Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘cities’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How to Do the “Step-and-Slide”: The Rules of Avoidance, Alignment, and Attraction for Deft Urban Walking

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The intricate art of the pedestrian jig, essential for maintaining personal space in a public place.

Just like the most oft-employed metaphor for the human body is that of a machine, the city is most commonly and comfortably likened to a living organism. But nowhere does this metaphor spring to life more viscerally than on the busy sidewalk of a densely populated metropolis, where people, as if controlled by the strings of an invisible and highly skilled puppeteer, manage to move in a giant, self-correcting swarm without colliding with one another. It is a remarkable sight to behold, a daily miracle in which we find ourselves participating as sophisticated automata, without stopping — not literally, of course, which would be disastrous for this whole invisible dance — to appreciate the astounding mechanisms that make this phenomenon possible.

In On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — the same magnificent read, my favorite in ages, that demonstrated how much what we call “reality” is framed by the limitations of our selective attention — cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz examines the special skill of the urban pedestrian: a deft and intuitive maneuver known as the “step-and-slide,” which turns out to be the secret to urban swarm management.

One of the eleven experts with whom Horowitz strolls around a city block to learn new ways of seeing is Fred Kent, who founded the Project for Public Spaces thirty-five years ago after collaborating with the great William “Holly” Whyte on understanding the social life of urban spaces. Thanks to Kent, who has been observing the step-and-slide for years, Horowitz breaks down this necessarily mundane yet infinitely curious move, which researchers identified after innumerable hours of watching people walk past one another in the street:

If sidewalk traffic is dense and collision seems imminent, we pull this two-step pedestrian-dance move. While striding forward, the walker turns ever-so-slightly to the side, leading with his shoulder instead of his nose to turn the step into a side-step. We twist our torsos, pull in our bellies, and generally avoid all but the mildest brushes of other people (and if we do brush against someone else, we keep our hands close to our body and our faces turned away from one another.)

But how and why are we able to perform the step-and-slide so effortlessly? Horowitz explains:

One reason all of our step-sliding, pedestrian-jigging works is that we are regularly looking — ahead and at each other. We do not just look to see who is there; we constantly, steadily look to calculate how we need to move relative to those around us. We regularly turn our heads back and forth, to the left and right, surreptitiously peeking at who is behind us or to our sides. When our heads face forward, we survey the scene ahead of us. Our eyes make small saccades. Within a long oval projecting forward from our feet to about four sidewalk squares ahead, we quickly note the direction and pace of anyone headed our way. We also glance at others’ faces, which tell us if they are likewise looking forward into their own long ovals (and whether they are reacting to something surprising or alarming that might be behind us). There is information in the angle of others’ eyes and the turn of their head. Most of the time, people are looking where they are going: gazing straight ahead. But they begin actually inclining toward their destination when it is in sight. Should someone seem to peer over to the doorway of the building down the block, more likely than not, he will walk there directly. Or just follow his head: we all make anticipatory head movements when we are going to turn a corner. Our heads lead our bodies by eight degrees and as much as seven steps, as though all in a hurry to get around the bend. Watch a walker’s head and you can predict his path down to a single step. We learn this without anyone teaching us, and without knowing we know it.

This, of course, begs the inevitable question of what happens when our voluntary modern-day relinquishing of looking — those glowing rectangles that mesmerize us so with their siren calls of email, Facebook, Instagram, tweets, texts, and the like — hinders the very ability to notice the body language and indicative eye gazes of others, which are so critical to the performance of this collective dance. In other words, for every person who walks into a pole while staring at her iPhone, there are several sidewalk peers whose personal step-and-slides have been set off balance by her inability to master her own. This pattern, Horowitz agrees, is an especially malignant form of contemporary social ill that cripples a central convention of urban life:

The importance of this “looking” in the success of the dance comes into play with the relatively new species of pedestrian on the street: phone talkers. Their conversational habits change the dynamic of the flowing shoal. No longer is each fish aware, in a deep, old-brain way, of where everyone is around him. The phone talkers are no longer even using their fish brains: they have turned all their attention to engaging with the person on the phone. They block out their sense of someone walking too close; they fail to look into their walking ovals and step-slide out of the way. They no longer follow the rules that make walking on a crowded sidewalk go smoothly: they do not align themselves (they swerve); they do not avoid (they bump); and they do not slip behind and between others (they blunder). They stop minding the social convention to stay to the right, and weave across lanes of traffic. Texters are as bad or worse: they fail to even move their heads before turning, since they are slumped over to monitor their texting thumbs.

