Saturday, January 16, 2010

Human Nature

I lived in New York City at a time in my life when MacLaren and Peg Perego referred to my go to set of wheels. The shoe leather express was the easiest form of transportation and allowed Junior and I to explore the great city with bliss and efficiency. Generally. Like anything you do repeatedly in life, pet peeves develop or, in this case, you transform into ....a New Yorker.

It would drive me bananas when fellow pedestrians stopped in the middle of rush hour foot traffic or at bustling street corners to have a conversation. Folks all over the city had this tendency not just the holiday tourists on Fifth Avenue (now that I am safely ensconced in Connecticut, I can only imagine the spectacle in front of the Apple Store)! Why couldn't they take a few steps to the side and let woman and child get to music class?

I have the answer and we are all guilty. Human nature. We like to have the maximum choice of decision to splinter from organization or stay. Getting jabbed and snarled at by people navigating around you is far better than committing to a conversation and getting stuck off to the side by the fire hydrant with your Super. William Whyte wrote an excellent book based on his research on "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces". His findings continue to fascinate and entertain.

Why do the most successful outdoor spaces have the highest percentage of women inhabitants- as a gender, we are more discriminating as to where we will sit and more alert to the potential dangers around us. It makes perfect sense but I love when you add the food vendor coefficient. Food attracts people, who attract more people who signal to a female, safety in numbers. There is a strong link between design and human nature that is not always realized.

When I worked for the New York City Housing Authority in the Landscape Architecture Department we were responsible for ground improvements with particularly interesting approaches to design. Doe-eyed and fresh off the bus from Cambridge, my Harvard education had led me to believe that public open space should always be lit at night signally a safe place for human interaction to unfold. In this situation however, undesirables would use this light to conduct well, "business" (and you know what I mean). To add light to these areas and add a false sense of security to such open spaces would prove to be a huge design flaw. On site visits we witnessed handiwork of vigilantes, who as a means to spare children from the dangers of lit areas would have literally shot the power lines to smithereens. In dim light, the undesirables couldn't decipher the money denominations to finalize their transactions and therefore, opened up shop in better lit conditions, making the neighborhood far safer. I know what you are thinking. But, it didn't seem appropriate and the moment never right for me to shoulder tap them with my brilliant recommendation that they should conduct business in Canadian currency.

Grand Central Station...are you a door opener? Most people are not. Given the option, non door openers will even get in queue two to three people deep to avoid having to open an unused door themselves. It's important to note that Whyte figured this out in the 70's before Germ-X, Purell or the eruption of Swing Flu. The next time you are at a department store chances are that you will wait your turn in line and select the busy revolving door already in motion rather than forge your way to a stile at's not coincidence, I'll let it go this time if it's because of the nasty rash on THAT guy's face....but I really think that it's human nature. Fascinating.

Ya Dig?

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