How Public Spaces Define Who We Are And The Kind Of Relationships We Have

Are you one of those people who stand around in crowded places and wonder why everyone is such a stranger? You are not the only one; in fact, we all look around and wonder why we are all strangers, and yet familiar strangers. The spaces we occupy dictate the way in which we interact with each other. Surely you don’t expect a stranger to hug you at a bus station, but isn’t that acceptable at a bar?

When we were young, our older loved ones would always share similar advice: “Never talk to strangers”. Whether taking candy or telling them how your day was, or even simply extending your hand to point in the correct direction they should be going, we tend to grow up with a hidden anxiety when it comes to strangers.


The word “stranger” evokes an almost inevitable, and quite involuntary, fear of something that is not easily describable. We are comfortable with what we know, and though we may be curious about what we don’t know, we all know how the curious cat ended.

Still, we remain curious, and though we don’t act on our urge to start conversations with the people sitting next to us, or sing along with the songs we can hear from their phones, we remain silent.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram was among the first to introduce, in his 1972 essay, the concept of the “Familiar Stranger”. The Familiar Stranger is the person you see every day, in the same place, and yet, because you don’t know each other, you choose to continue to ignore each other’s presence. This social phenomenon does not point to the possibility that humankind’s sense of empathy is questionable but rather sheds light on the possibility that we need to look at public spaces for insight as to how we interact with one another.

Typically, when we think of relationships or interactions, we place them in a particular place. When we meet people for the first time, one of the first questions we ask is, “Where are you from?” This need for spatial placement is important because it helps us to categorize our acquaintances and ascribe certain opinions or sentiments we may attach to certain spaces and places.

The assurance that comes with knowing that a person is from a specific place you know, or have heard of, may evoke both extremely positive or negative feelings about that person – even if the person’s point of origin has little or nothing to do with that person’s character and role in your life.

Consider the social stigma attached to online dating. When someone tells you that his or her lover was met online, there is an immediate challenge for others to place this person. Where is “online”? What are the opinions we have about people who come from “online”? We cannot easily visualize them; we cannot even attach certain characteristics to them, because, in our minds, the inability to place them makes their existence vague.

One would, then, conclude that if we cannot consider online interactions as real, we surely consider those that happen in physical public spaces to be more tangible.

Unfortunately, we are back at square one, because even in the real physical spaces, we all remain strangers.

So what is it about modern urban design that fosters this idea of strangeness?


The City as a place for the exchange

Life in the city is characterized by night lights and traffic jams. There may be a few parks here and there, and with the introduction of environmental consciousness in urban design, several green spaces have begun to emerge. Still, the ethos of the city is to serve as a means of exchange.

The city is made for the buying and selling of products, ideas, and commodities.

One wakes up with a purpose: to go to the bus station, to purchase a ticket, and arrive at a destination for a specific outcome, and not particularly for the journey.

With the growing access to technology, everything can be self-made, thus decreasing the need for constant interaction. At an airport, it is possible for you to perform your own check-in procedure, with the boarding pass delivered directly to your hand.

You need not ask a person whether the flight is embarking in 5 or 10 minutes, because at every step the information is available for you to read.

While this is good news in many ways, it diminishes the necessity to break down the walls dividing familiar strangers.


Preference-based interaction

When we browse the net to discover which events to attend, we usually go with what our preferences are. If I like the arts, I will chose to attend a gallery opening as opposed to attending a shark-diving lesson.

While there is no inherent problem in this, public spaces are built on the premise that they wish to unite people according to their preferences. This means that we, the people who attend events and visit spaces that have been specially customized to our liking, will always meet other people who are like ourselves.

Interacting with people who remind us of ourselves may subconsciously discourage us from interacting with strangers, after all, why would we?

The more common ground we find between ourselves and others, the more distant the familiar strangers appear, and the less we feel we need to transcend our comfort zone and interact with people whose music tastes we are unaware of.

Modern design thrives on the already existent categories of people, on stereotypes of what specific people like and enjoy, assuming that people only want to be with other people who enjoy the same things that they do.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Consider a bar, a space that is known for its versatility. Modern bars adopt the strategy to attract different kinds of people by promoting different kinds of events. Monday night goes to stand-up comedy, while Thursday night will be a pop quiz. This type of setting allows different people, from different places and preferences, to interact, without fear of rejection due to defined categories.

Ultimately, why is it important that we take notice of the spaces in which we interact with people? The answer to the question is simple, it is, mainly, because the spaces we occupy are a reflection of the people we are, and the people we interact with.

So instead of seeking different tones of who you are, by constantly occupying spaces designed just for you and for your liking, start by interacting with that stranger you see each day, and you’ll find yourself in a new place altogether.

Based on a research done by professors of Carnegie Mellon University.

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