This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography.  The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.

In 1977, the controversial experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram filmed a man on the streets of New York with a large photograph of a fellow New Yorker. He offered $10 to anyone who could identify the man in the photograph. Milgram filmed all day, and although thousands of people stopped to consider it, no one was able to demonstrate knowledge of the man. The man in the photo wasn’t misanthropic, nor socially withdrawn but like millions of other people in modern cities, anonymity is the norm. Even if well-known and well-liked there is no guarantee that a person will form strong and durable bonds. Consider Joyce Vincent, epitomised in the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, who lay dead for three years in her London flat before the council broke down her door to find her remains. Joyce had had family, friends, lovers, colleagues but no one thought anything of her silence.

The norms of the social and environmental conditions of large cities appear unnatural and detrimental to our health and well-being. The urban environment, because of its scale, its industry and its population, dispenses pollutants on a public causing severe health consequences. In cities, generally 1 in 8 people will suffer from asthma at some time in their lives. Noise pollution from cars, planes, trains, construction and industry has a significant effect on sleep, can generate endocrine responses and influence the autonomic nervous system thus causing cardiovascular disease. Then there is the prospect of slum formation and its resultant health implications, the general risk of infection caused by high populations and sexual health, injuries and deaths caused by crime and traffic incidents, alcoholism and drug abuse.

The majority of common pollutants of urban environments are deemed necessary for societal purposes. Home appliances, internal combustion engines,  sirens of emergency vehicles – through time people have weighed up the impact of these elements and have considered them at first  acceptable, and now essential, parts of our lives. Life needn’t have dictated this direction and these choices, but these elements have served a function and met demand. Each carries a subliminal disclaimer that cries ‘if you don’t like it you know where to go’.

If compared with the tranquility and carefreeness of rural life the city, for all its offerings of work, infrastructure and amusement, is a grimy, hedonistic space that swallows up individuals, disconnecting them from an older and more rooted way of life.  Departing from a rural village there is no sense of boundary between it and the next, but with a city, both physically and psychologically, the viable alternatives are disclaimed because on exiting there is a sense of all else being secondary and inferior; signposts out of London spell out ‘The North’ or ‘The West’ and might as well read ‘not London’.

The comparison between rural and urban life has long been presented. Because of job opportunities, upward mobility and home ownership, the developed nations of the 1930s were fast focusing upon their urban centres. In America, after the Great Depression, the depleted industries, that once caused the expansion of old and the creation of new cities, were struggling to cater for their exaggerated populations. This prompted an anti-city sentiment and inspired thinkers, such as Louis Wirth, to question their function. On examining a downbeat Chicago in 1938, Wirth questioned the unnatural grouping of individuals fighting for superiority in the spirit of competition and opportunism. He reflected that those unnatural groupings necessitated an unnatural order, “the clock and the traffic signal are symbolic of the basis of our social order in the urban world”; he deemed cities immoral and restrictive.

Wirth, like many after him, viewed the city deterministically. He compared not just urbanism with non-urban settings and urbanites with non-urbanites, but urbanism with nature and urbanites with other living organisms. He compared humans with plants, that they have shared abilities to adapt and to fight for scarce resources; he saw the urban environment as an artificial structure that weakened community and solidarity and as such severed human connection with natural orders. This type of ecological imagining of the modern city, inspired heavily by Marx and Rousseau, has created a paradigm for those viewing the urban environment as a negative space, and can be seen today in ecological urbanism projects that seek to inform planners on creating green and sustainable design.

However, there are very obvious problems with Wirth’s arguments. Plants are, in relative terms with humans, primitive. A simple difference between humans and plants is the human ability to make spontaneous and modified decisions; humans like plants adapt, but only if they wish to do so. The second problem is an extension of the first, humans make decisions and so respond to their environment, in fact they do more than that, they affect their environment; the city and its dwellers operate reciprocally. Also, competition works on many more levels than just the human fight for scarce resources. City planners and statesmen must ensure their city is flexible and offers what its public requires, or people will move somewhere that does. It is not in a city’s best interest to impose some kind of malevolent unnecessary order. Most examples of such order, such as some of the disastrous mass housing projects of the 1950s and 60s are mistakes, errors in planning mostly due to prematureness brought about by the urgent need for housing. Central to the research of Wirth is an Aristotlean concept of natural order: that which we once had was intrinsic and congenital, and that which we have now is counterfeit and prodigious. In its essence, his theory reasons that order of any kind can only be assessed in terms of some pre-existing order.

The material in urban settings the houses, roads, services and spaces – are contingent and they are created in mind of their function and purpose. That is not to say that they do not influence behaviour too; many urban street patterns share the aspect of being integrative spaces: houses sit like hedgerows in terraces, outlets and services are united in one area for convenience and management, and public spaces and parks compensate for the lack of private space available to households. The developments that have failed to create integrated space are the most disreputable, the suburban mass housing estates dotted around and between the peripheries of Paris, isolated from the rest of the city, are cases in point.

Urban planning that involves integrated space is more successful because it suits the needs of a social race, but as a consequence, it too becomes behaviour-shaping – connections between people and cultures are formed where none were before, and first-hand exposure to ideas and customs occur. Sometimes this can be a positive and revelatory experience, at other times it can cause affray. Equally, design can obligate behaviour due to the plans of the site. Many of the housing estates in the 1950s and 60s, and in particular the Pruitt-Igoe project of St Louis, Missouri, gave undue emphasis to the need for vast open space between blocks. The logic ran that if community members had their own parks they would not suffer as a result of not having their own gardens. But, a central aspect of a garden that attracts and motivates users is the sense of ownership and control they have over it – the open spaces of Pruitt-Igoe either went unused or became hotspots for crime.

One of the key ingredients of a happy and satisfied community is its feeling of control in and over their environment. In an urban area, there are many reasons for an individual to feel disempowered. Most of the reasons concern ideas of privacy. There is little space that can be afforded to one individual, those spaces are mostly restricted and are surrounded by private or public space at every angle, as punctuated by the abundance of civil litigation and dispute resolution cases. Even much of public space is increasingly becoming privatised, and then there are concerns of bureaucracy and the effects of centralised or market-oriented policy. It seems likely that the shift towards neoliberalism, and the deregulation and privatisation that has come with it, has stimulated the rise in community and civic society movements with the emphasis on giving more power to individuals, or local collectives more generally.

Participation is a key factor to a positive urban experience and in this sense, open-ended design projects have been increasing in popularity, they are created on the premise that the buildings reflect the least that is required to be designed and specified. The benchmark of urban planning and housing association development is centred on the principles of partnership, consultation, and citizen control or the use of strategies such as behaviour mapping, physical traces recordings (e.g. desire lines), focused interviews, questionnaires. At the very least, they require more token forms of placation and information transparency.

These principles and strategies reveal very subjective responses. What works in one city does not succeed in another. Take Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian Punjab. At partition the border between India and West Pakistan was drawn through the middle of the state. The former capital of the region, Lahore, fell inside Pakistan, leaving the Indian Punjab without a capital.Commissioned by Nehru and heavily influenced by Western design, including the Swiss Fordist architect Le Corbusier, Chandigarh was formed as a utopian city offering Indian people a slice of modernism. Part of this vision was to introduce very Western ideals on the culture, ideals that still to this day are incongruous with the needs of the people that live there. In particular, the city is endowed with several parks and gardens, more than most Western cities of its size and certainly more than other Indian cities. These open green spaces, designed to be areas of recreation and community, alluding to the Western norm, are for the most part tourist attractions or are used by residents in ways beyond the scope of the original plans. In India, there is no history of park use, urban dwellers prefer to use their houses and the peripheries of their houses – they prefer to be on the streets amongst their community than in a centralised green space. In Chandigarh, the parks are often littered with debris from semi-permanent markets, some people graze their cattle on the land, others use it to discard furniture. When the houses were first built, families used the kitchen floor as a space to prepare food and a space to eat, despite the modern kitchen counters and dining rooms. The universalist idea that one Shangri-la design is a solution for all is at best debunked, and at worst a futile pursuit.

Returning to the idea of an urban-rural dualism, Milgram, in the overstimulation tradition, suggested that the result of the seemingly limitless size of a city is cognitive overload. Yet, perhaps the opposite question needs to be asked, is there a rural cognitive “underload”?

The majority of people around the world live in cities and with the modernisation of many Latin American, African and Asian countries the numbers are only going to increase. As well as the obvious changes in the standards of living, people migrate to cities because of the behavioural impact. There is a worldliness attached to urban living and a sense of tolerance, consciousness and progressiveness.

The connections between urban and rural living are horizontal, not vertical. No one way of life is undeniably better. ‘The city is a lonely place’ – the oft-heard phrase reflects on the amount of people living in close proximity and yet are alien to one another. The majority of people that urban dwellers will see on the streets in any given day will be strangers. For a rural dweller it is a huge adjustment in a way of life but there are positives in this phenomenon. As has been described, the choice and the power over our own privacy makes for a happy community; the ability to choose who a person interacts with and doesn’t is pivotal in this debate. One of the most stressful conditions that an environment can subject its population to is isolation, people of subcultures living alone without solidarity is a common problem of rural life. Those subcultures that lack a voice and a community in rural areas are hugely bolstered by the sheer presence of people in cities, the masses allow for the cultures to endure and survive. The effect of the vast numbers also helps to explain other factors, such as the existence of more crime and antisocial behaviour in urban settings. This is more a consequence of the greater probability of poverty than the crowded milieu itself.

The assumption that urbanites have impersonal relationships is coloured by the behaviour exhibited between strangers, those with their noses buried in their broadsheets, ears absorbed by ipods and reluctant to help a stranger in need on the street. The personal relationships that are formed within cities are as strong as in non-urban settings, and in some cases stronger, because of the chance of finding people with likenesses and affinities. Contacts may be substitutable but they are no less close.  It is just that in a city the sense of community needs to be redefined; people do not often have close friends within a small vicinity, they find friends from across a city. The relations are built on the foundations of mutual interest, work and societies, as opposed to rural communities where neighbourliness is a significant determining factor.

The urban environment is a facilitation of human needs, not a gross monolith created to oppress. The built environment is meant for the masses and so while there should be something for everyone, it is unlikely that someone will be satisfied with every aspect contained within.

In this sense, the term ‘user-needs gap’ presents the idea that it is rare that a complex society will ever find a building that satisfies all; instead, they are judged by their function. Cities ‘speak to‘ people. Encoded in their design and in their function there are symbolic meanings and forms of nonverbal communication; there are emotional response to a building’s aesthetic, cleanliness, order and comfort, for example. This communication informs people to make choices about where to live and where to avoid. A city and its buildings communicate whether a setting allows interaction with others and whether there is privacy or a feeling of crowdedness. In short, there are choices: to be a member of the urban environment, or better still, to be an integrated member reciprocally affecting it as it does you.

Illustration by John Mcloughlin

The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine. A further article on the topic of the urban environment and the possible ways to solve the unease we experience within it can be found here