Five things a perfect city needs: 2. Sociability

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This is the second of a short series on ‘Five things a perfect city needs‘, prompted by a twitter exchange on the subject.

Sociable Streets

Cover_Young&Wilmott

Urban designers like to pay a lot of attention to the liveliness of streets, harking back to Jane Jacobs and the ‘ballet of the sidewalk’. But how do you actually go about creating lively streets?

Many urban theorists have pointed out that the pattern of everyday life – whether it is the chance encounters outside the front door, or the conversation while the children are at play in the local square, or the chat at the city-centre snack bar at lunchtime – are the raw material of society. As shown by Hillier and Hanson (1984):

[the] man-made physical world … constitutes (not merely represents) a form of order in itself: one which is created for social purposes, whether by design or accumulatively, and through which society is both constrained and recognisable. It must be the first task of theory to describe space as such a system. (The Social Logic of Space, p. 9)

Space syntax analysis of countless cities around the world has shown that it is the pattern of the streets, the complex interactions between one street and the next, but also each street and the wider city, that shapes the way in which people are co-present in space and so, their potential for interaction.

Depending on the location and the way in which the street network is utilized, clustering can enable the intensification of communal activity, socialization, networking and self-support, but constructing boundaries around groups to somehow ‘create community’ has shown to be a social disaster. Since the space of the city is continuous, if boundaries are artificially constructed, this is reflected in the way human experience space. If a social group is spatially segregated, it lacks interaction with the city, while the barrier becomes determinant for the group.

This isn’t to say that people cannot choose to vary the way in which they shape their own patterns of potential interaction as they move through the city. Different daily routines and practices of individual and of groups will become over time realised in patterns of local encounter, as Julienne Hanson has shown in her reflection on Young and Willmott’s comparison between the life on the unplanned streets of Bethnal Green and the planned streets of a housing estate in Essex*. It is not that the suburban housing estate is unsociable per se, but that the way in which the streets shape patterns of movement between different people – both local inhabitants and people just passing through on longer journeys – gives rise to the potential for people to meet and interact with one another. Poor design can prevent these natural sociabilities and is a form of spatial injustice.

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* The image above by Don Hunstein is from the cover of the 1962 Pelican Books edition of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott.

Five things a perfect city needs: 1. Spatial Justice

A while ago I was asked to tweet my ‘five things a perfect city needs’ and came up with the following:

1. Spatial Justice
2. Sociable Streets
3. Entrepreneurship
4. Walkability
5. Diversity of ages, uses and cultures.

Aaron Landsman (http://www.thinaar.com/) asked me how policy might play a role in shaping such a city. The following series of short blog posts is my take on an answer to that question.

1. Spatial Justice

File:HalstedLittleItalyChicago.jpg

When I talk to my students on the MSc/MRes Spatial Design about spatial justice, I propose that the role of the city is to shape social diversity. When it is done well, we get vibrant, eclectic collections of people from different parts of the country (or the world), whose intermingling is the essence of urbanity. When it is done badly, we get into situations of segregation and ghettoisation.

Ed Soja argues in ‘Spatial Justice’ that space itself can influence the justice/injustice of society. He discusses how cities such as Los Angeles, who had opportunities in the past to distribute access to resources equitably, chose the route that results today in a mass transit system that is more likely to serve the rich than the poor (who arguably need it more too).

Carl H. Nightingale has also shown how early 19th century Algiers was transformed by the creation of a European open street grid alongside the existing inward-facing courtyards and alleyways of the Casbah and the result was a spatial-racial division between native and incoming peoples that evolved over time: The coexistence of grids of unequal accessibility led to the Casbah to become increasingly separated over time: segregation can be an emergent process and unequal access to the functional heart of a city can be worse if you lack in access to motorised transport, whether public or private.

Whilst the essential role of the city is to bring together and to organise diversity, this isn’t a random mixing of uses, cultures or economies; it is structured system of interdependence between different uses, cultures, classes and so on and the essential distinctiveness of cities lies is in their ability to accommodate difference. The way in which diversity is structured is essentially to do with how cities are formed and how their intrinsic nature is shaped over time.

This argument is laid out in full in Is the Future of Cities the Same as Their Past?, Urban Pamphleteer #1: Future and Smart Cities, 1, 20-22. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1392981/


The image above shows exterior view of the storefront office of P. Schiavone & Son, bankers and steamship agents, located at 925 South Halsted Street (formerly 388 South Halsted Street) in the Near West Side community area of Chicago, Illinois, 1909. DN-0054031 (Accessed at [1]), Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society.

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