The Public Realm: What Cars Took Away + Never Gave Back

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Where would you rather be? The main street above or the one below?

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We’d guess you’ll pick the one most at top, even though these images show the very same street — photographed about 100 years apart!

It’s Commonwealth Avenue in West Concord, MA about 15 miles west of Boston. What’s changed? The cars everywhere! In 1906, the approximate age of the postcard up top, the space was welcoming and inviting with the horse and buggy in the distance. Today, the color photo shows the same street can’t quite compete; it’s too full of cars, making the place feel congested — like its mostly for motor vehicles and not for people at all.

No one would think of making a postcard of West Concord today looking down the same street. And guess what? None exists!

And that’s the loss we all carry — not just charming postcards of  local places — but the very idea of the public realm, inviting spaces that draw everyone in, encouraging people to safely walk about, linger and meet up.

Cars gave us mobility, and we paid an incredibly steep and rarely-spoken-of price: the loss of the spaces we most need to see and be in — and even the very notion that such places could exist!

What’s most surprising about the old postcard? Showing it to other people and seeing their surprise at how nice the local street once looked!  We live in such a car-brained world, people simply can’t imagine places without them. Cars vanquished the public realm along with our ability to create spaces that we most need to see and be in to be at our best. To build a healthier future, we’d do well to remember what cars took away, how the spaces are still needed, and ways to bring them back.


The image below shows the back of the post card, with postage set at 1 cent domestically, which was the price before WWI. Imagine!

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Why Buildings Need ‘Eyes’

As a social species, we are built to see eyes, so we look for them all the time — everywhere — without conscious awareness or control. When we find them, they grab our attention, anchoring us in space, securing us to a place. So, it’s no surprise that tour buses driving through historic Cambridge, Massachusetts, always stop in front of the Harvard Lampoon building (below c.1909), home of the university’s satirical campus weekly. This building looks like it’s waiting to see you. How else to make a tourist trip memorable!

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The Harvard Lampoon Building with VAS analysis ©geneticsofdesign.com; original image ©wikimedia

A quick assessment with biometric software, (3M VAS), predicts people return the favor, instantly focusing on its round-eye-like windows.  Visual Attention Software, or VAS, predicts where people look ‘at-first-glance’, the first 3-to-5 seconds they take in a scene, and creates ‘heat maps’ that glow brightest where people look most, (central image above), and visual sequence diagrams, (above right), predicting the order they’ll likely look at things — showing again how much the eyes have it. (Yes, a mouth-like door gets attention too, but notice how VAS predicts our brain directs us to check out both of the ‘eyes’, ‘at-first-glance’, before conscious awareness kicks in.)

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Greenway Mural with VAS analysis ©lingchuanmeng

The same holds true for murals on buildings like the one above, temporarily displayed on a blank wall in Boston’s Greenway, a few years ago. We see here how the heat map, at top right, glows brightest in the eye area while the red outlines of the ‘areas-of-interest’ diagram below it, show 75% of viewers instantly focus on the central part of the portrait which includes an oval eye. 

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Face eye tracked with iMotions software ©geneticsofdesign.com

Photos of people show the eye bias too, with the ‘heat map’ on the face above created with iMotions eye-tracking software, in an on-screen 15-second testing interval. These eye-tracking studies also reveal something else important and too-often overlooked: how human perception is dyadic — it’s relational; we’re built to see each other and need to do so for survival including regulating our emotions on a daily basis. So, like breathing and eating, we arrive in the world hardwired to check out other faces all the time, everywhere, focusing on eyes to get the most critical information about our surroundings. And, from our brain’s million-year-old perspective, it does not matter if the ‘face’ in front of us is fake, or in an inanimate building facade, it’s going to check it out.

Why does this matter? Because to understand and build architecture successfully today, it’s important to acknowledge our ‘secret’ human biases that secured our survival over millennia.  A famous line from William Faulkner comes to mind:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Remember that saying if you want to understand how people really ‘see’ architecture, and what people still need to see and feel to be at their best, today. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Thanks to Lingchuan Meng, Boston Architectural College (BAC) B.Arch. candidate, and a student in Architecture & Cognition, 2018, class, for the VAS images of the Greenway mural.

Thanks to The Greenway Conservancy, News for linking to this post, November 13, 2019.

Thanks to ArchNewsNow.com for linking to this post, November 14, 2019.

Thanks to CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) Public Square blog for publishing this post, November 18, 2019.

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We’re Waiting for You!

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Stay tuned for more on face-i-tecture, and how faces+’eyes’-make-places, this fall!

Ann + Janice

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Five Big Ideas for Designing Today’s Cities

Genetics of Design collaborated with Tufts University on the five big ideas presented here in this week’s TuftsNow and at the Ux+Design conference in April.

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 12.56.25 PMToo fun! Collaboration’s key. More info here: https://now.tufts.edu/articles/five-big-ideas-designing-today-s-cities

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“Your Brain on Glassy Skyscrapers” continued…

Last month Hacker News made our recent post on Boston’s new glassy Seaport district and its disappointing design their top story. That sent over 5,000 readers to GeneticsofDesign.com from over 100 countries in under two hours!

Given the broad international interest, we decided to show more images that drive home the key point: it’s very difficult for the human brain to take in big, blank, glassy, boxy buildings. It’s simply not what we evolved to do. That’s something architects, developers, community leaders, and the general public need to know if we want to make memorable places, ones where people feel happy and healthy, and at their best.

