Consider Anthropology in Your Next Urban Design Project
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.
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