I've always thought that if I could live anywhere in Canada, it would be in Vancouver. In fact, I just got through telling one of my kids this very thing yesterday. After I visited the city for the first time I remember telling someone that I was really surprised that any other city in Canada had been able to attract any residents at all. So a newspaper article purporting to take some of the shine off of West coast life is eye-catching.
But the article, from the Toronto Star, vaguely makes it sound as though urban loneliness is a Vancouver-centric problem. It isn't and that's not at all what the study showed. What it does point out though is that conventional measures of "livability" may not place enough weight on the importance of social cohesion. It also reinforces an old finding in environmental psychology that social isolation can be a problem in high-rises. And that, apparently, if you move to Winnipeg, you will never have to cook your own dinner.
It's pretty typical that I'm writing my final post of 2011 in the early days of 2012 -- that's the kind of year it was - full speed frantic activity with lots of change on both professional and personal fronts and somehow, as always seems to be the case, the two realms were intertwined.
A big piece of my professional life in 2011 was my participation in the BMW-Guggenheim Laboratory in New York City. The Laboratory opened in August and my now fuzzy recollection was that I was invited on board in about June. So the second half of my year was really a frenzy of nail-biting, planning, coding, and flying back and forth between mission control and the test sites we used for the experiment. I had intended to write a series of blog posts outlining what we did for the Laboratory, but I've ended up spending so much time analyzing data (and catching up on all the stuff that got put aside when I dropped everything to take advantage of this great opportunity) that I've barely had a moment to take a breath.
So what was it all about? I still plan to give a decent accounting of myself here at some point soon, but the short version is that I had an opportunity to design and execute an experiment in urban environmental psychology using some pretty cool mobile gear for measuring people's minds and bodies as they sauntered from place to place in New York's Lower East Side. It was really one of my first forays out of the world of the virtual into the world of the real. It was tough! Collision-detection in the real world is pretty graphic and some bruising may occur. But I think we managed to put together some tantalizing early findings -- enough for us to begin planning the next round, which I'll also eventually discuss here.
On the personal front, one of the most interesting things to happen to me was that I found myself buying and moving into a new house. I've spent such a lot of time ruminating about how the house purchase decision takes place and how the homes we live in influence our psychology, that it's been fascinating to self-observe during that process. As with anything, when the distance between one's data points and one's own awareness is very small -- in this case essentially zero -- any kind of objectivity is impossible. But this doesn't mean that the process of observing is meaningless. Indeed I've learned a lot about domestic spaces through the process of adjusting to a new and very interesting living space. In future months I'll write about some of those adventures as well.
There's much more I could tell, but the year ahead promises to be just as busy as the year just past, and I've got to get going.
Architect James Polk wrote a wonderful column recently, encouraging his readers to tune in to the emotional impact of their lived spaces. When you're walking through a neighbourhood or a building, how does it make you feel? What do you like and what don't you like? What makes you anxious? There's much fascinating material to mine here, and the best way to do it is to lace up sneakers and take to the streets. Over the coming months, I'm hoping to do quite a lot of this myself, both in my local haunts and farther afield as I take advantage of some nice travel opportunities.
But back to James....
He saysYou don’t need a Ph.D. for this little experiment. We all, as humans, have the innate ability to intuitively feel the world around us.This applies to the world we build as well as our natural surroundings.
Well, uh, yeah James I tend to agree, but the problem is that I have a PhD and I can't turn the damned thing off. I want to do experiments. In followup conversation (On FACEBOOK! YES! It was actually useful!) we talked a little bit about how one might go about designing some studies to try to understand in more detail how these kinds of emotional effects of the built world come about. I can see the skeptical point of view that it's just too complicated to approach with simple one-factor experiments (more cowbell=more happiness) but the scientist in me won't sit still. I think there are all kinds of great tools that could be used to probe these kinds of effects, and they could be very useful for designers.
The most surprising thing for me was to learn that the training of architects includes little instruction on how buildings make us feel. Is that because we know what works but we don't know how to explain it?