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Above are more images from Boston’s newest business neighborhood, the Seaport District, sitting between the city’s airport and financial district. Using 3M’s VAS (Visual Attention Software), which predicts where people look in the first 3-to-5-seconds — before conscious thinking comes online — you quickly ‘see’ how your brain’s hard-wired to ignore the big, blank sheets of glass! The brain doesn’t direct your eyes there – so they don’t go, thus rendering the buildings essentially irrelevant! Remember, you can’t make happy thoughts and memories around places your brain directed your visual system not to take in!

Images at top left show heat maps which glowing brightest where people look most, are reddest around the details in the photos, the bicycle and lamppost and its shadow -not around the looming architecture behind which is shrouded in black: ignored! We can also see how the visual fixation sequence (middle images) focuses on these details and how they’re highlighted, encircled in red, as the prime regions of interest, garnering 76%-to-98% of viewers visual attention first.

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And what’s true up-close, holds true, further out. Here is another view, pulled back, of the Seaport, showing the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and neighboring glass tower. Again note how the glass block’s ignored, not much attention paid to the ICA either – it’s the contrasting white playground elements in a park that draw the eye.

Again, reiterating a theme in this blog, we discover how our ancient brain architecture, including how we’re hardwired to seek out faces and discrete areas of contrast, directs our experience of the modern built environment, and in fact, sets parameters for its design. When we ignore this ancient brain architecture, we all pay a price, creating places that are actually non-places, stressful for humans to see and be in, that belie our humanity, both today and into the future.

all photos ©geneticsofdesign.com

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Summer Meet-Up: More on Buildings, Biology + Biometrics, August 19, 6:30 PM, in Boston

Come learn about how buildings impact our biology. We will continue the conversation from the Ux+Design/2019 conference and our June follow-up meeting (photo below), embracing common goals to:

  • Improve the way buildings are designed
  • Incorporate foundations in science (psychology and human perception)
  • Leverage innate human ‘unconscious’ responses to patterns in nature.

Next Open Meeting – Monday, August 19th, 6:30-8:30 pm, All invited.

Where: Perkins Eastman, 20 Ashburton Place, Boston, 8th Floor*

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We will break into groups to discuss:

  • Research funding
  • Partnerships with schools, firms, foundations, hospitals
  • Creating awards, accreditation
  • Educating architects with CEU articles, podcasts, etc.
  • Future meet-up opportunities
  • Your thoughts

For a creative, thoughtful evening, come-by. There’ll be snacks! Bring your curiosity!

Please RSVP by emailing: Jess Charlap, j.charlap@perkinseastman.com +/or Ann Sussman, annsmail4@gmail.com

The idea board after our last session, June 30th:

Screen Shot 2019-08-11 at 8.31.11 PM*Entry Logistics: After arriving at Perkins Eastman, call 609-649-2388 for access to 8th floor!

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Your Brain on Streets: The Secret Revealed, How Car-centric Development Keeps You Off Your Feet!

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Quick, which suburban street catches your eye? Where do you think you’ll likely find people walking on a street? The subdivision at left, or the one at right, with houses close-in?

If you said, the street with denser residences – at right, you’re right!

A quick analysis with 3M’s VAS (Visual Attention Software), prepared with Justin B. Hollander at Tufts, predicts how your brain subliminally takes in a scene, and suggests why.

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Here we see the visual sequence the brain likely follows as it takes in the scene at a glance, within 3-to-5 seconds, that’s before conscious thinking comes online. Note how the street at left, a typical U.S-car-centric subdivision, directs viewers to look straight ahead and then skyward towards the trees. It all makes sense when you think about it; this is the optimal view for a car driver, pre-occupied with getting somewhere fast, wanting to focus straight out ahead.

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The housing, at right, however, makes the viewer focus along the street and broadly at edge conditions. The regions of interest (ROIs) diagrams, outlined in red above, shows where viewers are likely to look (79-85% of them) and how the nearby houses with porches and columns grab the eye. This is distinctly different than the typical suburb where the view down the road – not the sides – gets attention.

And that’s the secret – revealed! – on how car-centric design so successfully keeps people off their feet – even on streets with sidewalks! The typical American subdivision, prioritizes the driver’s view, keeps them focused straight in front and does not provide the diverse, close-in, edge conditions the walker needs to find pre-attentively, or unconsciously, to most easily move forward. Walking on two feet, turns out to be hugely complicated for a mammal, and is most easily done with automaticity, or without having to put much conscious thought into it. And so, streets that provide requisite, at-grade visual sequencing, promote walking, while car-centric subdivisions, featuring the distant view, simply can’t. Your brain, not seeing a consistent close-in edge on the typical suburban street, won”t consider walking, and doesn’t let you imagine it either. And, people don’t!

And, why should this matter? Because, we need to walk. It’s what we’re built to do. For health and well-being, walking’s actually ‘a superpower‘, according to this recent article in the Guardian; it makes us “healthier, happier and brainier.” Something, sitting in a car, no matter how much it may move us, can never do. So, let’s get going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and build places that naturally make that happen! Future generations will thank us.

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Animated sequence of a human male walking by EadweardMuybridge, Plate 2, 1887, Animation by Jjkutch2013-07-08.

Research referenced above from the 2018-2019 study, Seeing the ‘Unseen’ at Emerson Green, Devens, MA and Beyondsupported by the Devens Enterprise Commission with Justin B. Hollander, Tufts University.


Thanks to CNU Public Square for sharing this post.

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