Category Archives: Architecture & urbanism

What’s the deal with angled steps?

Angled StepsIt’s a simple question, really, to any readers with experience in urban planning and specifying architectural features: what is the reasoning behind positioning steps at an angle such as this set (left and below) leading down to the Queen’s Walk near London Bridge station?

Obviously one reason is to connect two walkways that are offset slightly where there is no space to have a perpendicular set of steps, but are they ever used strategically? They’re much more difficult to run down or up than conventionally perpendicular steps, which would seem like it might help constrain escaping thieves, or make it less likely that people will be able to run from one walkway to another without slowing down and watching their step.

Like the configuration of spiral staircases in mediaeval castles to favour a defender running down the steps anticlockwise, holding a sword in his right hand, over the attacker running up to meet him (e.g. as described here), the way that town marketplaces were often built with pinch points at each end to make it more difficult for animals (or thieves) to escape, or even the ‘enforced reverence’ effect of the very steep steps at Ta Keo in Cambodia, are angled steps and staircases ever specified deliberately with this intent?

Angled Steps

The first time I thought of this was confronting these steps (below) leading from the shopping centre next to Waverley Station in Edinburgh a couple of years ago: they seemed purpose-built to slow fleeing shoplifters, but I did consider that it might just be my tendency to see everything with a ‘Design with Intent’ bias – a kind of conspiracy bias, ascribing to design intent that which is perhaps more likely to be due to situational factors (a kind of fundamental attribution error for design), or inferring the intention behind a design by looking at its results!

What’s your angle on the steps?

Angled Steps

Staggering insight

Staggered crossing in Bath

I’ve mentioned a few times, perhaps more often in presentations than on the blog, the fact that guidelines for the design of pedestrian crossings in the UK [PDF] recommend that where a crossing is staggered, pedestrians should be routed so that they have to face traffic, thus increasing the likelihood of noticing oncoming cars, and indeed of oncoming drivers noticing the pedestrians:

5.2.5 Staggered crossings on two-way roads should have a left handed stagger so that pedestrians on the central refuge are guided to face the approaching traffic stream.

When I gave this example of Design with Intent at Lancaster, the discussion – led, I think, by Lucy Suchman and Patricia Clough – turned to how this arrangement inevitably formalised and reinforced the embedded hegemony of the motor car in society, and so on: that the motorist is privileged over the pedestrian and the pedestrian must submit by watching out for cars, rather than the other way around.

Now, all that is arguably true – I had seen this example as merely a clever, sensible way to use design to influence user behaviour for safety, for everyone’s benefit (both pedestrians and drivers) without it costing any more than, say, a crossing staggered the opposite way round – but this is, maybe, the nature of this whole field of Design with Intent: lots of disciplines potentially have perspectives on it and what it means. What a traffic engineer or an ergonomist or a mistake-proofer sees as a safety measure, a sociologist may see as a designed-in power relation. What Microsoft saw as a tool for helping users was seen as patronising and annoying (at least by the most vociferous users). It’s all interesting, because it all broadens the number of interpretations and considerations applied to everything, and – if I’m honest – force me to think on more levels about every example.

Multiple lenses are helpful to designers otherwise stuck at whatever focal length the client’s prescribed.

Back to the crossings, though: the above crossing in Bath is a bit unusual in how it’s arranged with so many control panels for pedestrians. But in general, with simple Pelican and Puffin crossings in the UK, there is a design feature even more obvious, which only struck me* the same day I photographed the above crossing in Bath: the pedestrian signal control panel is usually also to the right of where pedestrians stand waiting to cross, i.e. (with UK driving on the left), in order to press the button, pedestrians have to turn to face the oncoming traffic.

The guidelines actually mention this as helping people with poor vision, but it would seem that it really assists all users, even if only slightly. It means you can watch the traffic as you decide whether or not you actually need to press the button, and will be more likely to be standing in a position where you can see the oncoming traffic at the point when you walk out into the road.

