The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Psychology of Place

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Who built the first electric billboard in Times Square?

Who built the first electric billboard in Times Square?

On my way out of Houston yesterday morning my uncle was kind enough to hand me a copy of the Sunday New York Times that had shown up on his doorstep. (It’s too liberal for his taste anyway.) After a couple contented hours poring over the paper on the plane, I came across a short article on the back of the Sunday Review section about the psychology of place.

In “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are,” Adam Alter describes a series of studies that illustrate how people act a certain way based on their surroundings. In a packed dormitory, students were less likely to pass on letters that ended up in their mailboxes by mistake (as compared with students in a smaller apartment). In a parking lot full of litter, shoppers were more willing to drop flyers placed on their car windshields onto the ground (as compared with shoppers in a clean parking lot).

Alter’s article concludes, “It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us. But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be. These environmental cues can shape and reshape us as quickly as we walk from one part of the city to another.”

Last Friday, I talked about some of the trends I noticed in the city of Houston— things like strip malls, car culture and inadequate sidewalks. To be quite honest, these factors (plus the oppressive heat) make Houston a place I’d never want to live. I’m sure the city has its benefits for certain people, but when I compare it to more walkable, architecturally diverse cities like Seattle or Minneapolis, I wonder how they turned out so different.

We can turn to a myriad of reasons—everything from the time of their foundations to the sort of industries that exist in these places—but yesterday’s Times article offers another reason: these cities react to their surroundings. The people who designed them, built their infrastructure, populated their houses saw the pattern thus far and continued to follow it. With one strip mall attracting a decent amount of business on Wesleyan Street in Houston, another cropped up down the road. With one walkway experiencing traffic along the waterfront in Seattle, city-planners moved forward with the next one in another neighborhood. Development can mimic its surroundings.

As Adam Alter notes, our environments also effect how we feel and act. When one Houston driver rushes through a neighborhood at top speed, it makes room for other drivers to do the same and soon people are clamoring for widened roads to allow for the proliferation of swift traffic flow. When one resident labels North Minneapolis as “dangerous,” it leads other residents to avoid the area. It’s not that everyone drives poorly or believes a given stereotype, but rather that they yield to the environment of which they are a part.

Challenging the patterns of development or action in our cities requires us to step outside of our environments and look back at them. This is not to say that the patterns must be challenged, simply that if we wish to adopt a critical eye we will have to abandon our paradigms and broaden our views.

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