Professor Terence Lee, MA, PhD (Cantab), FBPsS; 1923-2014

A pioneer in the field of Environmental Psychology.

Terence (Terry) Lee was not the first psychologist to see the importance of taking psychology out of the laboratory and putting it into the service of society in a practical way, but he was arguably the first in the UK to see the potential application of psychology to the problems of urban planning and the environment. Internationally, he was one of the first researchers to formulate a coherent, theoretically-led, research based analysis of how people make sense of their physical environment - a contribution which is due greater recognition. His contribution and foresight profoundly influenced the development of environmental psychology, and the lives of many who have worked in this field.   

Terry came from a middle-class, South London background. His father, a bank manager ‘in the City’, was not just non-academic but positively anti-academic, and on leaving school Terry followed his father and worked as a broker’s assistant in Lloyds’ Underwriting room.  However, in 1942 with the War underway, Terry volunteered for the RAF as soon as possible (aged 18), to train as a pilot; he used to remark that his nose had the shape it did as a result of breaking it in a flying accident. He later transferred into the Fleet Air Arm where he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant (A) RNVR, and it was here that he first developed an interest in the psychology of the work environment, being attached to the Senior Psychologist to the Admiralty and involved in Officer Selection testing.

His initial flying training had been at Cambridge; he had become besotted with the city and was determined to return after the war to the university. This he did, gaining admission to Magdalene College and completing a bachelors degree in Moral Sciences (Experimental Psychology) in 1949. Terry then started research for a doctorate, initially intending to work in industrial psychology. Sir Frederick Bartlett, his professor, had been approached by the Labour government to undertake research on its radical social policies - in particular to advise on the rebuilding of bombed-out Britain. In contrast to the uniform and soul-less ribbon development of the 1930’s, the Government wanted to build ‘Neighbourhood Units’ and ‘New Towns’. Bartlett’s asked his young doctoral student to “put down some ideas” – ideas which led to a PhD which forged a relationship between social and cognitive psychology, and to the development of the concept of ‘socio-spatial schemata’. Building on earlier experimental work on cognitive mapping, and the potential for the physical environment to affect behaviour, Terry suggested that people actively construct and make sense of their world by creating schemata, or conceptual maps. For Terry, socio-spatial schemata not only provided an insight into people’s inner representations of space and place, but these in turn provided templates for the design of urban spaces. He completed his PhD - ‘A Study of Urban Neighbourhood’ - in 1954.

Terry’s work was about as far from the orthodoxy of early 1950’s Cambridge psychology research as one could get, dominated at the time by the ‘psychology as natural science’ paradigm – the tachistoscope and memory drum of the experimental laboratory. Terry continued to utilise and develop socio-spatial schema theory for many years, publishing a significant paper in 1968 in Human Relations.

Terry met and married Daphne Wallace in 1950, and in 1953, shortly before completing his PhD, they moved to Exeter where Terry worked as a Research Fellow at the University, examining the social-psychological consequences of changing methods of rural education in the County of Devon. Three years later, they moved to Scotland for the first time, where Terry worked initially as a lecturer in psychology at St Andrews (1956–65), and then from 1965 in Dundee as a senior lecturer. In 1971 they returned south when Terry was appointed Professor and the first Head of Department of Psychology at the relatively new University of Surrey.

There followed two decades of research projects where the client was as likely to be a Government Department as a Research Council. When Terry arrived at Surrey, there was only one member of staff, but by the time he retired in 1987 there were fifteen. During those years he had made a number of crucial appointments which not only set Surrey’s course but also furnished British psychology with some influential researchers including Lionel Hayward, Harry McGurk, and Glynis Breakwell. He also gathered round him the principal UK environmental psychologists of the day (e.g., David Canter and Peter Stringer) and supported the establishment of the MSc in Environmental Psychology, the first Masters’ course in this subject in the world.