So how does one master the step-and-slide and avoid collision? Horowitz offers three simple, research-backed rules — known as “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — for honing your acumen at this pedestrian jig, essential for balancing personal space against public space, personal pace amidst public pace:

  1. Avoid bumping into others (while staying comfortably close). What counts as “comfortably close” — an animal’s “personal” space — will vary by species; what is similar for all animals is that if you follow only this one rule, it forces you to attend and react to the behavior of those in your vicinity. And that is the essence of what is called swarm intelligence: everyone must make movements that are sensitive to everyone else.
  2. Follow whoever is in front of you. “Whoever” need not know where she is going: she may herself be following another. And so on and so on, until you reach the very head of the pack. Even there, the animal at the leading edge is neither leader nor sovereign. In flocks and schools, the role of leader is constantly changing hands. For only a moment will she determine the group’s direction.
  3. Keep up with those next to you. Everyone must speed or slow with attention to those around them. This seems like an impossible calculation, until you realize how little effort you have to pay to walk next to someone else down the street, never once considering how you will be able to keep at the same pace.

These rules of “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — keeping apart while staying together — are sufficient to explain all herd, school, flock, and swarm behavior. Artificial intelligence scientists have created animations of mindless “boids” programmed with just these rules: their behavior matches that of swooping sparrows and swarming ants.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. Sample more of the book’s wisdom and mesmerism here. For more on the curious dynamics of city-dwellers, see Whyte’s timelessly insightful The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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22 AUGUST, 2013

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

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“The way people use a place mirrors expectations.”

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power,” Anaïs Nin wrote about the poetics of New York in 1939. But what, exactly, are those contents, and how does a city keep its sparkle?

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (public library) in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch below for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

Far more intriguing than the static characteristics of the architectural landscape, however, are the dynamic human interactions that inhabit them, and the often surprising ways in which they unfold. Whyte writes in the preface:

What has fascinated us most is the behavior of ordinary people on city streets — their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye.

Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza) to the intricate interplay of sun, wind, trees, and water (it’s advantageous to “hoard” the sun and amplify its light in some cases, and to obscure it in others). These factors and many more go into what makes a perfect plaza:

A good plaza starts at the street corner. If it’s a busy corner, it has a brisk social life of its own. People will not just be waiting there for the light to change. Some will be fixed in conversation; others in some phase of a prolonged goodbye. If there’s a vendor at the corner, people will cluster around him, and there will be considerable two-way traffic back and forth between plaza and corner.

[…]

The area where the street and plaza or open space meet is key to success or failure. Ideally, the transition should be such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. An arborlike foliage of trees extends over the sidewalk. There are urns of flowers and the curb and, on either side of the steps, curved sitting ledges. In this foyer you can usually find somebody waiting for someone else — it is a convenient rendezvous point — people sitting on the ledges, and, in the middle of the entrance, several people in conversation.

Urban parks, Whyte discovered, were an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city — perhaps one reason they are so enduringly beloved:

The park stimulates impulse use. Many people will do a double take as they pass by, pause, move a few steps, then, with a slight acceleration, go on up the steps. Children do it more vigorously, the very young ones usually pointing at the park and tugging at their mothers to go in, many of the older ones breaking into a run just as they approach the steps, then skipping a step or two.

And so we get to the surprisingly intricate science of yet another seemingly mundane element of the urban experience: steps.

Watch these flows and you will appreciate how very important steps can be. The steps at Paley are so low and easy that one is almost pulled to them. They add a nice ambiguity to your movement. You can stand and watch, move up a foot, another, and, then, without having made a conscious decision, find yourself in the park.

Other factors that spur a lively and robust social interaction include public art and performance:

Sculpture can have strong social effects. Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan plaza showed that the installation of Dubuffet’s “Four Trees” has had a beneficent impact on pedestrian activity. People are drawn to the sculpture, and drawn through it: they stand under it, beside it; they touch it; they talk about it. At the Federal Plaza in Chicago, Alexander Calder’s huge stabile has had similar effects.

Then there’s music, known to enchant the brain and influence our emotions in profound ways:

Musicians and entertainers draw people together [but] it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one.

In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible

The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.

This, in fact, reflects the most fundamental and timeless insight of the entire project, echoing the famous Penguin Books maxim that “good design is no more expensive than bad”:

It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city.

Slim but fantastically insightful, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a foundational piece of today’s thinking on what makes a great city and a fine addition to these essential reads on urbanism.

