Space: From intimate to public.

Posted: April 5, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

It was inevitable that I would eventually reference “Seinfeld”.  (For some of you this may mean the end of Spaces for People.  I’ll take that chance.)  One of Elaine’s boyfriends, Aaron, played by Judge Reinhold, was a bit of a close talker.  When engaged in conversation, he routinely stood within inches of the other person.  The concept of personal space was lost on him.  Most of us don’t have that problem, though the measure of how close is too close may vary a little.  Even so, there are some generally agreed upon standards. 

Intimate Space: 0 to 18 inches.  As the name implies, a person’s intimate space can only be shared with someone very familiar.  In most cultures, it is generally not acceptable for two people to share intimate space in public.  There are exceptions.  In a crowded elevator or subway we are sometimes forced to share intimate space, but the rules change in such situations.  We generally avoid conversation and eye contact.

Personal Space: 18 to 48 inches.  This is the casual conversation bubble.  From about 18 to 30 inches we’re only comfortable with spouses or good friends being this close.  With everybody else, we’re more comfortable if they are 30 to 40 inches away.   This is where Aaron should have been.  Just outside of touching distance.

Social Space: 4 to 12 feet.  Outside the zone of personal space lies a somewhat disconnected social zone.  Within this area, conversations are no longer private.  Most business meetings occur here, with more formal exchanges occurring in the outer range of the zone.  It’s also important to understand that there are a lot of public spaces where people are thrust into this zone.  Think of waiting rooms or the food court at the mall.  Here, it is socially acceptable to engage strangers in conversation – or not.  It’s a relaxed zone with the potential for good social interaction.

Public Distance: 12 feet and beyond.  In this zone there are no expectations of social interaction and people become more like elements within the space.  Conversations between two people outside of someone else’s social space are essentially private.

There are obvious implications when considering all of this in the design of public spaces.  For example, benches placed 8 feet apart will encourage interaction among people.  If they’re 12 feet apart, that’s much less likely to happen.  If part of a space is a public corridor, it may be desirable to provide plenty of “public space” to create a sense of protective isolation from strangers.

It’s absolutely no problem if a public space has a combination of all of these zones, but it should be planned to meet the functional requirements and objectives of the space.  And how these different comfort zones are provided also has an impact on the perceived safety of a public space.

Next time, we’ll get more into the issues that make people feel safe, or threatened, in public spaces.

“Introduction to Landscape Design” by John L. Motloch was used a source of information for this article.

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Comments
  1. I’m in favor of more Seinfeld references. Try writing a series of posts based on episodes in which George Costanza pretends to be an architect. Let George’s alter ego, Art Vandelay, write guests posts.

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