Consider Anthropology in Your Next Urban Design Project

By Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman is an urban anthropologist and director of THINK.urban, a consulting firm focused on spurring urban change through the lens of anthropology. She has recently launched the Women Led Cities Initiative which aims to increase women’s representation in the shaping and management of our cities.

For the first time in our history, we are a majority urban species. It’s a statistic you’ve heard before, I’m sure, but its significance should not be so quickly overlooked.

Until recently, cities were far from the norm. Human populations have generally worked out a balance between their urban center and their complimentary rural hinterland. The denser city was a center for trade, government, and later, manufacturing, while the rural hinterland produced food and goods for the society at large. When cities declined in the last century, it was in large part because of a shift to the suburbs with the centers suffering because of it.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until barely 50 years ago that we began looking at cities in a different light. Thanks to the likes of Jane Jacobs, William H. “Holly” Whyte, and Jan Gehl, cities have been transforming steadily into vibrant places to live and work, and are (clearly) the place to be. So much so, that we are urbanizing at an even more rapid rate than expected, with 66 percent of all humans predicted to live in cities by 2050. More than a hot topic, cities are the future of our habitation on this planet, as our population only grows and consolidates in these urban centers.

Despite the pioneering work of these early urbanists, cities still face, and will continue to face major challenges that will confront this assumption of a more livable urban future. With the advent of smart city technology and an autonomous future looming over the horizon, there’s no better time to reassess what “livable” really is. Working to create more human-scale cities will only be successful with the continued analysis of our urban environments, much like those urban greats of the recent past. Anthropology, and other social sciences, will be paramount to ensure this future is focused on people first, especially as we move rapidly towards our “innovation age.”

 

Urban Anthropology: UX Design and Research for Our Cities

Anthropology is a field that is often relegated to an academic exercise in human studies; archaeology, linguistics, and sociology dominate the degrees with research results occasionally making their way into the popular mindset. However, anthropology as a whole (the comprehensive study of human beings), is seeing a resurgence in many occupations. Applied anthropologists now fill positions in business, marketing, design, and importantly, urbanism.

Urban anthropology is best defined as the study of humans in their urban environments. It includes everything from studying our earliest cities, beginning roughly 10,000 years ago, to contemporary housing politics. It brings together the multidisciplinary nature of the discipline, a host of quantitative and qualitative research methods, and a systems-level of thinking within an urbanist context.

When applied to today’s cities in a non-academic context, urban anthropology provides a kind of “outsider’s perspective” to the dominant fields of urban planning and design. An anthropologist’s brain is one that views the current age through the long arc of humanity; they see the comparison between the best and worst of the human condition, and can balance human needs with human desire accordingly. This leads to an acceptance (and appreciation) of cultural contexts, with communication and co-creation at its core.

An anthropologist also brings to the table specialized knowledge, especially in qualitative research methods. Ethnographic studies embed the researcher into the culture, subculture, or even place (public or private), in order to create a comprehensive story about that system and its actors. Additionally, they are guided by a principle of ethics, allowing for a grounded analysis that is scientifically sound. Research is traditionally difficult to integrate into the standard urban planning or architectural practice, but can provide not only an in-depth look into the human experience in a city, but also financial benefits to the larger design process.

As an example, an urban anthropologist can conduct direct observations to create a phenomenological analysis of a public space before and after it is redesigned. In other words, an anthropologist integrated into a design team is a connection to existing users, and an insight into possible future users, much in the same way that user experience (UX) design and research tests products for human capability (and joy) before a product is launched. Through iterative design, the anthropologist is the touchpoint for existing and expected uses, improving the chances of success through this comprehensive approach.

 

Applied Anthropological Urbanism

When designing cities, it’s useful to think of them like chairs. A chair in its simplest iteration is four legs and a seat. The design provides ample support for human beings, and barring any extra design in the armrests, motion, or recline, can only ever hope to be a practical construction around human form and need with comfort layered on top.

A city is no different than a chair. What’s really interesting is that, like cities, human beings existed without chairs for thousands of years. When we finally came around to settling down (as opposed to being nomadic hunter-gatherers) we built cities that fit our form as human beings. Cities were built to feel familiar, comfortable, in short: human scale. Over time, we refined the process to fulfill other desires and human comforts, largely until the industrial revolution famously introduced health risks the likes we had never seen before.