5.1.7 To assist blind and partially sighted pedestrians, as they approach the crossing, the primary push button/indicator panel should normally be located on the right hand side. The alignment should encourage them to face oncoming vehicles. The centre of the push button should be between 1.0 and 1.1 metres above the footway level.

This is the sort of ‘hidden’ intentional, strategic design detailing which fascinates me. It is obvious, it is quotidian, but it’s also thoughtful.

Staggered crossing in Bath

*Looking back through my notebooks, I see that someone actually mentioned this to me at a seminar at Sheffield Hallam in September 2007 but I forgot about it: many thanks to whoever it was, and I should be better at reading through my notes next time!

Anti-homeless ‘stools’

Bus stop stools, Honolulu. Image from www.honoluluadvertiser.com

Stuart Candy of the brilliant Sceptical Futuryst let me know about authorities in Honolulu replacing benches with round ‘stools’ to prevent homeless people sleeping at bus stops (above image from Honolulu Advertiser story):

So far, the city has spent about $11,000 on the seating initiative, removing benches and installing 55 stools at 12 bus stops in urban Honolulu and Kane’ohe. Wayne Yoshioka, city Department of Transportation Services director, said the city will continue the program on a “case-by-case” basis in response to rider complaints.

“The benches were being used as makeshift beds by many people that were out there,” Yoshioka said. “In an effort to provide areas for people to sit, but still discouraging people from sleeping, we started replacing benches with stools.”

He added the issue is a “delicate one” that requires sensitivity toward the homeless who are being displaced from stops.

The City Council is also considering a ban on sleeping or lying down at city bus stops, though that measure has been stalled for several months.

For its part, the city says its effort to reclaim everything from parks to beaches to bus stops is about making sure everyone has equal access to public spaces. City officials acknowledge that the homeless population in the Islands, which advocates say could increase in the worsening economy, is one of the most hard-to-solve social problems facing the state. But they also contend that the city has a duty to make sure public spaces can be used by all.

Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, disagrees with the city’s approach, saying it’s dealing with symptoms — not the problem.

Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said cities should concentrate more on providing shelter and services for the homeless and less on moving them from bus stops.

“It’s a misguided effort,” he said, of the Honolulu initiative.

Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, which operates TheBus for the city, said bus riders have a right to expect seating at stops. He added that seating is at a premium these days with buses so full … He said transit authorities across the country are increasingly buying “lie-down-unfriendly furniture” to keep seats open for bus riders.

The round stools look interesting; I’m not sure that (if you didn’t know otherwise) they would immediately suggest that that’s where you’re supposed to sit, though I suppose it wouldn’t take long to figure out. But apart from preventing people lying down, they also prevent people sitting next to each other. Friends, lovers, parents with young children all now have to sit separately (or on each other’s laps). That’s OK when there are stools in line close together, but what if they’re occupied? You can’t ask people to ‘budge up’ when the stools aren’t big enough for more than one person at a time.

As people have suggested a number of times when we’ve discussed unfriendly benches before on the blog, some kind of lightweight guerilla seating apparatus might be useful, either cardboard or foam like Sarah Ross’s wonderful Archisuits.

Board placed across<br />
stools to afford lying down etc

Archisuit by Sarah Ross

{In|Ex}clusive Design

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

The juxtaposition of hand rails and anti-sit spikes outside this church in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire suggests a particular configuration of design priorities: helping people climb the steps, but forbidding anyone sitting on the wall.

Are the targets different groups of people? We might think so: older people may have more difficulty climbing the steps, and so be more likely to need hand rails, and younger people might be more likely to be ‘hanging around’ outside, and thus ‘need’ to be ‘discouraged’. This might be a simple case of discriminatory architecture, aimed at excluding one group while welcoming another.

But then older people like sitting down too. People in general like sitting down. Is this a case of cutting off your nose to spite own face? Whatever the ‘backstory’ is, the intent behind the different features, and the decision-making process (the spikes look older than the rails) would be interesting to know.

