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Dear Friends,

How we are together is, in large part, determined by the physical space we're in. 

Spatial design either disrupts relationships, or it deepens them. 

Nowhere was this more clear to me than walking through the weekday market in the German city of Münster this summer.

While waiting for my travel companions, I tried to remember my undergrad sociology skills and spent twenty minutes counting how many people stopped to talk to the owners of an olive stand. 

French essayist Georges Perec instructed his readers to do things like this; to see what is overlooked in the city, writing, "You must try more slowly, almost foolishly. Force yourself to write down what is not of interest, the most banal, ordinary, colorless."

Counting like this reveals all sorts of interesting pattens. By my count, one-in-five people lingered - and of those who did, more than sixty percent talked to someone else. Key to this success were the nearby high-top tables, where people stopped for a moment to sort through their bags, or to have a cup of coffee from the neighboring stall. Others were simply waiting, like me.

The space was designed for lingering. And the lingering led to connection.

This is, of course, in the great tradition of Jane Jacobs and later Jan Gehl; putting the human scale back into urban planning.

Compared to walking through a normal street with storefronts, the olive stand - and the whole market - immediately engaged all five senses (beautiful colors! delicious smells! free samples!) It wasn't interrupted by fast-moving vehicles or structural barriers like glass windows and doors. It was designed for surprise - not all the cheese stands were next to one another. And there were places to gather.

But these kinds of spaces do more than fulfill urban hipsters' farmer-market-fantasies!

Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni describes how the "Old Souk in Homs [was] not just an economic center where trade created money and prosperity; it [was] a place of constant interaction, where new encounters happen every day." "Trade…offers not just cash and deals, but new faces and mentalities.” In a city with multiple Muslim and Christian identities, the marketplace was an essential tool for peacemaking.

But that was before the war. 

In her book, The Battle for Home, al-Sabouni illustrates how the rest of Homs' architecture - especially the spatial divisions across the city - facilitated the vicious bloodshed of recent fighting, and offers a vision of how the design of public life can literally be life-saving

“To be part of the city…you have to belong to the city, and the city needs to accept you. Without that, both you and the city are doomed,” she writes. 

Today, it takes real work to build that kind of belonging in the city, though it is often in the most unlikely spaces that community connection is facilitated. Consider these three stories about McDonalds, for example. 

What might become new spaces for lingering in the city? How should cities design for relationship in our newly-digital world? And where can I more of those olives? : )

Next time you're waiting around, try a little counting to pass the time. You never know what you might learn. 

Have a wonderful weekend, Shabbat Shalom,




PS. Check out this episode of This Movie Changed Me about Amadeus, with dear friend Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz interviewing my co-founder Sue Phillips. It's wonderful! 
 

Grapes grow up a difficult and
sloped terrain. A soft line of poplars
shimmer in the disappearing light.
At midnight, the poor move
into the train stations of Italy,
spread out blankets for the children,
and pretend to the police they have tickets
and are waiting for a train.
 
The statue of Bacchus is a contrast
with his right hand holding a shallow but
wine-brimming cup. His left hand
reaches easily into the cornucopia
where grapes ripen and burst open.
It is a vivid dream: to wake
from the statue's grace and life force
to the suffering in the streets.
 
But the truth is the cornucopia
is open to all who are alive,
who look and feel the world in
its pristine beauty -- as a dragonfly
hovering in the sunlight over clear
water; and who feel the world
as a luminous world -- as green plankton
drifting at night in the sea.
 

- Arthur Sze
 
Copyright © 2018 Casper ter Kuile, All rights reserved.

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