As our cities are constantly changing in use, population, and size, it stands to reason that they require a continued analysis so as to benchmark their progress. Future cities will require a critical eye to the speed and level of technological advances that we at times fantasize about, and at others introduce in advance of user testing. If you wouldn’t make a chair that doesn’t fit a human’s backside, why would we ever do the same for cities? Like Holly Whyte before us, it is not only “nice to have,” but necessary to apply anthropology to our urban environments for the success of our future cities.

Discussion

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12 Comments

  1. And create sustainable cities than can disappear in middle/short terms to let nature back instead of desert polluted zones

    Reply
  2. A really interesting article. I hadn’t heard of the concept of urban anthropology before in a planning context. I wonder how this can be applied in reality to address planning applications by developers? And just what are tools that an anthropologist would use which a planner could understand and use as evidence?

    Reply
    • Hi Sandy, thank you for your comment. The methods used in anthropological research can be applied to urban design projects as well. Some examples include direct observation and “mini” ethnographies on a public space and/or interviews with people (either in-depth or by convenience). Creating this kind of “story” through qualitative research methods can be as insightful (or more, believe it or not) than quantitative data – but also works well in tandem with it. The context that anthropology provides is invaluable to the conversation both before and after a project is implemented.

      Essentially, it involves adding research to your budget. Tracking current and post-occupancy (to borrow a term from architecture) usage can ensure that a project is successful for the people who are using it – and can prevent problems before they arise (thereby saving money in the long run). I always suggest an iterative approach to design in any case. Incremental steps means you have room to tweak a design and provides space for the research that will inform the next phase.

      Reply
  3. This is one more discipline trying to find relevance in an already crowded motley of ‘cities and urban planning’ – a welcome one though. Engineering, IT, Sociology, Public Policy, Economics are already well squatted entrants. I am having difficulty in co-relating our 10000 year old behaviour and thinking into design and plan a new city. One strand I can rely upon is the collective human psychology of ‘citizens’ and need to channel it into the positive outcomes. is this the field for sociologists, psychologists, land scapists or anthropologists? Or may be a bit of all – as all human endeavours are increasingly becoming.

    Very interesting none the less.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Gurkeerat! What I love about anthropology is the holistic approach it takes to thinking about humans and our environment. It encompasses many of the things you mention in thinking about how we are impacted by our urban world. I strive to bring this level of humanism and holistic thinking to the forefront so that we can rethink the way we make and shape our cities.

      Reply
      • Earliest cities were created in 5000 to 3000 BC in Indus Valley and Basin of the Nile. Anthropology as I understand concerns intensely with last 10000 years or so. So we have direct evidence at least from half way of Anthropology. I was curious if there are any lessons to be learnt from Indus and other older civilisations, particularly to impact of or at least evolution of impact of Anthro on Urban Minds.

        Reply
  4. Good stuff Katrina!
    Would love to get you on one of our project teams.
    We work on urban problem-solving across scales – planning, urban design and public space design.
    Let’s look for an opportunity.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Jim! I would love to get in touch. I noticed you have an office in Philadelphia as well, so we’re neighbors! Please definitely send me an email at katrina@thinkurban.org.

      Reply
  5. Indeed interesting piece of article.For sure man is at the Center of society’s development in the cities.The problems we are facing today are a result of human activities and these problems can be solved by man himself.So taking anthropology in consideration in our future planning will be critical.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Noah! That’s exactly right – we are the ones who created cities, and we therefore have the power to reshape them to be better for us humans as well. I think this is crucial to the way need to think about the future of cities – as our habitat, first and foremost.

      Reply
  6. Really great article! I am an urban planner but did my undergrad in Anthropology and find that Urban Planning is far too detached from humans (which is why I’m currently doing my Masters in Community Development). I was in Mexico City last week at the Museo de Anthropologia and it brought up my Anthropology passion all over again. I wish more municipalities and companies would see more value in the anthropological perspective!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Jenna! I find that there are a lot of urban planners who had a similar experience with anthropology. Glad to hear it!

      Reply

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