School of Design

Postgraduate research student profiles


Saren Reid

Phone: (+61 8) 6488 3591

Start date

Aug 2011

Submission date

Mar 2015

Saren Reid

Saren Reid profile photo


Haptic Encounters with the Built Environment at the Water’s Edge: a historical, cultural and theoretical analysis of their impact on environmental connectivity


Urban waterfronts are liminal zones of heightened sensory experience, particularly haptic experiences: the immediate bodily experiences of touch, proprioception and kinaesthesia (body position and movement). Such experiences are generated through direct contact with natural and built environments, strongly mediated by cultural and historical meanings, and they are crucial to forming physical and emotional understandings of the body and the environment. Research on haptic experiences is part of broader interests in ‘sensory history’ as an alternative form of cultural and environmental analysis that has been garnering interest from a range of disciplines over the past several decades (see for example the work of Constance Classen, Alain Corbin, Denis Cosgrove, David Howes and Paul Rodaway). The potential value of ‘sensory history’ to studies of the built environment lies in drawing attention away from the overweening and potentially generalizing dominance of ‘the visual’ as a critical category in humanities research. This research aims to highlight the latent value of the senses of touch, balance and movement, sensations so strongly a part of everyday experience as to often remain largely unnoticed. The heightened sensory environment of cities at the water’s edge makes them ideal locations to explore the history of such ephemeral experiences. A series of case studies focus on sensory experience of specific waterfront locations (Perth, Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane) during the 20th and early 21st century. The case studies explore how physical, technological and cultural change has shaped haptic experiences of urban waterfronts over the past century.

Why my research is important

We are often most consciously aware of the view from our eyes, but I am interested in is the view from our fingertips and toes, arms, skin and joints, our bodily experiences of waterfront places. My research is focused on Australian urban waterfronts, places like the Perth foreshore and the Darwin waterfront precinct. I want to see how bodily experiences of these places have changed over time as our cities grow and their waterfronts develop.

Do these changes provide a tactile understanding of the environment that inspires people to preserve and protect it? Or are they sanitized and restrictive, providing primarily visual encounters with the water’s edge?

This research is important because we are all ‘in touch’ with our immediate environment, and the increasing number of scholars taking part in similar studies of ‘sensory history’ is testament to the fascinating potential of such research at a point in time when the ‘sustainability’ of our physical relationship with the natural world has become one our greatest challenges.


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Perth City Bath's c 1900, Battye Library, SLWA 001739D