Cities are colliding with such potent forces for change that the future of our urban landscape has never been harder to predict. First, there are unprecedented opportunities for infrastructure development in the form of stimulus spending money. At the same time, a glance at the headlines in almost any major newspaper reflects a populace that is in the mood to hash out what it means to be a city and, more importantly, what we want it to mean in the immediate and long-term future. A part of what is revving up the drive for a massive re-think of these issues must surely be a background awareness that our future can be nothing like our past. The economic collapse of the past year and global fallout that will ring out for decades, a growing awareness of the precarious future of an existence based on fossil fuels, and sharp concerns about the sustainability of so many aspects of our current lifestyle have left many of us wondering whether we can even have a future. Those of us with enough optimism to believe that we can find a way to muddle through are engaged in a furious struggle to figure out how best to pull it off. Some of us hope, likely in vain, that some key piece of technology will fall into place that can provide cheap, clean and abundant energy sources that will allow us to carry on with the status quo. Others are beginning to conclude that we need to look inwards to understand the big picture. The shapes and forms of cities should reflect our psychology as much as our technology. We may not be able to fundamentally change who we are, but understanding how our wants and needs can drive urban form may be the most important first step in finding a sustainable path to the future.
It’s surprising how much of the critical debate about the future of the city concerns physical space and how we use and understand it. What so attracts us to super-sized homes in the open spaces of the suburbs that we are willing to tolerate long commutes to workplaces and isolation from public spaces, entertainment, and even most retail services? Do we make such choices because we really are happier living outside of the central core of a city, or because we feel as though we ought to be? Can it really be true that living in the wide, winding streets of suburbia among rows of almost indistinguishable houses can make us feel as though we are in touch with nature or our neighbours? And what of those who make equally vehement arguments for the imperatives of urban densification, as if the desire to live in a four-bedroom ranch style in the ‘burbs is a crime against humanity? Are people who live cheek-by-jowl in small condominiums and apartments really happier because they have ready access to a cornucopia of city amenities, all within walking distance, or are they driven to such lifestyles only by feelings of civic responsibility? What kinds of homes bring comfort, and how is it measured? How does the rapid transit debate—now being engaged by a large number of mid-sized cities because of the obvious candidacy of such big-money projects for stimulus spending—factor into such thinking? In cities with weak urban cores, LRT systems can be used like a surgeon’s scalpel to transform an urban landscape rapidly and dramatically. This is a potent tool to hang from the city planner’s belt, but only if he knows what to do with it. If we build fantastically expensive transit systems, how do we know they’ll be well-used? There’s a fascinating psychological paradox here. Jane Jacobs’ mentor, William Whyte, taught us what makes a great public space: people want to be with people. Yet the most cited reason for avoidance of public transit in favour of car travel is the desire to be alone! What is it that we want?
As a psychologist interested in how the shape of the mind helps to form our cities, I’m heartened to see such debates beginning to take shape. We know a great deal about how to make a city, but much less about how to make a city that is pleasant, livable, and comfortable for the majority of its residents. If we take the time now to understand who we are and what we really want, perhaps we can defy the doomsayers and actually get it right.
In many ways, the city of Cork seems not dramatically different to the city of Kitchener-Waterloo. It's a bit more lightly populated and it happens to have a giant deep-water harbour, second only to Sydney Harbour in Australia. But just as my mid-sized city residence has a mix of older traditional industries and newer knowledge industries, so does Cork. There's a major brewery, some pharmaceutical plants, and the European headquarters of Apple, for example. Given these kinds of very basic similarities, I couldn't help but be jealous of the layout of the city, so typical of an older European urban centre and so different from what I find at home. It's easy to point to the very different ways in which mid-sized cities have grown on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, and to argue that the huge difference in the ages of cities has had an impact on the plan of the streets and the scales of buildings. Yet I still find it difficult to imagine that the average North American municipal government would be able to ram through a proposal for a pedestrian centre like this one:
I spent some time in Waterloo's new public square yesterday. It's about a 1 mile walk from my office, so an easy jaunt for me to get into the city for lunch, and much of that walk takes me along a nice trail through some woods and past a nice urban park filled with kids and moms on picnics and university students sitting by the riverbank thinking deep thoughts. We've all been talking about this new space for years now. It was initially mired in controversy because it replaces a few parking spots, and there were lots of people who thought that parking right in the middle of the busiest part of the the busiest pedestrian street in Waterloo was a good use of space. I'd driven past the space a few times and listened to its design being brutally panned by my 13 year old daughter. I'd tried to explain to her the reasoning behind some of the features of the design, as I understood them, but my words were a little hollow as, truth be told, it's not a tremendously attractive space for the drive-by observer. Her complaint that this was a big hunk of flat concrete when it could have been so much more had some truth to it, frankly. And her criticism of the sculpture -- a slightly off-kilter bell, had the ring of truth to it (ha, yeah, funny).
