In his essay ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings‘ the American thinker William James relates a trip across North Carolina in which he passed a series of valleys whose forests settlers had torn down in order to make room for simple log cabins and a patch of land to grow corn on. James was horrified:
“The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.”
Yet a brief yet revelatory conversation with his driver caused him to see the valleys as the squatters saw them, and caused his attitude to be reversed:
“Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory… The clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.”
We each have our blindnesses to what is valued by others. This post is about a kind of blindness that may be extremely common amongst urban planners and about why very predictable cultural changes mean that blindness has to be overcome.
One of the most widespread conventions of urban design is the belief in the importance of ‘a sense of enclosure’. This term is defined by the City of Ottawa as
“when buildings physically define public spaces particularly through proportions between height and width in an area to create places that are comfortable to pedestrians.”
A sense of enclosure is routinely praised as a way to provide shelter from the elements, to provide a semi-private realm that feels like an outdoor living room, and to provide a sense of security due to the continuous or near-continuous building line creating ‘defensible space‘ and the overlooking buildings providing natural surveillance.
This article contends that the ‘sense of enclosure’ generated by following certain ratios of street height to street width is based on a valuable perception of what makes a satisfying place, but that the ratio theory is the wrong interpretation of that valuable perception. Consequently, by following the ratio theory we risk making developments that focus on concerns that may be unimportant to street users, and thereby make mistakes. In its place I’ll try to offer an interpretation of why some places that are said to ‘offer a sense of enclosure’ are satisfying that is both simpler and fits the data better, and which is constructed from two principles grounded firmly in known principles of how we perceive a place.
One of the most well-known and most imitated works of civic branding is the ‘I ♥ NY’ logo created by Milton Glaser. Why, according to Glaser, does this slogan work, and how can applying the principle help to save high street shops from dual threats?
The ‘Occupy’ movement as Hamlet, and the new significance of place in the internet age.
The extraordinary success of the occupation of Tahrir Square earlier this year has had an inspirational effect on protests across the world. Between 6 and 8.5 million Spaniards have taken part in the Indignants movement that is centred on the occupation of Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. In New York the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest has inspired over 900 similar occupations in public spaces across Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. It is unclear how long they will last for. However the extraordinary success of the Tahrir Square occupation means that the model of occupations of public spaces will probably be a popular mode of protest for the foreseeable future. Consequently it is likely that a generation of activists will become highly skilled in the logistics of occupying public spaces. They are likely to become versed in the legal ownership of particular public spaces; in the regulations that govern those public spaces; in the land-use of every part of those public spaces, and the utilities that serve them; and as a result of the challenges that result from a group of strangers camping together in a small urban area they are likely to be highly experienced in negotiating how the camp will use the public space. Given the importance of their cause in their lives these decisions are likely to be charged with a great deal of significance. This is likely to lead to a much broader interest in urban planning amongst the movement: “act locally, think globally”. Could this lead to a new era of protest at urban planning decisions? Continue reading
How can you give a restful character to a place? Read on for one technique with an excellent pedigree… Continue reading
Above is one of the most inviting-looking streetscapes in European art. How did Van Gogh achieve this effect and how can we use it to make more inviting public spaces? Read on and I’ll let you in on a few of Vincent’s little secrets… Continue reading
What makes different public spaces have different characters? There may be many answers to this, from different activities taking place there to different histories to different kinds of users to different styles of architecture, and many more. This series of posts looks at the role that the colour design of a public space can play. First up is a look at how the use of colour opposites can give a public space a more active character.
My post on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), which should be read before this one, traced the rise of a new cultural ideal. Contrary to the sociologist Daniel Bell’s predictions, the progressive, technocratic, gratification-delaying and productivity-oriented nature of the workplace did not prove contradictory to the goal-free, ironic, instantly-gratifying play of the consumer culture. Instead of each undermining the other the two formed a symbiotic relationship and a joint ideal comprising a successful career and of full participation in the post-modern consumer culture. This post traces the severe pressures on that ideal over the last generation and suggest that, although many people will continue to live by it, its influence in the broader culture may fall significantly.