Robert Sommer (26 April 1929 – 27 February 2021) was one of the great researchers and teachers in environmental psychology. While everybody knows about his seminal work in personal space, there were many more topics he researched and contributed to in his long career: mental hospitals, libraries, classrooms, living spaces, design, prisons, farmers’ markets, consumer research, bicycles, street art, urban environments, to mention but a few. Following his dictum that everything is related to everything, and considering the topics of the nearly 700 ¹ publications beginning in 1951, it is easy to see that most all of his work was inspired by Kurt Lewin’s Action Research approach joining research and application. Little wonder that among the many distinctions, he received the Kurt Lewin award from the Society of the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 1989. His commitment to teaching and research is further demonstrated by A Practical Guide to Behavioral Research: Tools and Techniques, a research methods book written jointly with his partner of more than fifty years, Barbara Sommer.

For me personally, Bob was more than a mentor and model. I had the privilege to work with Bob on research on street trees. He was a friend who “adopted” me, and later my family, and with whom we maintained close contact for many years.

Looking over his books on my bookshelf, two called my attention as they characterize the breadth of his contributions over and beyond environmental psychology. His first book, published in 1963, Expertland, was a satirical analysis of academia. Except for a few adaptations to today’s more technological environment, this anthropological study of the species expert (i.e., academic): their rituals, interactions, hierarchies, becoming members of this “place outside of time and space” are as real today as when the book was written in the early 1960ies. If humor helps us to deal with the absurdities of life, writing this first book certainly prepared him well for a career that included teaching, research, administration and consulting in the most diverse fields of academe.

His last book, a Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America, was written together with two professional mycologists. It reflects his pastime of many years in mushroom searching, identifying, sketching, painting, photographing, and, when possible, even eating.

Bob’s humanity and outstanding contribution to the field of environment and behavior is best summed up by this observation in his 1969 book Personal Space: “[Man] will adapt to hydrocarbons in the air, detergents in the water, crime in the streets, and crowded recreational areas. Good design becomes a meaningless tautology if we consider that man will be reshaped to fit whatever environment he creates. The long-range question is not so much what sort of environment we want, but what sort of man we want.”

While we may not be able to make the world perfect, may we follow Bob’s lead to try to make it better.

Hartmut Günther
Professor Emeritus
Environmental Psychology Research Group
University of Brasília, Brazil

[1] For a list updated in 2016, cf.

Photo: Robert Sommer painting in Costa Rica. 1th february 2018, Hotel Santo Tomaz, Sao Jose.