All posts filed under “Spatial

Designed environments as learning systems

West London from Richmond Park - Trellick Tower in the centre

How much of designing an environment is consciously about influencing how people use it? And how much of that influence is down to users learning what the environment affords them, and acting accordingly?

The first question’s central what this blog’s been about over the last four years (with ‘products’, ‘systems’, ‘interfaces’ and so on variously standing in for ‘environment’), but many of the examples I’ve used, from anti-sit features to bathrooms and cafés designed to speed up user throughput, only reveal the architect’s (presumed) behaviour-influencing intent in hindsight, i.e. by reviewing them and trying to understand, if it isn’t obvious, what the motivation is behind a particular design feature. While there are examples where the intent is explicitly acknowledged, such as crime prevention through environmental design, and traffic management, it can still cause surprise when a behaviour-influencing agenda is revealed.

Investigating what environmental and ecological psychology have to say about this, a few months ago I came across The Organization of Spatial Stimuli, an article by Raymond G. Studer, published in 1970 [1] – it’s one of the few explicit calls for a theory of designing environments to influence user behaviour, and it raises some interesting issues:

“The nature of the environmental designer’s problem is this: A behavioral system has been specified (within the constraints imposed by the particular human participants and by the goals of the organization of which they are members.) The participants are not presently emitting the specified behaviors, otherwise there would be no problem. It is necessary that they do emit these behaviors if their individual and collective goals are to be realized. The problem then is to bring about the acquisition or modification of behaviors towards the specified states (without in any way jeopardizing their general well-being in the process). Such a change in state we call learning. Designed environments are basically learning systems, arranged to bring about and maintain specified behavioral topologies. Viewed as such, stimulus organization becomes a more clearly directed task. The question then becomes not how can stimuli be arranged to stimulate, but how can stimuli be arranged to bring about a requisite state of behavioral affairs.

[E]vents which have traditionally been regarded as the ends in the design process, e.g. pleasant, exciting, stimulating, comfortable, the participant’s likes and dislikes, should be reclassified. They are not ends at all, but valuable means which should be skilfully ordered to direct a more appropriate over-all behavioral texture. They are members of a class of (designed environmental) reinforcers. These aspects must be identified before behavioral effects of the designed environment can be fully understood.”

Now, I think it’s probably rare nowadays for architects or designers to talk of design features as ‘stimuli’, even if they are intended to influence behaviour. Operant conditioning and B.F. Skinner’s behaviourism are less fashionable than they once were. But the “designed environments are learning systems” point Studer makes can well be applied beyond simply ‘reinforcing’ particular behaviours.

Think how powerful social norms and even framing can be at influencing our behaviour in environments – the sober environment of a law court gives (most of) us a different range of perceived affordances to our own living room (social norms, mediated by architecture) – and that’s surely something we learn. Frank Lloyd Wright intentionally designed dark, narrow corridors leading to large, bright open rooms (e.g. in the Yamamura House) so that the contrast – and people’s experience – was heightened (framing, of a sort) – but this effect would probably be lessened by repeated exposure. It still influenced user behaviour though, even if only the first few times, but the memory of the effect that such a room had those first few times probably lasted a lifetime. Clearly, the process of forming a mental model about how to use a product, or how to behave in an environment, or how to behave socially, is about learning, and the design of the systems around us does educate us, in one way or another.

Stewart Brand’s classic How Buildings Learn (watch the series too) perhaps suggests (among other insights) an extension of the concept: if, when we learn what our environment affords us, this no longer suits our needs, the best architecture may be that which we can adapt, rather than being constrained by the behavioural assumptions designed into our environments by history.

I’m not an architect, though, or a planner, and – as I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog – it would be very interesting to know, from people who are: to what extent are notions of influencing behaviour taught as part of architectural training? This series of discussion board posts suggests that the issue is definitely there for architecture students, but is it framed as a conscious, positive process (e.g. “funnel pedestrians past the shops”), a reactionary one (e.g. “use pebbled paving to make it painful for hippies to congregate“), one of educating users through architectural features (as in Studer’s suggestion), or as something else entirely?

[1] Studer, R.G. ‘The Organization of Spatial Stimuli.’ In Pastalan, L.A. and Carson, D.H. (eds.), Spatial Behavior of Older People. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1970.

Dan Lockton

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

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 
stools to afford lying down etc

Archisuit by Sarah Ross

Discriminatory architecture

In memory of Leonard Ball, who hated fat peopleThe entries in B3ta‘s current image challenge, ‘Fat Britain’, include this amusing take on anti- $USER_CLASS benches by monkeon.

(There’s also this, using a slightly different discriminatory architecture technique – don’t click if you’re likely to be offended, etc, by B3ta’s style.)





“Steps are like ready-made seats” (so let’s make them uncomfortable)

Image from Your Local Guardian website

Adrian Short let me know about something going on in Sutton, Surrey, at the same time both fundamentally pathetic and indicative of the mindset of many public authorities in ‘dealing with’ emergent behaviour:

An area in Rosehill, known locally as “the steps”, is to be re-designed to stop young people sitting there.

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it.

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

It’s well worth reading the readers’ comments, since – to many people’s apparent shock – Emma, a ‘young person’, actually read the article and responded with her thoughts and concerns, spurring the debate into what seems to be a microcosm of the attitudes, assumptions, prejudices and paranoia that define modern Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to its ‘young people’. The councillor quoted above responded too – near the bottom of the page – and Adrian’s demolition of his ‘understanding’ of young people is direct and eloquent:

One thing young people and older people have in common is a desire to be left alone to do their own thing, provided that they are not causing trouble to others. People like Emma and her friends are not. They do not want to be told that they can go to one place but not another. They do not want to be cajoled, corralled and organised by the state — they get enough of that at school. They certainly do not want to be disadvantaged as a group because those in charge — you — are unable to deal appropriately with a tiny minority of troublemakers in their midst.

EDIT: Adrian sends me a link to the council’s proposal [PDF, 55 kb] which contains a few real gems – as he puts it:

I really have no idea how they can write things like this with a straight face:

“It is normal practice to provide handrails to assist pedestrians. However, these have purposely been omitted from the proposals, as they could provide loiterers with something to lean against.”

and then,

“The scheme will cater for all sections of the local community.”