Posts Tagged ‘Malcolm Gladwell’

Are you a rational, logical thinker or do you operate on gut instinct?

Consider your first visit to an unfamiliar urban plaza.  You need to know if it’s safe.  The rational, logical thinker might contact the local police and ask about the plaza.  Maybe take a look at statistics, discerning which times of the day are safer than others.  He might inquire of the local shop owners, get the streetwise perspective.  After gathering all the information, he can then make a rational, logical decision regarding the safety of the plaza.

Anybody ever do that?

Of course not.  We might not even consciously consider safety when visiting that unfamiliar public space.  Upon arrival, however, our subconscious will kick in and we will scope out the space, look for scary people, hidden corners, and escape routes.  We will analyze the park’s image, determine if it’s well-maintained, and look for amenities or something interesting to do.  Then we will weigh all the positives and potential benefits against the perceived risks.  Then we will make a decision.  And all of this happens in the blink of an eye.  (It’s a concept Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his entertaining and very interesting book, Blink, which I highly recommend.)

Consider the garden gate.  If you were on a private estate, touring the gardens, the discovery of such a passageway might be intriguing.  There’s a mystery about what’s on the other side.  In the right setting, the narrow gate is an excellent entrance to another space.

In an urban or public setting, our blink evaluation would likely inhibit us from entering.  The question of what’s on the other side — or if we would even be welcome — would probably be enough to keep us out.  Of course you would not really expect to find a garden gate as an entrance to an urban public space.

So if the narrow entrance can be inhibiting, can we assume that the broad, easy access is better in the public setting?

Absolutely.

First, it enables us to perform our blink evaluation much more easily.  This alone is going to give us a good feeling.

Then there’s the idea that there is no gate at all, either physically or psychologically.  With everything open, the space will feel more inviting.

The broad entrance can be made even more inviting if we can provide a transition zone, where we can stop and consider our options without actually committing to entering the space.  Maybe just a wide area next to the sidewalk where we can stop, look in, and think about it.  Being able to do that is another little bit of psychology in gradually drawing the visitor into the space.  Low, easy steps can also be a transition, causing people to linger, one foot on, one foot off.

Access to Pullman Square in Huntington is broad, easy, and inviting.

Now of course, the broad, easy access is only part of the equation.  If the other elements aren’t there, we’re not likely to cross the threshold.  But if we don’t have the easy access, the odds are against attracting many visitors.  There’s a lot of psychology in play.  The more we understand that, the more successful our public spaces can be.

Welcome to Ritter Park, Huntington, West Virginia.

Another day, another really nice park.   This time, it’s Ritter Park in Huntington, West Virginia.  It’s just so nice.  I could leave it at that and show you the pretty pictures and you would agree.  I’ll show the pictures but let’s try to get a little deeper.

First, let’s talk about socio-economic context.  Ritter Park is located in a rather tony residential neighborhood.  Old-school mansions line the street directly across from the park, and in the nearby hills are more up-scale neighborhoods.  At first glance, one might conclude that Ritter Park owes much of its popularity to its affluent setting.  But the downtown area and other less prosperous neighborhoods are also close by and it wouldn’t be surprising if Ritter Park had its share of trouble.

I’ve been discussing safety in public spaces in one of my LinkedIn discussion groups and one associate pointed out that feeling safe is more about perception than reality.  Some spaces that seem scary may actually be no more dangerous than Main Street at noon.  But perception almost always trumps reality and if a space seems dangerous, people will stay away.

Ritter Park feels safe.  Why?

Malcolm Gladwell argued in his bestselling book, Blink, that our “gut feelings” are actually subconscious decisions that we make as we quickly process information.  When we visit a public space, we will consider many things from a safe vantage point.  First, we’ll look for a reason to enter the space.  What is the attraction?  If we enter, will we still be in the view of other people?  If we enter, will we be forced to interact with people with whom we may not want to interact?  Can we steer clear of scary people?  If we enter, are there adequate escape routes?   We won’t necessarily consider these things on a conscious level but in a matter of seconds, we will have a “blink” moment and decide whether to engage in the space or leave.

At Ritter Park, there are attractions.  The extra-wide perimeter walkway is perfect for walking (with or without dogs), running, or sitting on a bench watching everyone else.  Huge lawns invite informal ball games or casual strolls to enjoy the occasional works of art.  The children’s playgrounds are challenging adventure lands.

As for the safety considerations, park administrators have been able to avoid the temptation of trying to cram too many good ideas into the park.  As a result, open space is preserved, the user has many choices of where to go, and escape routes are everywhere. 

Ritter Park is largely an inclusive space, meaning that very little is done to exclude perceived trouble makers.  Everyone, it would seem, is welcome.  Well, maybe not skateboarders.   Anti-grinding angles are anchored to the edges of low walls and a lot of the walkways are not suitable for skateboards.  But on any given Saturday you’ll find a broad cross-section of people, ranging from the youth of the counter culture to middle-aged dog walkers who seem to fit right in with the swanky neighborhood. 

Lessons learned at Ritter Park can be applied to other public spaces, both large and small, but you have to look beyond the pretty pictures.  You have to understand the behavior of people.  You have to understand their needs (security) and their desires (attractions).   Enjoy the pics.

Crushed-aggregate walkways are great for pedestrians and are wide enough to allow people to avoid unwanted interactions.

Huge expanses of lawn invite active or passive recreation in a non-threatening setting.

Ritter Park is famous for its adventure-style playgrounds. This recent addition offers rock climbing and zip lining.

Because Ritter Park is so interactive, even the more secluded trail across the creek feels safe.