A leisurely stroll down a city street.
An open space emerges in the streetscape.
A quick glance into the plaza reveals grass, rocks, trees, benches.
A decision awaits. Do I keep walking? Do I sit?
The nature of objects in public spaces can dictate (or at least influence) the choices that we make. Adherents to this principle believe in architectural determinism – that the architecture of a building or space causes people to behave a certain way.
I engaged in a little test of this concept a few weeks ago in downtown Greenville, SC. Townes Plaza sits at the corner of Main Street and Camperdown Way, just across the street from the beautiful Falls Park. The plaza is named for Charles Townes, inventor of the laser and maser, and esteemed Greenvillian.
The plaza has rocks, grass, trees, and benches, as well as a Starbucks with tables and umbrellas. As I sat at the Starbucks, I noticed that the benches were turned to face the tables, creating ample seating for the restaurant’s patrons:
In proxemics terms, the benches facing the table were within personal distance (3-6 feet) of the table and chairs. This would suggest that people seated at the table and chairs would feel a need to converse with people sitting on adjacent benches
My simple experiment – turn the benches around to face away from the tables:
From a proxemics perspective, this reverse orientation creates a proxemic barrier. The benches facing the grassy area invite people to enter into the space and sit, regardless of their affinity for coffee (or the coffee drinkers seated at the restaurant tables). This proxemic division allows people to use the benches without feeling interpersonally close to the people at the table.
All that is simply to say that if you walked up to the park, the new bench orientation might inspire you to rest for a moment rather than to walk on by.
Four minutes later, here’s what happened:
Coincidence? I think not.
Behold, the power of proxemics.