Behaviourologist, Urbanist and Designer Jonathan Daly describes how his understanding of human behaviour and psychology suggests a little urban chaos will create more connected communities.
Why is ‘community life’ important?
Community life is fundamental, much of the human psychology and behaviour refers back to our basic survival instincts. Instinctively we feel safer when we’re among other people and we feel even safer when we feel a connection to those people. ‘Community’ is one of the basic needs we look for and are attracted too; and through community we feel comfortable, connected and supported. Although we don’t necessarily need to be connected to each and every person in that community we do need to feel a basic sense of belonging.
How do characteristics of the built and urban environment impact the quality of peoples experience and interactions?
There are so many attributes and they can be both physiological and psychological. Human scale is important; the right level of shade and protection; the right balance between the speed of traffic and people; or how crowded a place is so you feel comfortable and can still function.
A place still needs to be coherent to people, its wayfinding and legibility has a physiological impact and is effected by the degree of visual stimulation in the street through the variation of colours and the legibility of buildings and surface types.
The interactions and experiences between people are closely linked to social distance and fields of vision. Social distance relates back to what distance we can actually read and interpret facial expressions or actually sense you and your body.
This is true for both intimate spaces and public spaces where we can read facial expressions, body language and behaviour. Social distance has a boundary up to 100 meters, where you can actually tell if it’s a person or if it’s a tiger. This is why distance is so important, because it determines how comfortable we are in spaces.
Streets or public spaces longer and wider than 100 meters are not as comfortable; most of the squares and piazzas in Italy follow these dimensions. Interestingly, social distance also applies to football pitches being 100 meters wide and the stadium distance to the upper tier seating.
Our ability and instinct to read environments is connected to how we have learnt to survive. At the most intimate level, it’s how we interpret whether you’re friendly or if there’s going to be conflict. Early practice of architecture actually put faces into buildings, because we’re attracted to buildings that we see faces in. Notionally this is related to the whole idea that as humans we subconsciously see ourselves in architecture or in the built environment, and this is what attracts us too and makes us feel comfortable in environments.
What should we consider in the design approach of a new community?
Roughly 90 to 95% of our behaviour is subconscious which means if you’re just designing for the rational mind you’re probably designing for about 5% of human behaviour. It would be good to get design professionals to an understanding of how you can make space for the informal? A little bit of disorder and chaos? How do or can you design for that? The idea is if you take out these impositions of order, of formality, and rules people do actually cooperate.
The more rules, regulations and order you try and impose actually creates conditions for a greater number conflicts. We have an innate need for control, or at least a sense that we’re in control. One of the cornerstones of having that sense of control is the ability to make decisions. When you design an environment that’s tightly controlled with lots of rules, regulations and signs two things happen. Firstly, you take away peoples’ ability to make decisions and they feel less in control. Secondly, the other side is you create territories making spaces you should and should not be in, creating wonderful conditions for conflict.
The basis of civilisation is social norms which are negotiated constantly, and this is the key. If you were in a blank space with a number of other people you have to have to negotiate with each other to navigate and share that space. In this process of negotiation you create a social contract which is so much more powerful than someone telling you what to do. This is what I mean by creating space for informality and disorder.
Can planning and design outcomes reflect multicultural communities?
We live in a very western or ‘monochronic’ culture, particularly in terms of how we design Australian cities; essentially we are designing purely for ‘Western’ people. Monochronic cultures are very reliant on rules, regulations, structure, formality, and organisation. However everyday our population is growing with people from ‘polychronic’ cultures. Polychronic cultures are very easy-going and comfortable with a little chaos, a little disorder, and high levels of stimulation.
We are still trying to force this very rigid way of managing and designing the urban environment on everyone. Instead of actually being a bit more relaxed about it. This raises significant questions and issues about creating community. If you’re trying to create community you’re trying to bring together people, you’re trying to build trust and social relationships, and that has evolved not through multiculturism but through tribes.
The challenge is not ‘how do we create multicultural environments?’ We have to start thinking about multi-public spaces; initially in some sense this means not designing for community. As soon as you try and celebrate different cultures you will most likely segregate another culture.
How does place make people feel safe?
There’s two levels, one is basic safety and security and then there’s psychological safety which comes through certain elements that we need in an environment. People need to feel safe but at the same time people must learn how to be safe through their environment. This is linked to the idea of informality and allowing people to actually learn how to interact with their environment.
Can you design for a connection with place?
We look at the balance of the physical built environment relative to the natural environment. If you want to provide comfort operating across many different levels you must look at the very basic things. For example, elderly and senior people need a lot more locations where they can take a break, sit down. This is a very functional kind of element, but it’s also about how you actually place a city and enable that opportunity to just be among people or to actually engage with people.
How can we evaluate the design psychology behind human behaviour?
We look at existing sites using ‘current occupancy evaluations’; this asks How does it work? How do people use it? How do people behave in it? Importantly though it’s also a focus on the ‘why’. Why are people doing that? What does that mean? We help clients understand certain issues in an environment that they know are occurring, but aren’t sure why they are happening. You must understand how it functions currently before you can start to think about how you want it to function differently in the future.
In terms of assessing masterplan’s we have started using the principles of psychometric testing. Applying these principles to architecture and urban design we are able to test the candidacy of a design concept before its gets down into the detail. We sit down with the client and the design team to develop a spatial performance criteria for that space.
The next stage is like an interview process with the design team to understand how the design is going to achieve the criteria. This process is testing the confidence and rationale behind each of the decisions and essentially coming out with a score for the likelihood the design will achieve this criteria. We have turned this into a capacity building process, which turns environmental psychology research into something useful for practitioners.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
I would include ‘behavioural science’ as a core part of the process and built environment discipline. Fundamentally we believe the science of the human condition should be at the centre of the process, around which everything else builds.