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Watching People As They Walk

Sina Odugbemi's picture

If you have ever spent time on any major campus, you will be familiar with what I am about to describe. The architects of the campus will usually have laid out paved walkways for pedestrians to use as they move from one building to the other. These prescribed walkways are designed to protect the carefully maintained lawns that major campuses also tend to have, urging pedestrians to refrain from walking on the often gorgeously manicured lawns. If you are familiar with campuses, you also know that people tend to ignore the prescribed walkways. They move around the campus in ways that makes sense to them, even if that means carving ugly footpaths through carefully gardened lawns. The controllers of the environment try to forbid the use of footpaths, but they usually give up after a while. Hence, part of the story of a well-used campus is the network of footpaths, distinct from paved walkways, that sprouts over the years…and remains well-trodden with a stubborn, almost riotous, insistence.

A friend of mine – Steve Masty is his name – likes to tell the story of a campus where the architect who designed the campus decided to do something different. When his campus was finished – I don’t remember where, nor his name – he decided not to construct paved walkways. He wanted to see what users of the campus would do, what ways of moving around the campus they found logical in that mysterious way self-organizing groups have. Once that was clear, he constructed the walkways along the lines the community had already sketched with their feet, and the lawns followed.  Steve would tell the story usually in a context in which we were discussing what he does very well: fashion communication strategies. But I never asked him for an article about the story, except that whenever he told the story I would nod heartily in agreement. I could see the point.

So, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned via the Economist magazine of February 3, 2012 that there is actually a new scientific discipline devoted to ‘understanding and modelling how pedestrians behave’. Says the magazine: ‘Its purpose is not mere curiosity. Understanding pedestrian flows make crowd events safer…’ and other similar quite noble ends.  Two of the stories relayed in the article strike the mind with the same force as Steve Masty’s story about the architect and the campus walkways:

  1. ‘One is the propensity of dense crowds spontaneously to break into lanes that allow people to move efficiently in opposing directions. Individuals do not have to negotiate their way through a series of encounters with oncoming people; they can just follow the person in front.’
  2. ‘Another self-organizing behaviour comes when opposing flows of people me at a single intersection…As people stream through in one direction, the pressure on their side of the intersection drops. That gives those waiting on the other side more opportunity to go through, until pressure on their side is relieved. The result is a series of alternating bursts of traffic through the gates.’

The scientists working on these matters want to model the behavior of crowds for all kinds of worthy ends. And one can only wish them well. But for our purposes here two conclusions appear warranted.

First, social policy and reforms of all kinds need to take into consideration the natural tendencies of human beings, and that includes human collectivities. It is far easier to stay within the grain of human nature and then nudge human beings into evolved behavior than to completely ignore natural tendencies. But that means taking people seriously in different contexts. This is why understanding self-organizing behavior is so important.

Second, communication experts and advisers who focus on insistent ‘messaging’ to get people to do something, or do something differently, need a bit more humility. Maybe one should start by observing what people do for a while. Maybe you should let the users of a new campus walk around it for a while before you introduce prescribed walkways. Those lovely lawns, plants and flowers on the campus might even thank you for it.

Picture credit: flickr user mikesten

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