M.J. van Dorst

Professor of Environmental Behaviour and Design
Department of Urbanism

Machiel van Dorst is professor Environmental Behaviour and Design. “The interaction between environment, behaviour, urban and landscape design is the main focus of my teaching and research remit.”

Van Dorst studied architecture and environmental psychology in Eindhoven. In 1997, he moved to Delft, joining the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment as a researcher. Van Dorst turned his attention to the social aspects of sustainable urbanism, completing his doctorate in 2005 on the subject of “a sustainable and liveable residential environment. The Netherlands has at its disposal environmental psychologists who deliver good empirical research on the subject of human behaviour in a built environment. But the research doesn’t explicitly attempt to draw a relationship with the design of that environment. That combination is the field of van Dorst.

Basic needs

From Buenos Aires to Jakarta and from Amsterdam to Shanghai, the residents of densely populated areas face universal problems. One of these is the growing competition within outdoor space between mobility needs, residential needs and different user perspectives and all the conflicts, inequality and pressure on the environment that this entails. “The more densely populated a city is, the greater the pressure on the wellbeing of its users,” is how Van Dorst sums up the issue. “A safe, accessible and healthy environment or even one that is child-friendly certainly cannot be taken for granted. This is despite the fact that these are some of the most basic human needs everywhere in the world.”


Van Dorst concentrated on the individual’s perspective on his or her environment. How the city, parks and streets are experienced at eye-level. “It’s a perspective that has gradually declined in importance. Knowledge of it has dwindled, even though there’s a real need for it. Social sustainability was sometimes seen as inhibiting freedom of design. It doesn’t have to be like that. On the contrary, an alternative perspective on design can prove very refreshing. The human dimension as a source of inspiration: that’s the notion that I would like to focus on.”

Ideally, the built environment is the result of a process in which different user perspectives and the interests of different user groups are on an equal footing. In his research and teaching, Van Dorst focuses on two key questions that he sees as fundamental to this process. What are the spatial qualities of a street, park, neighbourhood or city that facilitate the well-being of users? In what way can the complexity of the spatial requirements for human well-being be made transparent and applicable within the design process? “This requires an understanding of the relationship between the built environment and people’s subjective well-being. What are the spatial preconditions for social interaction? How can design facilitate a certain degree of autonomy?” This raises the practical question of which instruments the different actors – including the designers of this environment – should use to reduce a high level of complexity to something that is manageable and can be discussed. “My research focuses on the development of those very instruments.”