A complicated park

Sometime in the spring, I had the pleasure of taking part in an online event called “The City in Mind,” organized by my friend Davide Ruzzon, who wears many hats but whom I know best as the director of IUAV University’s Master’s degree program in neuroscience for architecture. Davide asked me if I would conduct a short interview with our special star guest, Richard Sennett, whose writings I have admired for a very long time. I was both chuffed and nervous. In preparation, I read Sennett’s most recent book Building and Dwelling, which I have since described to some of my students as “the best book about urbanism that I’ve ever read.” I think I still hold to that opinion. I’m not going to give you a long, turgid exigesis of the book (read it, but at least read this excellent review (which is not at all turgid) if you don’t think you have time for the whole book). I think I was most taken with Sennett’s description of “friction” in the city. This was not an idea new to this book but a long-standing theme of his work on cities. I’ll probably brutalize it a bit in my own thumbnail characterization of what he means by friction, but perhaps think of it as what happens when a citizen wilfully exercises their own freedom to move, choose and act in a city which, by virtue of it having any structure at all (laws, streets, social structures) imposes constraints. There’s something precious in the working out of the relationship between those individual actions born of freedoms and the structures imposed by a city. That’s friction. Good cities, because they have openness, porosity, complexity, encourage this kind of friction. It’s supposed to happen. It’s what makes a city vibrant. It’s the wellspring of urban vitality.

Building and Dwelling was, for me, one of those books that I could have easily hunkered down and read in a single sitting but I stretched it out over a few days so as to savour it and, as is my habit, I took the ideas in the book with me for my daily walks. I usually walk through a nearby park which comes as close to urban vitality as I think I can get in the modest city where I live. It’s well-designed, loved, cared for, and it is busy all year round with walkers, picnickers, readers, frisbee-throwers, demonstrators (yes, ugh, anti-maskers) and even prayer groups. I take a couple of loops through the park, inhaling the buzz of activity, most often plugged into my favourite music and relying on that place to make me feel good no matter what’s going on in the world and in my life. The place just works for me as it so obviously does for so many others.

On the particular day that I want to tell you about, I experienced a delicious synchronicity. At roughly the same time, a series of different events in the park required me to adapt my normal route. The park was in full motion. A thick knot of women, immersed in lively arm-flailing conversation, moved toward me occupying the full breadth of the trail. Children frolicked in a water park, running in wet manic circles both in the water and elsewhere. Flocks of stroppy geese strutted the riverbank beside the trail preparing for nesting season. The males approached me with heads alternately bucking down and then flicking up in warning (Were they flipping me the bird?). The music in my ears was a Jethro Tull song and it had just reached the part of the song where the melody and rhythm both seem to unravel in a tangle of improvisation and complexity making it impossible to predict what might happen next. You could just call this unruly mess “complexity”—that almost impossible to define concept— but with Sennett in my head I saw this as friction. Though it couldn’t have been predicted completely, the organization of the park allowed this or, in the lingo of my field, afforded it. As I kept moving forward, adapting to the local, fielding the shifting horizons of events, aware that I was only loosely in control of the next few moments of my life, I felt as though I had never been happier. It felt like that moment on a rollercoaster ride just before you crest a peak. Time slows down, anticipation builds, the body steels itself, preparing for the moment just ahead, the thrilling jerk, the momentary loss of control. It felt like the moments before orgasmic pleasure when the world teeters on its invisible fulcrum without either past or future, or when you sit before a finely prepared meal, not knowing exactly what sensations lie ahead but knowing with drooling anticipation that they will be rewarding in the extreme. In that moment, everything seemed to fall nicely into place. Environmental psychologists (including me) have tried to bottle the physical constituents that give rise to these feelings. We talk about things like mystery (aka not knowing what will happen next), entropy (aka surprise or uncertainty – more or less), and we try to come up with ways to measure these quantities in life’s settings by counting things. Heck, there’s even a model for understanding how rollercoaster rides accomplish this. But I understood for a second or so that the attraction of that kind of knife-edge balance between the next instant and the last instant transcends the business of counting bricks in facades or turns in a country pathway, or even the biomechanics of the amusement park ride. Is the true attraction of “living in the moment” that we abandon the pretense that we can really predict what will come next? This epiphany led off in so many different directions for me – from urban design to “smart” environments, from the meaning of freedom in the cybernetic age to the design of Ikea stores and casinos.

Now, a few months after this peak experience and at the risk of ending this post on a downer note, I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of surprise in the pandemic age. I’ve recounted this story so many times now, but I keep going back to a safety meeting that took place in my department at the university regarding the rules for re-entry to our building. One of my colleagues said about our building “everything is different now. You never know what’s going to be around the next corner.” I thought about that statement for a long time. Still thinking about it in truth. What’s significant about it is that I think the state he was referring to was exactly the same as the one I experienced in the park that day—the flowering of possibility and unexpectedness—but now in his view, and understandably, there was an underlying menace. Now, at least for the foreseeable future, we don’t want that kind of unexpectedness. We want control and security. It made me realize another thing about affordances, atmosphere and places. They’re not immutable. They depend on context. And our current context is one that is not often experienced, at least in my privileged corner of the world.

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