Architectuur

Casual contacts can make the city prosper
Maart 17th, 2014
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Three kinds of casual contacts 

and the importance of small scale meeting spaces
 
 
Casual contacts make a warm city
Usually we know the people in our street. This can make us feel safe and at home. But in the shopping center of the  neighborhood or the city, things are different. We may feel free here, but this is a kind of freedom that comes with a price: with a feeling of uncertainty and a lack of safety.
We feel lost between all the people that we don’t know. We don’t know what to expect from them.  But what can we do about it? The scale of the neighborhood or the city is so big, it is impossible to know all the people we meet here.
But there is hope. It appears that we don’t need to know each other in order to feel safe and at home! In his research called ‘The warm city’, Taddeus Müller shows how a city will be experienced as a warm place, where inhabitants feel safe and at home when they can meet each other in a casual way (Müller, 2002). It is enough that people to meet each other, have a few words, exchange an opinion with a stranger, and move on. 
 
Waiting at the bus stop
How can urban designers and architects contribute to these kind of behavior? It’s clear that the built environment can never make people meet! But there may be a way to invite people to share some of their thoughts for a while.
Imagine a bus stop. A few people are waiting and the bus is late. Now someone might make a remark about the bus being late. And others may react. They can agree on the problem, and together they will be happy when the bus finally shows up. Those who get out of the bus first greet the others and little by little the small bus stop group dissolves. But the city is a bit warmer for a while.


The bus stop: a small scale  meeting space when the bus is late
 
Small scale meeting spaces with a view
What we can learn here is that casual contacts can arise, not in a space where hundreds of people are around, but  in a small place that contains a few people. This makes it easy to know who to talk to. This solves the problem who to talk to. The other thing we can learn here is the importance of a subject to talk about. A small place with a few people may be not enough when you don’t have a clou what to share. So it is not only a the small scale of the space that is important, you also need a view on something, an event or an object,  that is interesting enough to talk about. On something that is happening, or not happening, like the arrival of the bus.  
This is how we can understand the success of the small urban spaces that William H. Whyte has described in the seventies. (Whyte 1980)  See also the interesting film he made about the subject:  http://vimeo.com/6821934
 
The parade
As an example of a small scale meeting space with a view we can think of places where people come to parade. Here we can see small scale spaces (terraces) along a strip, where we can sit together with unknown others and watch the people who walk by on the strip, dressed or behaving to be looked at. Where sometimes street artists complete the scene. Now we have enough subjects to talk about with our unknown companions on the terrace. Parading also works the other way around. Those who walk by on the strip can look at the terraces at the side and choose a place to sit down for a possible a casual contact.   


The Ramblas in Barcelona, the parade and the small meeting spaces at the sides
 
When we think of a parade, we tend to think of boulevards in big old cities. But we can understand this concept in a broader way. Children in a playground also parade when they want to come into contact with other children. They walk along the different objects, the merry-go-round, the slide, the see-saw, the climbing tree, showing themselves, and looking at the children playing on the different objects. Here the objects are at the same time ‘small scale meeting spaces’ and ‘interesting subjects to talk about’. Here children can have their casual contacts. 


Corridors
The parade stands for a more formal way to relate to other people, but contact between people can also take place in a more informal setting, in the ‘corridors’ of a neighborhood or a city. Here we may think of the Greek ‘stoa’s’ that were situated alongside the market place, the agora, of ancient Greek cities. In these ‘corridors’ people could meet in an informal way and comment, from the side-line, on what was going on in the market place. When we think of the stoa in Athens, we can say that the opinion forming that took place a long time ago still influences us now: we all know the stoics from the school of Zeno, in the stoa of Athens, and we still know what it means to be stoical. In this way corridors can still contribute to opinion forming and developing ideas.     


View of the Stoa of Attalos from the Hephaisteion, in Athens, built140 bc. The corridor where stoicism was born from regarding the marketplace.   
 
When we think of the cities of today, we don’t see stoa’s in this form, but those who understand the concept will recognize corridors in many different forms. Like a shop where neighbors discuss actions or problems in the neighborhood, or the place in front of the school where parents, waiting for their children, discuss the educational matters. Corridors come in many forms: for another example we can think of squatted buildings where artists and designers have domiciled. Here new opinions are developed and transformed in alternatives that may be interesting for the life of the city and sometimes for the society as a whole.       


Squatted buildings in Berlin: a breeding ground for new ideas and developments
 
All these corridors go hand in hand with small scale meeting spaces. Like the little shop, the waiting area in front of the school, the workshops and studio’s in the squatted buildings. 
Also on higher levels we can recognize the concept of corridors. Like motorways. When we think of a road movie we can see how drivers and friends meet hitch hikers and people other people as the move around. Casual contacts that are connected with a small scale meeting place: the car.
Or trains that cross the country. Here we can take a seat in a compartment, together with a few strangers. We don’t have to talk, but the compartment is small, the group is limited and we have a window with a view. So we might try a casual contact that can develop alternative ways of looking at the world and ourselves.     


Casual contacts in a small scale meeting place with a view in a moving corridor.
Painting by Zoya Samoilenko
 
‘Communicating doors’
Imagine that cities were organized like trees. Then the streets of neighborhoods would only lead to their own neighborhood center. In such a set up inhabitants would rarely meet outsiders that live in other neighborhoods. As Christopher Alexander pointed out long ago: ‘a city is not a tree’, and we can see that: streets are normally connected with different neighborhoods, they form lateral connections, ‘communicating doors’ that enable us to meet people from outside in our own neighborhood center. Outsiders who can comment on our affairs with no strings  attached. And thus open up our perception of life and make it more diverse and interesting. I think we all have had the experience of seeing old things in a new way when we show our city to a visitor from abroad. Often because of remarks from the visitor who has a new way of looking at things. This can be interesting because new points of view may lubricate the friction when the more formal world of the parade and the critical and alternative world of the corridors are confronted with each other.  
And again we can use small scale meeting spaces to bring us into contact with such visitors. Here we may learn something from the people in foreign towns who want to be our guide. They know where to expect tourists: near hotels, or in places of interest like a fountains, the entrance of a park, a monuments or a historic plaza’s.
 
Prosperity by three kinds of casual contacts
We have seen that casual contacts can make the city warm, but there was more to it. We can distinguish three kinds of casual contacts.
1) For the formal contacts we can think of the parade.
2) For the emergence of alternatives we can think of the corridors.
3) For contacts with ousiders who can come up with ideas that can lubricate the interaction between the formal world of the parade and the alternative world of the corridors we can think of interconnecting doors.       
All these casual contacts can benefit from small scale meeting spaces, not only in making the city warm but also in making life in the city florish.
 
Philip Krabbendam   
 
Philip Krabbendam is an architect who is specialised in designing housing collectives. He recently finished his Ph D research on qualities in the built environment that may invite people to relate to the environment and to each other. 

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Dit is een Herman Boots uit 2012