In her book People Places, Cooper Marcus offers guidelines for the design of public and communal outdoor spaces. They are not prescriptive, however, as she believes strongly that design guidelines should never undermine the creativity of planners or designers. Instead, Cooper Marcus supports the planning process by providing researched information about the motivations, needs, and behaviors of people who use shared outdoor spaces, including those who are often overlooked, such as children.


"The problem is not that designers are lacking for creative ideas, but rather that they are frequently hampered by not having the time to search out appropriate people-based research to take this step further: research based recommendation cannot substitute for public participation."

"It is often easier to start with a generic program, to discuss what a particular neighborhood or day care staff agree with, than to start from scratch."

"A designer must consider both the larger societal changes and the creation of better, more supportive environments from people's daily lives. We believe that thoughtful design takes into account existing knowledge and provides a chance for people to express themselves, be effective, and feel empowered."

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space