photo with yellow overlay person walking

SPACE: Building Connections in a Digital World

This essay was originally published in 33.3 This Point in Time, the fourth publication in HDR’s Opacity annual design review. Written in late 2019, this essay offers an interesting retrospective of our pre-COVID-19 world, with many important insights that can inform the future of the physical and digital environments where people go to meet.

The Opacity design excellence initiative invites outside critics to assess a portfolio of work from our offices around the globe. 33.3 includes the voices of six prominent design journalists and critics who reflected on fundamental design principles: context, form, materials, program, space, and sustainability. Like the Opacity initiative itself, the intent of the essays is to foster dialogue and discourse within the design profession, sometimes challenging the very essence of conventional precepts in order to advance critical thinking. The following essay explores the importance of physical space in our increasingly digitized world.

In the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One, the young protagonist walks through the debris-laden streets of a ruined, post-apocalyptic Columbus, Ohio, where those still surviving live in ramshackle towers of repurposed mobile homes. “There’s nowhere for me to go,” he says, putting on a virtual reality headset, “except the Oasis,” before diving into a digital world that offers all of the social interaction and imagined built space that he can’t find in his physical environs.

The idea of a virtual escape from cramped confines is a staple of the Sci-Fi genre — anyone who has watched the Star Trek franchise will be familiar with the Holodeck, for example— but in our ever-digitizing world, it no longer seems like a far-off fiction. VR is becoming a staple in the building industry, and our phones are tiny supercomputers in our hands, allowing us to do everything from shop to engage with friends, and strangers, via social media. Now, the average person spends at least four hours on their phone each day, and that number keeps rising. We’ve never been more connected as a society, yet with so much of our lives conducted online, our experience in the physical world is shrinking to the size of a screen. If we can build global relationships, order groceries, and perform a job, all without leaving the couch, does the built environment outside our walls still matter?

If anything, the design of the built environment, and public space in particular, is more critical than ever. It’s more than an opportunity for digital detox; it’s critical for maintaining our connections with society, and reinforcing the in-person connections that dwindle as we retreat to our digital ones. It also influences our health, our cognition, and our happiness.

In her 2014 TED Talk, former New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden noted that: “Cities are fundamentally about people, and where people go and where people meet are at the core of what makes a city work. So even more important than buildings in a city are the public spaces in between them. … They are what makes it come alive.”

These places “where people go and where people meet” can take many forms: parks, plazas, sidewalks — any space, really, that everyone can access. And incorporating plants and greenery is a plus: Whether it’s planters, a pocket park, or a massive urban green space, the biophilic effect of being in (or even have views of) natural areas is well documented. In the healthcare industry, it’s linked to faster recovery times; in schools, to better learning comprehension; and in the public realm, greened spaces are often the most used and celebrated.

But these spaces aren’t just about finding respite from the concrete jungle. They are also about finding human connections. Research shows that if we surround ourselves with people, their emotions can influence our own. So, the security and happiness that we feel in comfortable, engaging public spaces can actually influence those around us. In an age when we are becoming more personally isolated by technology — and when online forums can become echo chambers of our own implicit biases — those in-person connections are vital to reinforce. Because public areas help foster these connections, it is crucial that these spaces are inclusive, welcoming, and easy to access for everyone.

In her book The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behavior, and Well-Being (Trinity University Press, 2019), environmental psychology consultant Lily Bernheimer examines how the design of public space affects the people who use it. She cites what she calls the Laweiplein Paradox — the story of an intersection in the Dutch province of Friesland that was reimagined by traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Laweiplein ticked all the boxes of being a well-engineered intersection, but still was plagued by a high number of accidents. So Monderman stripped it of the normative, rule-based trappings of traffic lights, signs, and lane markers, and recast it as a shared public circle with a central green space.

“Monderman had one central goal: to reduce traffic speed to the level at which people can make eye contact,” Bernheimer writes. “When drivers move slowly enough to communicate visually with pedestrians and bicyclists, a fundamental change happens. They start to look at each other, to wave and nod, to drive more carefully.” 

As a result of safety conditions falling equally on the shoulders of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, the different groups engaged with and respected one another, and the number of accidents decreased.

In a world where we are constantly speeding up, it seems fitting that slowing down can actually shore up human connection and empathy for one another — and can make everyone safer as a result. “As a society, we act a bit like teenagers,” Bernheimer writes. “If our parents are unreasonably strict, it makes us all the more rebellious. Conversely, a total lack of structure or positive role models can produce wayward teens. Designing public space is a subtle balancing act between these two extremes.”

If outdoor public space can reinforce our connections to and improve our investment in society, then it is critical to take those principles inside as well. In a talk at Google’s Detroit office about her book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen discussed the effect of building design on users. One example she cited is the Cathedral of Amiens, in France, which inspires awe in visitors. Scientists have found that a feeling of awe can inspire within people “what are called prosocial thoughts — to consider their individual place in a larger community … their shared humanity with other people,” Goldhagen explained. The fact that we can quantify links between a structure’s design and how people feel about others underscores the importance of creating spaces where people can come together and forge connections.

For savvy designers, incorporating social areas such as lounges, cafés, study spaces, and occupiable circulation is now standard across the education, science, and office sectors, with the aim of encouraging collaboration. But including them isn’t enough; design makes or breaks the success of these spaces. Too often they are tucked away in awkward parts of the floor plan, resulting in a dark and isolated atmosphere. If these spaces are centrally located and filled with natural light — even better if they have high ceilings, views, and comfortable furniture that users can rearrange to suit their needs — people will want to spend time there. And in so doing, they will actually talk to one another, as opposed to communicating entirely within the cloud. These in-person connections do more than just make people happier; they lead to moments of creative serendipity and problem solving, which can make companies and institutions work better. “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that built environments, and specifically the design of built environments, affect how people fare physically. They affect how they think, decide, interact with others, and how they feel emotionally,” Goldhagen said in her talk. “What we now know is that these effects are real, and they are not negligible.”

The digitization of our society has so many upsides: We can talk to more people than ever before, and we have so much information at our fingertips that we can easily fall down hours-long Internet rabbit holes as we research anything our hearts desire. The danger is that our relationship with the online world is an entirely self-directed experience — we only seek answers to the questions we know we have, from sources we know and like, and we miss all of the learning that we can get from others with differing viewpoints. This is cementing our already devastating implicit biases, and drawing lines in a society marked by division. We haven’t yet reached the point where we’re all hoping to escape through the VR looking glass, and well-designed spaces that help us engage with others in a spirit of community can help pull us back from the brink. These spaces engender happier and healthier individuals and a more personally connected society — even if that connection is nodding at a neighbor as we check Twitter from a shared park bench.