Planning, architecture and design






Gehl illustration

Communicationally restraining and promoting aspects




"A Sociable approach to planning"
By Maria Rundqvist & Mikael Bäckman

Jan Gehl addresses in his book 'Life between buildings' how communication is a key factor for promoting social activities in a city. He summarizes his ideas on communication in a figure (see figure on the right), which describes how visual and auditorical communication can be either prevented or promoted by the physical environment. These aspects are all fundamentals; without the possibility for communication between people, the urban environment will never become sociable. For a space to be sociable however, it is not enough that people can communicate there. Regardless if there are walls or not, if there is nothing in the urban environment that attracts people to be there, communication will never occur. Based on this notion we have tried to find a reason for why people choose to spend time in an urban environment instead of staying in the comfort of their homes.

So... do human beings have certain needs that the urban environment can fulfil? Anthony Robbins offers a classification of human needs in his book 'Unleash the Power within' where he suggests that we are motivated by six principal needs: certainty, uncertainty, significance, love, growth & contribution. These, he argues, are both conscious and unconscious needs which feed our identity and personality with influence. We found his ideas intriguing and we wanted to see if these could be relevant to consider when planning urban environments. We feel it is important to keep a holistical perspective where man's needs are in focus. There might be other classifications on human principal needs, but we feel that the classification Robbins suggests, can be adequately adopted into the field of spatial planning.

Through thorough observations in Southeast Asia and Europe, we have been able to classify the multitude of activities taking place in the urban environment. These activities seem all originating from people's desire to fulfil the six human needs mentioned above, in one way or another. People seek certainty and comfort, but also a feeling of variety, uniqueness and connection to others. If the environment provides opportunities for challenge and learning we can grow as individuals and if the environment encourages people to contribute it will undoubtedly result in more creativity, activity and sociability.

Forming a thought...
Our aim has long been to acquire an understanding of how the physical structure interplays with the social neighbourliness and how and why sociable spaces emerge. The Sociable Space concept is an attempt to devise the possible aspects and functions that affect and initiate sociability in the urban environments. It further aims to illustrate the link between the physical structure and the people who will live and work in it.

Within the structure, a large amount of activities require their space. We have categorized these activities into five main subdivisions and their sources into three. Each of these categories aims to comprise an important aspect of the human behaviour. The dividing into five categories of activities originates from our field study experiences.

For an urban environment to become sociable it is of great importance that neither necessary nor voluntary activities are restrained by the physical environment. If one strives to create an urban environment which appeals to a large amount of the inhabitants, it is important to be aware also of human’s representational system. We perceive our surroundings differently depending on if we focus visually, auditorically or kinaesthetically. We use all our senses to take in our surroundings and through our senses we judge whether we like a place or not.

We have found support to our thoughts in the work of William H. Whyte. His work is however mainly focusing on human behaviour in streets and plazas whereas our studies include behaviours and activities related also to the private sphere. Whyte learnt from his studies of public open spaces in New York ('The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces') that the downtown area was full of plazas and streets that were empty of people, despite the fact that the area was densely populated. Other spaces were full of people playing, sitting, lingering, walking and observing others. A conclusion he could draw regarding people and public spaces, was the simple fact that ‘people attract people’.

We do not seek up the most isolated back streets during our lunch break - we are instead drawn to spaces which are already populated by others. If one could create a reason for people to linger or hang around, others would soon do the same.

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