Our cities have been changing for quite a while now, but how much attention are we paying to the conditions under which these changes are taking place and what impacts they will have on how we experience them?

I will spare you the stats on global urbanisation. Suffice it to say, cities are now the dominant human habitat. I am particularly interested in how this urban migration impacts people’s experience of public space, as this is where density and diversity come face-to-face. By density I refer to crowding; there are simply more and more people using our streets.

By diversity I refer to cultural differences. While the impact of crowding might be easily understood, the impacts of cultural diversity are more complex. However, there is a very simple way to look at the relationship between crowding, cultural diversity and public space.

The late American anthropologist Edward T Hall’s work uncovered cultural factors, which categorise people into two cultural groups: high-context and low-context.

In high-context cultures, etiquette, rules and regulations (formal and informal) are implicit. There is greater emphasis placed on interaction, negotiation and non-verbal communication. People from such cultures tend to be more comfortable with some disorder, chaos and higher levels of stimulation. They include people from Asia, the Mediterranean and South America.

In contrast, for low-context cultures the opposite is true. High levels of order, control and formality are applied and codes of behaviour are explicit. There are high expectations of compliance with the physical and regulatory aspects of the built environment – think of guardrails and signs. People from low-context cultures tend to be less comfortable with apparent disorder, informality and a lack of control. They include people from northern Europe, North America and Australia.

The increasing density and diversity in our public spaces is bringing together more and more people from both low-context and high-context cultures.

As professor Ash Amin puts it, “it is in public spaces that the myriad prospects of anomie, indifference, self-interest, opportunism and hostility among strangers…of amassed diversity, continual and rapid flux, and increasing unfamiliarity will play out.”

This poses a very interesting question about the future design and management of urban public space – which culture do we design for? Is it a case of assimilate or leave?

Western cities have traditionally been designed and managed with high levels of rationalism and planning, particularly since the modernist era. However, you can trace the ideals of order, control and cleanliness back to the medieval city, where the church sought to differentiate between God and people through association with these characteristics; God was considered orderly and clean whereas people were branded disorderly and unclean. The church represented these ideals or values in the architecture of cathedrals, whereas everything else was considered mere building.

From here, you can trace a path of the imposition of order through time, which includes Baron Haussmann’s “ordering” of Paris in the 19th century through to Le Corbusier’s plan voisin and Robert Moses’ highways in the 20th century. While people, in general, have an innate need for a sense of control over their destiny (related to basic survival instincts and our genes), we are not entirely comfortable with the imposition of control upon our lives, which is what western cities have evolved to do – ‘don’t walk here,’ ‘stay left,’ ‘cross here’ and so on.

This poses some interesting questions. For instance, have low-context environments simply been imposed upon people in western cities? Would we actually feel better in a city that didn’t try to impose so much order and control on us?

One example that helps answer these questions, to some degree at least, is shared space. The concept of shared space is based on the principle that ambiguity forces people to negotiate, and negotiation creates social contracts. These contracts are based on informal rules or social norms. Because they have been negotiated, rather than imposed, they are stronger and more likely to be complied with.

The opposite of shared space is what we find more traditionally in cities. It is the public space where high levels of order, control and formality are imposed. However, I would argue that it is under these conditions that conflict arises between people, and where there is the least congruence between human psychology and the physical and regulatory environment. These spaces are designed and managed with great rationality. Everything and everyone has its place – the footpath, the bike lane, the bus lane, the roadway, and so forth. Sometimes there is mixing, but mostly there is not.

More recently we have seen the idea of creating lanes on footpaths for tourists and mobile phone users in China and North America. This absurdity reached a whole new level when Utah Valley University in the USA applied this thinking to the stairs of their buildings.

Walk Run

Pedestrian labelled lanes, Utah Valley University.
Image: Rick Bowmer

These types of spaces try to make most of the decisions for you through the use of various forms of separation, signs, regulations, line markings and other means. However, the psychological impact is to reduce our sense of personal control. When this happens, we naturally become defensive and our survival instincts kick in.

Combine this with the high level of territorialisation created by the allocation of spaces to certain uses and conflict is inevitable. Mostly this conflict is expressed as a shake of the head or a stare of disbelief. However, these seemingly innocuous experiences accumulate to create significant problems for cities – just ask local councils about the number of complaints they receive about people not following the rules. Every problem that is identified is then followed by demands for another rule, another sign and more enforcement. It is a vicious cycle and one that we need to address because how we experience public spaces determines to a high degree how liveable our cities are.

In his work The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America, Philip K. Howard noted that “Human nature turns out to be more complicated than the idea that people will get along if only the rules are clear enough. Uncertainty, the ultimate evil that modern law seeks to eradicate, generally fosters cooperation, not the opposite.”

If you are wondering or worrying about how we could live without order and control, don’t. We need some rules – have a look at Barry Schwartz TED talk ‘The loss of practical wisdom.’ However, we can function perfectly with much less. The ‘how’ can be explained by chaos, complex systems and self-organising theories.

In his best selling book Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software, author Steven Johnson explains the conditions that support emergent behaviour. Johnson noted a simple condition he referred to as ‘paying attention to your neighbour.’

This is based on ‘swarm logic’ which we mostly associate with a large flock of birds moving in unison, seemingly highly choreographed and controlled. However, there is no central control. No one is giving orders. The birds avoid collisions by paying attention only to their immediate neighbours by using their senses. The same also applies to humans. Most of our behaviour (about 90 to 95 per cent) actually happens on a subconscious level because we cannot mentally process the level of information our bodies sense from our environments. Our subconscious can process about 40 million bits of information per second, whereas our conscious can only process about 40 bits per second. Our conscious is too reliant on our eyes, which are the weakest of our senses, compared to the subconscious, which utilises a process called ‘simultaneous perception,’ combing all our senses at once to continually interpret the world around us.

As Tony Hiss discusses in his book Experience of place, our normal waking consciousness and our subconscious protect us from harm by allowing us to focus instantly on any danger. Our conscious and subconscious work in unison to help us navigate our environments, alerting us to sudden dangers with warnings, like when we feel startled. Our senses combine with our brains to create an incredibly powerful operating system. When we are allowed to be, we are rather quite brilliant. It comes down to whether or not we treat people like they are intelligent or stupid. Are we treating people like they are idiots? Quite often we are, even we don’t intend to.

“People are not idiots but when you treat them like idiots they will behave accordingly,” said Hans Monderman, the Dutch traffic engineer who created the ‘shared space’ concept.

If you accept that how we currently design and manage our cities is not very congruent with the psychology of people from either low-context or high-context cultures, the question remains: how we can provide an environment that is more aligned with how people interpret the world – how do we shape the city?

Our tendency is to first imagine how it will look, but I believe the answer will be clearer when we start to imagine how the future city will feel.