My first op-edwas published yesterday. I'm not doing such a great job of avoiding glancing at the comments, though I ought to have predicted that if I become aroused about the comments people make on others' work, then my reactions to comments on my own work would be, um, a bit more stress-inducing. I have to say that it felt good to put the view out there that a very small change to an urban plan that would make life a bit more pleasant for bikers and walkers, ought to be a pretty simple decision. There were one or two things I might have said a little differently if I had the exercise to do over again, and I would have maybe left out my discussion of inter-city travel (though still quite surprised to read that there are people who, even after looking at the VIA schedule, think that a train system that is less efficient than it was in the 1930s is acceptable). But rather than defend myself here (I'm completely ok with being 'out there' and taking some abuse if there's a chance I can help make people keep thinking about these issues), I'll just note a couple of things. First, as with all such discussions whether initiated by me or not, I notice that they reach the boil quickly. Those who live outside the core in the suburbs are very reactive to defend their lifestyle on a wide variety of bases -- some imaginary and some with quite a lot of validity. Those who live in the city and who want to adopt a healthier set of transportation alternatives including walking, biking, and public transport argue that such things are easily possible with a bit of planning and also perhaps they do sometimes claim some moral high ground. Much of the discussion revolves around questions of social responsibility balancing personal freedom. We don't want to be told how to live by anyone but (hopefully) we all want to find a way of life that is sustainable for all in the face of the epic changes that we see taking place now or in the near term. How do we do it? And what's the role of the state? These are questions that take me far outside my realm of professional experience, yet they are connected to it. The question of how we live is inseparable from the issue of where we live, and that's something that we all have to think about quite a lot.
I often use images of the London tube map to explain what I mean by topological maps. I have to confess I hadn't known much about the history of these maps, so was really glad to find this little treasure today, which shows the revolutionary influence of Harry Beck, who in 1933 proposed that much of the geographic information in the map -- information that he reasoned was not really necessary for people making transit decisions -- should be removed from the map, leaving something that looks more like a circuit diagram and is a familiar form for transit users the world over. This type of map, as I discuss here, is a mirror of our mental spaces.
There's a sad little platial drama playing out in my town -- Kitchener, Ontario. We've had a farmer's market in the centre of town for well over a hundred years. In fact, Kitchener boasts one of the oldest continuing farmer's markets in the country. The market has resided in various locations through the city, but in my years of living here, it has been in only two places. First, in Kitchener Market Square -- a moribund downtown shopping centre that was built in 1973, mostly vacated by merchants over the years as commercial development migrated to the exurbs where operating costs were much lower because taxpayers were footing the bill for much of their infrastructure. More recently, beginning in 2004, the market moved to a new space right on Kitchener's main street (King Street) in a gigantic multi-level building that ended up costing a small fortune. The concept was that the traditional Saturday market would be supplemented by a retail and restaurant space that would operate every day, draw a good lunch crowd and possibly some daily food shoppers for gourmet items. When I read of this plan, it seemed to me like a no-brainer. The organic and locavore movement was just beginning to pick up some steam, the market was easily accessible and central, and to me the idea of being able to go grab a quick lunch and then maybe pick up some good coffee beans or some cheese to take home seemed like exactly the thing a growing city should offer. Yet in the five years of its existence, I've visited the Kitchener Market exactly twice at times other than Saturday morning. And my experience is not an isolated one. The market is just not doing well. Why?