Prioritizing People’s Experience for More Sustainable Urban Environments: In Conversation with Barbara E. A. Piga

Prioritizing People’s Experience for More Sustainable Urban Environments: In Conversation with Barbara E. A. Piga

Barbara E. A. Piga, architect PhD, is a researcher at Politecnico di Milano (POLIMI). Since 2007, she coordinates the Laboratorio di Simulazione Urbana Fausto Curti. She is a member of various scientific committees and teaches at POLIMI. Her research focus is experiential simulation for multisensory urban design in a design-for-all perspective. She leads both European and national projects and has developed innovative methodologies recognized with copyrights and an international patent. She fosters an interdisciplinary approach to supporting the design process, from conception and development to decision-making and public participation. Her contributions include the interdisciplinary Experiential Environmental Impact Assessment (exp-EIA©) methodology and the exp-EIA ecosystem for investigating the community-environment relationship and pre-assess people’s reactions to urban design solutions. She earned her Ph.D. in Urban Planning from POLIMI in 2010. Her research promotes a multi-scalar and interdisciplinary approach to enhance all the urban design phases.

Q: What does user experience mean in your work? 

People’s experience is the guiding concept in our research and development efforts. Our goal is to deeply understand how individuals dynamically experience spaces to inform and evaluate urban transformations. This involves focusing on the person-environment relationship rather than considering them separately. By considering how individuals naturally react when engaging with urban spaces, we can design user- and environmentally-friendly environments. We recognize that the environment significantly influences people’s experiences, so we aim to create meaningful environments that enhance well-being. Our methodology involves gathering and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data on how individuals perceive and interact with their surroundings. The outcomes are used to inform design briefs, evaluate design proposals from a multiuser perspective, and monitor the perceived performance of a solution over time. By prioritizing people’s experience, we aim to support urban design and decision-making processes that promote well-being, social interaction, community and place attachment, ultimately contributing to more sustainable and livable urban environments.

Q: Can you please describe the interdisciplinary approach you use in your work?

Our research employs an interdisciplinary approach that integrates insights and methods from architecture, urban planning, psychology, biomedical engineering, and information technology. This approach allows us to tackle complex urban challenges from multiple perspectives, favoring comprehensive solutions. Collaboration with experts from different fields enriches our understanding of the human-environment relationship. For example, environmental and social psychologists contribute to the understanding of cognitive and emotional responses to spaces, while urban planners and designers connect people’s reactions to the specific characteristics of the environment that shape such place experiences. The integration of different disciplinary perspectives uncovers meaningful experiential patterns of urban life. This interdisciplinary collaboration has been essential in developing innovative methodologies, such as the exp-EIA© (experiential Environmental Impact Assessment) ecosystem and its suite of tools. By leveraging knowledge from various disciplines, we aim to support design development and decision-making processes in a design-for-all perspective, enhancing well-being and life satisfaction by constructing more livable and healthy cities.

Q: Can you please describe your patented methodology exp-EIA©?

exp-EIA© (Experiential Environmental Impact Assessment) is an internationally patented methodology designed and developed by Politecnico di Milano and Università degli Studi di Milano. We also created a “phygital” (physical + digital) ecosystem around the method to facilitate its applicability in research or professional practice, to investigate the relationship between people and their urban environments, that is, people’s experience in time and space in the current or design conditions. This ecosystem includes a set of tools designed and developed ad hoc: a mobile app in Virtual and Augmented Reality, a web-app utilizing 360° images and videos, a mobile cart for recording environmental data on the go, the “4P” platform for analyzing various data types together, and a Luminous Planning Table, which combines physical and digital simulations for collaborative design and decision-making, among professionals and with non-professionals. By integrating these tools and data sources, exp-EIA© provides a holistic view of place experience, supporting the identification of potential improvement and interventions in existing areas, as well as enabling the pre-assessment of the perceived performance of urban design projects. Beyond favoring the development of design projects sensitive to the varied experiences of a heterogenous population, exp-EIA© aims to foster effective multistakeholder collaboration involving private, public, and societal sectors, as well as the scientific research community, in urban processes. This collaborative endeavor aims to lead to informed and shared decisions for more livable and sustainable cities.