Wednesday, January 07, 2015

What I Learned about Strangers from Jane Jacobs on my Winter Vacation

Yes, I was that woman on the beach with a library book about urban planning. And loved it.

One of my vacation goals was to think big picture about public space. I'm entrenched in a project to build a creative town square in Santa Cruz connected to my museum. I wanted to reconnect with the philosophical goals of the project.

So I decided to read Jane Jacobs' classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's a masterful work: witty, story-ful, righteously indignant, and wise. (I also received many other book recommendations and look forward to reading and writing more about urban planning and public space in the months to come.)

My favorite part of The Death and Life of Great American Cities was Jane Jacobs' treatment of strangers in public space. It challenged my pre-conceptions and made me think twice about "good" design for social bridging.


Jane Jacobs writes beautifully about the anonymity of big cities. Lively public space creates opportunities for social contact without commitment. Share a smile. Pay for someone's coffee. Flip someone off. You'll never see them again.

No friction, no repetition, no expectation. These anonymous collisions may seem trivial, but they aren't. They are continual reminders that we are all human. They often reinforce civility and empathy. They allow us to be kind, and generous, a bit wild even, without consequence.

In places where there is healthy social contact among strangers, people help each other out. They intervene when a stranger is in trouble. They hold open a door. They care--because they only have to care for a minute.

If social life ranges from "being alone" to "being together," public social contact exists in the middle. When we lose the public space that facilitates it--active sidewalks and thoroughfares--we lose the simplicity of anonymous collisions.

Suddenly, the stakes get too high. Now we can't just nod at each other--we have to get to know each other, exchange numbers, have a conversation. Social contact becomes work, and that work pays uncertain dividends: Friend for life? Bore? Injury?

"Being alone" and "being together" are both useful ways to be. But they are extremes. When we don't feel safe in public space with strangers, we're stuck with these extremes. Either we're having a coffee date or completely ignoring each other. There's no in-between.

Many of us live in towns where we rarely have the opportunity for this kind of anonymous, safe, positive social contact. This is a problem. It means we smile less at strangers. We take care of each other less. We fear it opens up a social contract for too much more.


I am obsessed with designing opportunities for strangers to interact meaningfully with each other. I've always had a bias that building community means people moving from "alone" to "together." But Jane Jacobs showed me there are lots of different ways to experience togetherness. More "together" isn't always better. Sometimes it's a stressor to be avoided.

My museum's mission is to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections." Reading Jane Jacobs, I felt glad that we're doing work to enhance low-expectation social contact. We do this in simple ways, like always putting out multiple chairs at an activity station. But I also worry that we sometimes set unrealistic expectations for the intensity and duration of interaction among strangers at the museum. Is it really necessary for visitors to share their life stories with each other? Is it OK for them to just share a pair of scissors?

We're in the process of developing more consistent evaluation tools at our museum, and one of the things we track is how often strangers interact in the museum. I think we have a bias (I know I do) that deeper interaction--a longer conversation, an interaction with followup--is "better" than brief encounters. We've actually had internal debates about whether it "counts" if someone self-reports "talking to a stranger" or if they have to actually "have a meaningful interaction with a stranger."

Maybe it's time to reconsider what kinds of stranger interactions are most important for us to cultivate at our museum. Maybe it's just as important to be a place that reinforces the joy of anonymous interactions as one that encourages the work of building relationships.

How much do you work on supporting people "being alone?"
How much do you work on supporting people "being together?"
How much do you work on the social contact in-between?

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