Fostering social interaction
The streets and public areas in which people come together are the life force of cities. Unlike parks, traffic and buildings, however, the life between these buildings does not fall under a specific municipal, state or federal jurisdiction – and it shows. By putting people – their behavior and activity – at the center of design and planning processes, cities can promote social interaction and public engagement, argues Jeff Risom, partner and managing director at urban research and design consultancy, Gehl Studio.
The world's best cities invite people from all walks of life to meet and spend time together, find peaceful respite, or enjoy being "alone together". These cities offer a variety of mobility options, especially for walking and cycling, which allow citizens spontaneously to socialize with an acquaintance or visit a shop. Yet in most cities, streets in particular are a vastly undervalued public asset. Comprising typically between 20 and 30 percent of a city’s land area , streets could be doing more than just allowing people and objects to move from A to B.
Melbourne tops The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Ranking, while the Quality of Life survey published by Monocle puts Copenhagen in first place. Despite being at opposite ends of the planet, these cities share some significant traits. Both municipalities have Departments of Urban Life, assessing the vitality of public life based on people-centered metrics such as pedestrian flow, time spent lingering in an area and use of streets and spaces after dark. Both cities measure the vitality of public life as much as they measure vehicular traffic, congestion and economic growth.
Copenhagen has committed by 2015 to increase pedestrian traffic and the time spent in public spaces by 20 percent compared with 2010 figures, and to raise the share of citizens satisfied with the city’s public space to 80 percent. All cities and politicians are in principle committed to the quality of public life, but that commitment does not always translate into measures and targets.
While vibrant urban planning should have a positive impact on liveability, not every city is Copenhagen, nor is there a silver bullet to improve social interaction in cities. Urban planners need to ask themselves who it is they are targeting. Indeed, municipal investments may benefit some socio-economic groups more than others. For example, lower income groups might get pushed out of a neighborhood by virtue of well-meaning infrastructure improvements that lead to gentrification, and other developments such as allocating public space for outdoor restaurant seating are more likely to benefit middle or high income groups.
There is little knowledge about the impact of design on trends like gentrification, lack of investment, or civic engagement. Yet advocacy groups and academics are starting to make inroads in this field. Raj Chetty, Bloomberg professor of economics at Harvard University, has shown that when cities mix housing tenure types, lower income groups are more likely to move up the income ladder, while higher income groups develop a better awareness of other socio-economic groups. The Knight Foundation is initiating several projects to better understand the relationship between urban design and social interaction at city level.
Can design alone promote social interaction? No, but it can have a big impact in unexpected places.
This blog is part of a series managed by The Economist Intelligence Unit for AkzoNobel.