Good small urban spaces

Brandon at mastersplanning posted this old New York City study by the Municipal Art Society of New York.  It has a whole bundle of clips illustrating what makes a good city public space.  I found it fascinating. 

Here’s the video: 

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The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Some of the key lessons I learned from it:

  • Big empty spaces, by themselves, are very unpopular.
  • People want to be seen by people.  Social interaction happens at the centre of other people’s attention: the street corner, the subway entrance, the square’s main feature.
  • Basic durable geometric shapes are great for sitting, playing, and talking.
  • Places to sit are most important: at least a 1:30 ratio of space needs to be given to objects you can sit on.
  • Make everything people-friendly:  different sitting combinations, water you can touch and grass to play on, sculptures and windows to inside activities, and so on.  
  • Give people lots of choices.  Even something as simple as being able to move a chair makes people feel better.
  • Keep a close relationship to the street.  Don’t separate public spaces from movement and action. 
  • Water features are great, especially moving water.  Greenery is nice too, even token amounts.
  • Build spaces in proportion to buildings.  Don’t over-scale either of them.

The interesting thing for me, watching this video, was seeing how well Mexico towns and cities do all this instinctively.  Many public works in Mexico are dismal, but public spaces are not.  Whenever you go to a downtown, there will be fountains, plenty of places to sit, lots of activities for the kids, food stalls, exhibitions and shows, shops all facing the street, good public transport, pedestrian malls, underground or behind-wall parking, friendly security, historic buildings - and many more things that make Mexico plazas a joy to hang out in.  Rather than field trips to Old Europe, urban design students would do better to go to Mexico.

The Bible Bulls-Eye

I’d heard a lot about the Bible Belt in the United States.  The Bible Belt is a catch-phrase for an area where conservative evangelical Christianity is the predominant culture. 

But I never knew where in the States it was exactly.  It didn’t help that people from many different states claimed to be part of this “Bible Belt”.  “Dallas is the buckle of the Bible Belt.”  “Nebraska – smack bang in the the middle of the Bible Belt.”  “Fresno’s in the western Bible Belt.”  And so on.

Wikipedia suggests that the Bible Belt is synchronous with the traditional ‘South’, from Texas to North Carolina and southwards, excluding certain cities.  They base this on the location of traditional Anglican and religious revival movements.  This is a good starting point, but I wanted to get more specific. 

A small piece of inspiration came to me one day when I read an article linked from the Gay Christian Network , called “Will Iowans Uphold Gay Marriage?“   

The article’s author built a statistical model to predict whether a gay marriage ban would pass by 50% or more in any particular US state.  30 real-world instances were used for the model; when states attempted to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage by voter initiative.

It turns out that only three variables were needed to predict opposition to gay marriage in a US state:

  1. The year in question.
  2. The % of adults in the state who say that religion is an important part of their daily lives (by Gallup survey).
  3. The % of white evangelicals in the state.

Looking at these variables, and given that gay marriage is the latest battle front-line for conservative evangelicals, I wondered if the model’s results could be translated into a demonstration of the Bible Belt on a USA map. 
States that are predicted to reject a gay marriage ban earliest I color-coded blue; those that were predicted to reject a gay marriage ban latest I color-coded red. Those in-between were color-coded between these two colors.

This is what came out:

The Bible Bulls-Eye

The United States' Bible Bulls-Eye

My hypothesis ended up fitting remarkably well.  Even where the lines are drawn across states makes sense for the most part, for example: Chicago is more liberal than southern Illinois; the western mountains of Montana and Idaho are more liberal than the eastern plains. 

A glance at this map shows that the “Bible Belt” is actually more like a “Bible Bulls-eye”.  The bulls-eye, the centre of conservative evangelical culture, is the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.  The further away from these states you go, the less “conservative Christian” your culture is. 

Of course this is a very general rule.  There are some liberal cities within conservative states, and vice versa.  And the glaring exception to the bulls-eye model is Colorado.  As the centre of Focus on the Family ministries, I expected Colorado to be more conservative Christian than it is. Perhaps all those skiing tourists and nature-lovers have too much of a heathen influence. 

It saddens me somewhat to realise that the main source of opposition to gay marriage is religious folk, especially white evangelicals like myself.  But as progress on other front-line issues such as slavery, sexism and racism took time to work their changes into the Bible Bulls-eye culture, I hope that GLBT rights will also infiltrate the culture in all states, starting from New England and the West Coast into the very heart of the Bible Bulls-eye.