There is no space – (un)seeing urban space

My academic reading has taken me to further (and tinier and tinier) places, nooks and crannies. The discussion that rumbles on about perception of space is very interesting to me, and I feel myself naturally drawn to it.

To me, city spaces are billboards – subtle billboards, as they may not be overtly or loudly selling you something. (Oh, beware the powers of advertising and promotion!)

These spaces aren’t blatant about themselves, and may not have been ‘erected’ for that reason, but we still get messages from them – whether we like it or not. Roads and streets, the way public space is laid out and proportioned – all that talks. Space, and its absence, tells us things; and these things and messages will affect our onwards (inter)actions. If a road is busy it will function as a wall – accessibility by foot, cycle or any other light mobility aid will be hindered. Appleyard’s ‘Liveable Streets’ being a good example here. For the ones not familiar with Appleyard and his important ‘public realm perception’ work, figures 3 and 4 at the end may help to illustrate his thinking.

Vehicle traffic hinders human interaction and the activity levels shrink on a street level.

If you wanted to read the ‘speech bubbles’ in the figures (below) – go on, buy the book. It’s a good, sound and sane acquisition you’ll make. If you are (into) German, I’d also recommend the Monheims’ ‘Straßen für alle’. It comes complete with a sausage dog family depicted on its front cover. Go on, buy it too, and read it.

A friend registered me to go on an Edible City Centre walk this week. And even to me (someone whose eyes are relatively open to the urban environment, its constrictions and possibilities) was amazed at the spaces and places we visited. Our caged perception gives us a closed and fixed perspective. Until our thinking is freed and then our imaginations, creativity and visions are opened, unbridled and almost profound.

How do people see space? Do they see it at all? What do they see, and what don’t they see?

Through my PhD I hope to add something to that debate. Looking at places in Germany and the UK may add a cultural dimension to it too (and in a wider sense lay some debates to rest).


From Appleyard (1981) Livable Streets

FIGURE 3 (p21) San Francisco. Neighbouring and visiting on three streets: lines show where people said they had friends or acquaintances. Dots show where people are gathering.


FIGURE 4 (p23) San Francisco. Home Territory on three streets: lines show areas people indicated as their “home territory”



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