Fields of Yield: Beyond the Built Environment

Stephen Marshall
23 Nov 2015

Based in a liberally bounded faculty of the built environment, one never fails to be amazed by the rich diversity of topics being researched by colleagues: anything from dust mites to robots, or from the chemical composition of materials to the socio-spatial footprints of global capitalism. Meanwhile, beyond academia, from popular TV to specialist podcasts, we can be stimulated by any amount of content on urban history, property, society, technology, drama or science fiction, that has some bearing on the built environment present or future.

    Indeed the built environment seems to lie at the crossroads of any number of other disciplines: it is arguably a field of application, rather than a discipline in its own right. When we look at mappings of the academic disciplines, the built environment is found in the thick of things, surrounded by apparently more clearly defined disciplines.

Map of science derived from clickstream data

    The ability to learn from other disciplines is of course a crucial opportunity – but put another way, the need to learn from other disciplines becomes a crucial challenge. Every day in newspapers and blogs and academic journals, stories from external fields with implications for the built environment are being churned out – whether it’s the latest paper on the effects of nature on mental health, developing networks studying microbes in the built environment, or features on archaeological discoveries of lost cities. How can we possibly keep up with all that is happening ‘out there’?

    We could attempt to track popular news on all fronts, from scientific breakthroughs to developments in the arts. But the danger is that our view is selective, drawn disproportionately to the more eye-catching stories. And we may not understand the full import of those popularized accounts – and different accounts could draw different conclusions from the same source material. For example, town planning can learn lessons from biological evolution both on the power of competition, as emphasised by Charles Darwin, and the power of cooperation, as emphasized by Patrick Geddes. A recent book on evolution as a theory of everything has been criticized precisely for being too one sided – in this case, towards ‘free-market evangelism’.

    Of course, we cannot all be like Patrick Geddes – training first in biological sciences before moving on to sociology and town planning. As academics or practitioners in the built environment field we rely on the findings of specialists from science and other external disciplines.

    However, if we attempt to venture into some of the more specialized areas of knowledge ourselves, we may find the source texts difficult to understand and interpret properly. For example, the busy professional or academic may not grasp the import of the finding ‘Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation’ – the title of the paper on mental health referred to earlier.

    We might also struggle to understand the full meaning of developments in art, say, Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed – described as ‘the physical manifestation of a thought process’ which ‘counters the illusory nature of globalisation and capitalist exchange’, as reported in The Sun – under the headline Shed wins Turner prize.

    So, what to do? In a paper on science, pseudo-science and urban design, I suggested, among other things, the potential value of bringing together the latest relevant science findings reliably without us having to become scientific specialists ourselves. This argument, while directed at knowledge transfer from science to urban design, could equally well apply to any external field yielding knowledge for the built environment professions in general.

    One possible solution would be a way of giving a platform to the disciplinary expert who is able to distil key messages from the parent discipline – whether a science or arts or other specialist field – and then to translate this into a format that is readily digestible by a built environment audience – be they architects, urban designers, planners, engineers, surveyors or landscape architects.

    We believe that Built Environment can provide just such a platform. Because each issue has a single theme with its own guest editor(s), this allows a combination of specialist editors and authors drawn substantially from fields – whether technological, ecological, anthropological – outside the built environment. Meanwhile, overarching editorial oversight can help ensure suitable orientation to the built environment readership. By this means, individual papers can embody the technical authority of their home disciplines, while the papers’ selection, orientation and communication is directed purposefully to the built environment audience. We welcome proposals for future issues of the journal that can offer the best prospects of disseminating knowledge for the built environment, from the ‘fields of yield’ beyond.

As ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs and tweets on this theme!