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15 AUGUST, 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Feisty Critique of Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Education, and the NYC Skyline

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“Taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.”

Frank Lloyd Wright may be one of history’s greatest architects, but he was also a source of endlessly quotable wit, timeless wisdom on education, and a lesser-known but exceptionally talented graphic artist. Above all, however, he was man of invariably strong opinions, always unapologetic in his convictions and unafraid to challenge even the most sacrosanct of dogmas.

In Conversations with Artists (public library) — writer and public intellectual Selden Rodman’s fantastic 1957 anthology, which also gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality shortly before the artist’s death — Wright unleashes the full force of his opinionation on some of his architectural elite peers, the disconnect between education and culture, and the trouble with the Manhattan skyline.

When asked about his opinion of Le Corbusier’s epoch-making church on the French-Swiss border, Wright scoffs:

An angel cake punched full of holes — or should I say a piece of Swiss Cheese?

Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House gets the even shorter end of the stick:

Is it Philip? … And is it architecture?

He later elaborates on his contempt:

Philip Johnson is a highbrow. A highbrow is a man educated beyond his capacity. His house is a box of glass — not shelter. The meaning of the word shelter includes privacy.

When Rodman admires a Chinese silk painting in Wright’s home, the architect offers, “almost apologetically,” a disclaimer shared by those who have found their purpose and attained fulfilling work:

It looks as though we live pretty soft here, doesn’t it? We don’t. You’d be surprised at the amount of work that goes on… It’s never work though, is it, when you’re doing anything organic?

Rodman visits with Wright again some weeks later and finds him, at the time in his late eighties, “very handsome,” dressed in a “pink shirt with a white collar and a striped tie, knotted at the throat, leaving the ends folded back artist-fashion fin de siècle.” The architect is in an especially feisty mood that day. His first target is Gotham’s skyline:

The New York skyline is a medieval atrocity. … Good architecture shouldn’t have to depend on distance or the dark for its effects.

He takes the same sword to the institutions of formal education, for which he famously eviscerated throughout his life:

The universities are medieval antiquities, too. They’ll never get culture through education. … The common man will never get it. He is the enemy of culture. Culture is made for him — but in spite of him, because he believes only what he sees, and he sees only what he can put his hands on. We’ve missed culture somewhere along the way.

On a subsequent visit, Rodman finds Wright in a much more amenable mood, possibly due to the company of a lady he was having tea with — and no average lady but the revered critic and champion of art Emily Genauer. Rodman, tickled by Wright’s good humor, decides to ask him whether there was any truth to the legend that he once absentmindedly went to see a client in his pajama bottoms. The answer bespeaks both the artifice of pop culture myths and the commanding diva-disposition that only creative geniuses can afford:

Not a word of truth. In the first place, whatever I am, I am always well dressed. In the second place, I don’t go to clients. They come to me.

Wright then returns to the subject of the disconnect between culture and education:

All culture is indigenous, as distinguished from education.

When Rodman asks him how America is to get an indigenous culture if it has failed to do so in two centuries, Wright responds with a beautiful metaphor from botany:

The same way the Dutch developed the delphinium. They started with the larkspur, and kept cultivating the roots until they had something better. They didn’t start from scratch. They were smart enough to start with something humble. Until they knew its nature they weren’t in a position to improve on it. It’s the same with culture. Until this lesson is learned we’ll get nowhere.

When Rodman suggests that perhaps we’re learning it since our taste appears to be improving, Wright retorts:

Taste [isn’t] enough … taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.

Frank Lloyd Wright with his model of the Guggenheim Museum (Photo: Associated Press via The New York Times)

The conversation concludes by circling back to New York. In 1943, Wright had been commissioned to design the new building for the city’s legendary Guggenheim Museum. He would die several weeks before the museum’s completion in 1959. Rodman asks him whether he would’ve taken a similar commission had the project been a skyscraper rather than a museum, and Wright responds in the negative with his characteristic clarity of conviction:

It would be immoral to add to the congestion of this already hopeless city. … The only way to save this city is to take buildings out of it, not to put more in, and of course the latter is what they are doing.”

He ends the conversation by citing an entertaining encounter with media mogul Henry Luce, in which he surprised Luce by referring to himself, in contrast to “the old professionals,” as “the oldest amateur.” (Coincidentally, the following year, Wright coined his famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.'”)

Conversations with Artists is priceless in its entirety, featuring revealing tête-à-têtes with such creative icons (alas, predominantly male) as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg. Complement it with Anaïs Nin’s lyrical account of meeting Wright’s son.

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