Annalise V Johns, London-based urban designer brings us the latest discussions from some of the most interesting urban design discussions around London. Want to share what's being discussed in your city? Email us.
“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” - Marc Augé, 1995
Marc Augé’s 1995 book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity provides a helpful articulation of the difference between space and place. Space being one that is moved through with frequency, versus a place where the built form actively participates in the animation by providing a draw for human interchange, what Augé refers to as “places of memory’.
I found myself contemplating “space” and “place” while in attendance at The City Centre talk on “City Briefing: Public Realm” (30.05.2018) in London. Simon Glynn, the Assistant Director (City Public Realm) City of London, provided an overview of development in the City from a public realm perspective and an overview of the changes to come. Many interesting statistics were shared including the fact that the The City of London is home to 10 of the capital’s streets with the highest pedestrian volumes. Currently, these volumes reach up to 2000 pedestrians per hour. Another interesting fact was that 90% of those occupying the City are SMEs and a growing market. Let us not forget though there is a well-established residential community in The City.
The talk revolved around research on pedestrian comfort levels in the City. Over the past two years, pedestrian volumes have increased by 25% which has motivated a drastic rethink as to how the public realm needs an adaptable system to accommodate these sudden increases. The work is very much in its infancy - the first stage of consultation will take place in June 2018. None the less, the limitations presented in the City of London are unique. Mr Glynn reported that changes in built environment due to new developments take place every 18 months, which means any improvement to the public realm, beyond the paving will need to be temporary and moveable. This constraint fascinates me.
Environmental psychologist Lily Bernheimer’s book The Shaping of Us aptly reminds us that the early formation of our cities was made from raw materials such as wood and mud, and were designed to follow the movements of our natural geography, but also took shape in a time line that enabled us to adapt to new landmarks. The need to navigate, to adapt, never ceases in an urban setting, where our senses are continually in a state of receptive defence and our minds are continually processing. Therefore, to create a perpetual pop-up as response to the rate of change, begs the question is this a ‘space’ or a ‘place’? Could this be the next stage of urban design where every inch is fluid and belongs to no one and no point in time?
Scientific America published the evidence of German researchers who discovered residents of large cities have a higher measure of activity in their amygdala, the part of the brain to serve emotional intelligence and memory. Critically, the amygdala “regulates the assessment of threats and generating fear”. This evidence shows us the effect of social stress and physiological impacts on our bodies. Exposure to social stress is linked to the development of mental disorders including schizophrenia. This area of research demonstrates the biological adaptation to those who have grown up in urban settings who have adapted a different perception to threats either physical or social. Therefore, an urban dweller will have a well-developed amygdala due to prolonged activation compared to those growing up or living in “smaller cities”.
The research highlights sensory loading on the brain. Evidence shows us there is a negative impact of being in a crowded place as it triggers our bodies to release more dopamine which it does under stress. However, couple this with feelings of loneliness or depression (which affects 350 million or 4% of the global population) the research that links urban settings and schizophrenia seem like common sense.
I recently visited The Crystal in London, home to the world’s largest exhibition on the future of cities, an essential visit for all built environment professionals. One of the animated stations illustrated the way in which smart technology will demand that we program our every move, renting and selling space on transport, access to electricity, renting all forms of space on an hour to hour basis, effectively a fluid existence in the non-place. Perhaps the City of London’s perpetual pop-up public realm is a human scale transition into the future’s faster changing pace of spaces and places? Considering the sensitivity of the human biology in regards to the unfamiliar, and reliance on memory for navigation purposes, my concerns are as follows:
I am keen to see what solutions the City will find to balance the rate of change with the already faltering human health of our urban dwellers. Watch this space…
Sanity and Urbanity: