Designing for the street

I went along to the UXBrighton gathering on Tuesday for a screening of William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

I had already seen a clip of the film online. In fact, I was fairly sure I had republished the clip. But a search through my archive here returned nothing. So then I checked my Tumblr account which I use for posting quotes and videos. But it wasn’t there either. Then I remembered where I had posted it: Pownce. I sighed at the unbidden reminder of all that link rot I contributed to.

For the record, here’s that clip:

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It was a great companion piece to an earlier Brighton geek gathering. Dan Lockton came down last week to give a Skillswap talk on Design With Intent.

Design with Intent: How designers can influence behaviour on Huffduffer

Dan mentioned urban social places, specifically benches in English town centres, referencing William Gibson:

The street finds its own uses for things.

Like Dan’s talk, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces was filled with lessons that can be applied to web design (or as it is more fashionably known now, UX design). It also reminded me of my previous career as a busker.

In the time period between dropping out of college and discovering the web, I spent many years playing music on the streets of Europe. Whenever I showed up in a new town, I would try to figure out the best pitch for busking. I developed a sense for it. The acoustics were important, of course. I didn’t want to set up anywhere too noisy. But a completely silent place would be silent for a reason: lack of people. Yet, I didn’t want to choose a spot where the flow of foot traffic would be too heavy either or I would be ignored in the bustle. Looking back now, I realise that I was seeking out those small urban spaces where people felt comfortable congregating and where the presence of a street entertainer would be welcomed.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces was quite US-centric but the lessons were universal, regardless of place or time. I’d love to see a sequel made today. It would be interesting to compare the cities of the early 21st century with the cities of the ’70s. Maybe it could include the anecdote that Liz told:

…there was a fountain that was built in Washington Square Park in New York but before they got ‘round to turning it on, people started using it as a seating area. When the city tried to turn on the fountain, people revolted.

New York remains the place to watch for further developments. As we were sitting down in Brighton to watch a film on urban planning, citizens of Manhattan were celebrating the opening of the High Line.

Further reading

Update: Tom recommends Reading the Everyday as a very readable, more UK-centric take on urban living.

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