Five things a perfect city needs: 2. Sociability

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


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.


* 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.

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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