Terry continued to publish actively, especially in the area of environmental perception, such as road and landscape planning, and the perception of risk, for example in the siting of nuclear power stations and the disposal of nuclear and chemical waste. As a consequence, Terry became a member of Royal Society Committee on Problems of the Environment, The Royal Society Study Group on Risk Assessment, and a member of the National Radiological Protection Board. He was also a consultant advising both UNESCO and the IAEA on the social and psychological consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The University of Surrey, with its strong emphasis on R&D that ‘serves the needs of the nation’, provided just the context for the type of research Terry encouraged, and over the coming years Surrey undertook a significant amount of applied and policy-oriented psychology research. This kind of applied research, which today would be seen as having high ‘impact’, was the object of a somewhat suspect attitude by the academic psychology establishment at the time. Terry would be the first to argue that it is not always prudent to look for the direct and immediate application of research results. As he said, “Research results make people think - they are not sufficiently trusted by our sponsors to make them dash out to apply solutions.” But his finding that people judge the appropriate size of their neighbourhood by area not by population, challenged planners to reconsider the thinking of the time, and was reflected in the planning of Washington New Town, on Tyneside. His later work finding that bus journeys to school for children of 6 – 7 years old are less beneficial to their adjustment in the school setting than walking journeys was frequently quoted in campaigns defending small village schools from closure. Terry believed that the impact of the early research in environmental psychology was to create an appetite for more research. And so perhaps his lasting legacy was that he situated psychology in general and environmental psychology in particular into government thinking about people-environment relationships, whether it was urban neighborhoods, education or risk communication and the nuclear industry.

In the early years at Surrey, psychology was part of a School of Human Sciences and offered a joint degree with sociology and philosophy. Terry strongly believed that psychology should have its own degree programme, and he jointly designed an undergraduate course that reflected psychology as a scientific and applied endeavour, and included the placement period in the world of work that has always been part of the University of Surrey tradition.

Terry contributed much to the life of the University by serving on numerous committees and Senate, and was Pro Vice Chancellor between 1977 and 1981. He was a particularly enthusiastic Chair of the University Arts Committee, and played a key role in establishing a Department of Dance - in what was regarded at the time as an engineering and technology university. He championed the role of the university in its engagement with the local community and in promoting continuing education, and was instrumental in incorporating the Guildford Institute (the former Guildford Mechanics Institute) into the university.

Terry stepped down as Head of Department in Surrey in 1987, having been appointed Emeritus Professor, but he was not the sort of academic to really retire. Terry and Daphne had always regarded their time in Dundee and St Andrews as some of their happiest and most stimulating years, and always resolved to return.  They moved to St Andrews, where Terry returned to the University, holding the post of Honorary Professor. Terry became Director of the Environmental Psychology and Policy Research Unit, a small research centre which attracted funding from industry and government to undertake research on the development of a safety culture in the nuclear industry, and public attitudes to nuclear power.

Daphne, Terry’s beloved wife and life partner, died in 2002, but Terry stayed on in their house outside St Andrews, focussing with undiminished energy on his research work. He generated a number of publications, and tirelessly networked in the world of academic psychology.  Anyone meeting Terry would be immediately taken with his charm, humour, urbanity, and generosity of spirit. He was always fun to be with, and had a disarming way of reining in colleague’s excesses. I have a fond memory of attending an early conference on environmental psychology in Sheffield, then another nascent centre for architectural psychology research. The chair of the conference thought he would be provocative in his welcoming comments by forgetting the name of Surrey, from where a significant contingent of attendees had come. He paused for deliberate effect when saying “We would like to welcome those from … ….” But before he could utter the word “Surrey”, Terence, sotto voce said, “Headquarters”. Terence was always quick off the mark with a riposte to any attempted put-down. One former colleague once said to him that the pattern of staff appointments in the department seemed to follow a ‘getting sandbags to plug up a hole in a wall’ model. With his épée response, he responded “Yes indeed. How else do you think you got appointed?” He was to some a little eccentric, but inspired and was much loved by his students and colleagues. His attitude today would probably be called paternalistic, but this was never a means of imposing subordination, coming instead from a desire to protect and nurture the department he led, the wider University, and those who worked in it. There are many psychologists practicing today who owe much to Terry Lee for his warm guidance, support and encouragement.

Professor Terence Lee, Environmental Psychologist was born on November 30th 1924. He died on February 12th 2015, and is survived by two daughters, Annabelle and Stephanie, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Daphne, pre-deceased him in 2002. 

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