By Madhavi Prashant Patil, Architect, Urban Designer and Assistant Professor, India
In any city , the city centre is the entity of social life. But the city may not function effectively as a well knit unit if it is too densely filled with people. Cities, by their very nature, tend to have high population density and heterogeneity of people driven there through economic growth and sociocultural trends, amongst other reasons. But these are demographic facts - they cannot define the experience of living in this environment.
The term OVERLOAD provides a helpful link between demographic facts and the individual's experience in the city. Overload, or stimulus overload, can be defined as a psychological state wherein scenarios and encounters are so mentally, perceptually, and emotionally arousing that they drain or even go beyond the person. It is a term coined by American social scientist Stanley Milgram in the 70s in his writing on the Experience of Living in Cities. Overload is caused by the cumulative effect of a range of environmental stressors that tend to be particularly prevalent in cities: crowding and invasion of personal space; insufficient working and living space, noise, dirty or untidy conditions, pollution, and a disorganized environment, to name but a few.
Faced with overload, people tend to adapt by starting to withdraw from scenarios that deliver high levels of stimulation. However, prolonged adaptation to mitigate the effects of overload can also diminish the physically social aspect from people's lives that is so important for mental health and wellbeing. The effects of this withdrawal can include reductions in people's social, moral and environmental interactions within the city, increased desire for anonymity (to help remove oneself from unwanted events), a search for physical and emotional privacy, and a reduced willingness to trust and assist strangers.
In addition to describing his cognitive overload model, Stanley Milgram characterized the various generators of the stimuli that contribute to overload as 'inputs'; inputs include people, vehicles, activities, and even environmental factors like temperature, noise and pollution. He proposed six specific adaptations to cope with overload:
1. Allocation of less time to each input.
2. Disregarding of low priority inputs.
3. Redrawing boundaries to social transactions, shift the burden to others.
4. Blocking of receptor prior to entrance.
5. Employing filtering devices to diminish intensity of inputs.
6. Creation of special institutions to absorb inputs/shield the individual.
In terms of the individual, this can mean:
Prioritizing: Organizing and approaching tasks based on importance.
Refusing: Identifying tasks that don’t need to be done.
Limiting: Avoiding the mindset that more is better.
Queuing: Getting tasks ready to be done later.
Delegating: Identifying tasks to be given to others.
Shifting: Perceiving situations more positively by accepting them as a part of your job.
And in terms of the city itself, and opportunities for urban design, this can mean:
Improving the task performance of individuals: Optimum usage of available infrastructure to facilitate better task delivery.
Implementation of principles of selectivity: Devise strategies to put forth important and critical points to avoid confusion and in turn save time and energy.
Increasing social interaction to reduce overload: Create opportunities to promote positive social interaction and inculcate the sense of responsibility.
To control the intensity: Control the generator of activities to reduce the intensity.
To provide a place to pause: Linking all available open pockets to the main street. Create a place from a space.
With the increase in density and intensity in cities, more and more people are at risk of overload, but even small interventions in urban design can help people cope with their inputs more effectively.
About the Author
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