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

On ‘Design and Behaviour’ this week: Do you own your stuff? And a strange council-run ‘Virtual World for young people’

GPS-aided repo and product-service systems

GPS tracking - image by cmpalmer

Ryan Calo of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society brought up the new phenomenon of GPS-aided car repossession and the implications for the concepts of property and privacy:

A group of car dealers in Oregon apparently attached GPS devices to cars sold to customers with poor credit so as to be able to track them down more easily in the event of repossession.

…this practice also relates to an emerging phenomenon wherein sold property remains oddly connected to the seller as though it were merely leased. Whereas once we purchased an album and did with it as we please, today we need to register (up to five) devices in order to play our songs.

…and Kingston University’s Rosie Hornbuckle linked this to the concept of product-service systems:

This puts a whole new slant on product-service-systems, a current (and popular) sustainability methodology whereby people are weaned off the concept of owning products, instead they lease them off the manufacturer who is then responsible for take-back, repair, recycling or disposal. So in that scenario it’s quite likely that a manufacturer will want to keep tabs on their equipment/material, will this bring up privacy issues or is it simply the case that if it’s done overtly (and not in the negative frame of potential repossession), the customer knows about it and agrees, it’s ok? Or will it be a long time before people can overcome the perceived encroachment on their liberty that not owning might bring?

It reminds me of something Bill Thompson suggested to me once, that (paraphrasing) the idea that we ‘own’ the technology we use might well turn out to be a short phase in overall human history. That could perhaps be ‘good’ in contexts where sharing/renting/pooling things allows much greater efficiency and brings benefits for users. Nevertheless, as the repossession example (and DRM, etc, in general) show, the tendency in practice is often to use these methods to exert increasing dominance over users, erode assumed rights, and extract more value from people who no longer have control of the things they use.

See the whole thread so far (and join in!)

Above image of GPS trails (unrelated to the story, but a cool picture) from cmpalmer’s Flickr

The Mosquito, and plans for an odd ‘walk-in virtual world’

McDonald's Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire

Rosie discussed the Mosquito (above image: an example outside a McDonald’s opposite Windsor Castle*) and asked “could we use our design skills and knowledge to influence these sorts of behaviours with a less aggressive and longer-term approach?” while Adrian Short summed up the issue pretty well:

There are a lot of problems in principle and in practice with these devices, but the core problem for me is that they tend to be directed at users rather than uses (i.e. people by identity, not behaviour) and are entirely arbitrary. The street outside a shop is public space and the shop owners have no more right than anyone else to dictate who goes there.

In as much as these things work (which is highly disputed), they are never going to encourage a meaningful debate about norms of behaviour among users of a space. This approach is not so much negotiation as warfare.

Sutton’s Rosehill steps (which Adrian let me know about originally) were also discussed and Adrian brought us the story of something very odd: a ‘virtual world to teach good behaviour to young people’:

Half a mile away, the same council is proposing to spend at least £4 million on a facility that will include a high-tech virtual street environment, a “street simulator” if you like, to teach safety and good behaviour to some of the same young people.

“Part movie-set, part theme park, the learning complex will be the first of its kind in the UK and will also house an indoor street with shop fronts, pavements and a road. The idea is to give young people the confidence to make the best of their lives and have a positive impact on their peers and their local community.”

I don’t really know what to make of that. I actually woke up this morning thinking about it assuming that it was a dream I’d been having, then realised where I’d read about it. It sounds like a mish-mash of Scaramanga’s Fun House from The Man With The Golden Gun and the Ludovico Centre** from A Clockwork Orange.

Scaramanga's FunhouseLudovico Centre

See the whole thread here.

*This particular McDonald’s, with the Mosquito going every evening and clearly audible to me and my girlfriend (both mid-20s) also features a vicious array of anti-sit spikes (below) which rather negate the ‘welcoming’ efforts made with the flowerbed.

**I actually gave a talk about my research to Environmentally Sensitive Design students in this building a couple of weeks ago: it’s Brunel’s main Lecture Centre.

McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire
McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire