Monday, August 11, 2008

Conversations as a Metaphor for Urban Design

I've always been a fairly introverted person, and I realized the other day that up until a few years ago (when I started making a conscious effort to try and have better conversations), my goal in any given conversation was, subconsciously, to exit the conversation as quickly as possible. It was as if my goal was to exchange information as efficiently as possible (i.e. with the fewest words spoken) and stop what I perceived (again, subconsciously) to be an unnecessary verbal exchange.

I was thinking about this when I suddenly shifted my train of thought to urban design and how, at least historically (since the 1950s) in the US, traffic engineers seemed to have operated under the assumption that the goal of a city's streets is to move cars through the city as quickly as possible. Hence the trend of converting every city's downtown streets into one-way, three-lane avenues leading straight to the nearest freeway and out of town. "Forget the city," the mentality seemed to have been, "we need to increase throughput and move as many cars through the system as quickly as possible."

So for some reason I put these two thoughts together and wondered if there might be a connection between how traffic engineers deal with urban streets and traffic flows and how these same engineers approach the idea of holding a conversation. It's obviously a stereotype, but it's probably not much of a stretch to presume that many traffic engineers (after all, my original major in college was civil engineering, and I was most interested in traffic engineering) tend to be introverted. Is it possible that they are applying the same subconscious logic which they apply to conversations to traffic engineering (and therefore urban design), as well?

You might be thinking, "Yeah, but so what? Who wants to sit in traffic all day? I'm GLAD traffic engineers try to move cars through the system as efficiently as possible." Well, yeah, no one like sitting in traffic, but I think it's one dimensional to think that minimizing the time spent in traffic should be the only, or even primary, goal of traffic engineering. Is it worth engineering streets to maximize vehicle throughput at the expense of sacrificing everything else that streets can influence? What about the pedestrian traffic that brings a neighborhood to life, but which requires wide sidewalks (and therefore narrower streets)? What about the visual interest of streetscapes and the beauty they can provide for a city? And what about the sense of place that livable (i.e. safely walkable) intersections can provide? What's the point of building traffic-optimized streets if there's no where interesting left to drive to?

Likewise, what's the point of talking to another person if the only point of the conversation is to optimize the exchange of information? What about the joy and humor that a good conversation can result in? What about getting to know someone, not just by listening to what they say, but also how they say it? And what about cultivating a sense of community, which we humans seem to have evolved doing and therefore which might be an important thing to do in order to live together?

I thought of all these things, and then seized upon my psuedo-theory, which is this: Since traffic engineers tend to be more introverted, it's likely that they tend to apply the same pattern of thinking to traffic engineering that they apply to holding conversations. In one application, the result is a cold and lifeless exchange of words, while in the other application the result is a cold and lifeless network of streets. And we will be destined to accept this fate until either (a) traffic engineers become more extroverted, or (b) some system (oversight by architects or human factors engineers to be the pedestrian's advocate, for example) is put into place to check the authority of introverted engineers in designing roads.

Of course, I have no data to support this theory, and the two phenomena could be unrelated and I could just be trying to generalize based on a stereotype. Who knows?

Image from Flickr user Write From Karen available under a Creative Commons license.

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