Urban planning and social capital

One of the things that first struck me when I came to Berkeley was how porous the campus culture was compared to Harvard. At the Kennedy School, I had spent a decade and never left the building.  This was partly because a large fraction of the decade was in the winter in Boston, partly because the Kennedy School has an inside restaurant, partly because it’s as big as a small college, and partly because the building had a big open central circulation space that discouraged elevator use and even corridors wide enough to stop and schmoose in.  In contrast,this or that project of collaboration among schools and units just kept failing for reasons no-one could put a finger on.

At Cal, on the other hand — granted that the Goldman School is too small to have a whole life in –  I have graduate student advisees and colleagues all over campus, and a hand or a toe in all sorts of cross-unit projects and enterprises. And not because I am especially gregarious or spend all my time out looking for them. This fall, I am teaching a course halfway down the hill in a program with which, though it sort of competes with ours, we just put on a “cowboy and the farmer should be friends” mixer for faculty and students.  The next-to-last meeting I attended had people from at least six administrative units.  It’s just conventional and easy to invite people into groups that cross administrative and disciplinary lines, so we all accumulate large, diffuse, networks.

I haven’t worked at Stanford, but every time I go down there, I have the feeling that it’s at least as stovepiped as Harvard was, without the excuse of climate. (Keith?) This morning’s otherwise forgettable example of economist self-parody includes this tidbit:

Q: You ended up meeting another Stanford professor who works 100 yards away – and you’ve now been together a year and a half. You couldn’t have just walked over there?

A: She may work 100 yards away, but we didn’t know each other!

My conjecture about Stanford is that it’s too big, not dense enough, and too flat.  Between buildings, each of which is a disciplinary or program ghetto of the usual sort, people circulate through a picturesque but sterile outdoors on bicycles, and very few of us have the courage, approaching  on bicycles, to stop and dismount in case the other person wants to chat: we get enough rejection without looking for it.  It’s the same reason a common room has to have newspapers and coffee, so we don’t risk going in hoping someone will talk with us only to find that no-one does.  Berkeley is small and climbs up a serious hill, so while lots of people commute in on bikes, we walk, and on a campus where going to see someone in another building doesn’t feel “far”. When we meet on a path, slowing down and making eye contact is much less of a commitment than getting off a bike, so a Schellingesque self-reinforcing equilibrium maintains itself.

Similarly, people don’t meet each other in the same high-rise building: strong social conventions forbid chatting when you are trapped in an elevator, with or without strangers.  And resistance is growing to the hi-tech bubbles whose businesses provide so much of life internally, with exercise rooms, food, cots, and whatnot, that the employees (who may be bused in from far away with the best will in the world, reducing automobile congestion and all that good stuff), never set foot on the ground in the streets outside.  When it comes down to it, there is no substitute for walking, outdoors in non-private space, with different stuff going on to look at and remark on. City streets and space uses that force people to be out and about in them on foot, that’s the recipe.

Comments

  1. Keith Humphreys says

    Michael

    I am a big believer in the idea that physical space shapes relationships. My graduate program was in a building with a huge atrium that went from floor to roof. What this meant practically is that the 8 floors were essentially squares with narrow hallways and doors to offices only on one side and no place for people who met in the hall to congregate (The similarity to prison design was not lost on anyone). The atrium looked great, but it visited a huge social network cost on everyone. The department was often referred to as “dour”.

    Two Stanford anecdotes which I think capture our culture, which is not just due to geography.

    (1) When I was a new assistant professor I sat on a dissertation committee outside my school. At the end I was talking to the senior professor who chaired it and I said, blandly, “Thanks for involving me – that was interesting. Do you want to go grab a beer?”. He was visibly shocked. Then he smiled and said that he had been at Stanford for three decades and no colleague had ever made such a welcome suggestion to do something fun outside of an explicitly work-oriented product.

    (2) I heard a good talk by a colleague in my department and I suggested we have lunch some time. At lunch he kept saying things like “In thinking about our lunch, I have come up with a couple papers we could conceivably write together on X, Y and Z”. We laugh about this now because he and his spouse and me and my spouse are friends, but at the time I told him that I really didn’t want to write any more papers — I had enough work to do and I just liked having lunch with interesting people because it was fun.

    This phenomenon of equating human interaction with “working”, which I also experienced in graduate school, stops many people from becoming friends. The pressure to make every contact about work is powerful, and some people (untenured profs perhaps particularly) are scared to admit that they are not writing a grant/thinking great thoughts/producing a new opera every single minute of the day. I am not of this type — maybe because I recognize that my reputation is too shot to hell to be redeemable at this point — but for some people it feels too vulnerable at Stanford to say “Let’s get together and talk about football, or this cool movie with explosions and gunfights I just saw, or what it’s like having a new baby, or whether this new hairstyle is working for me” etc.

    I love Stanford and I have many precious relationships here…but I also at the extreme end on certain traits (for well or for ill) that make that happen for me; it’s not that the culture facilitates it. I think it can be an isolating place for people who worry a lot what other people think of them, or feel great pressure to perform, or feel guilty/ashamed if they don’t work all the time.

    • Dan Staley says

      The College of Architecture and Urban Planning at UW in Seattle has a design like this – central atrium, narrow halls, etc. One way to overcome this issue is we held a mixer every other Friday with 5 kegs of local microbrew. All you needed to do was buy a pint glass at the beginning of the quarter and you could drink beer – no special glass, no beer. I have all mine, still, a different design every quarter. Anyhoo, excellent way to meet people.

  2. Rick B says

    The mechanics you describe also apply to the older suburb I live in. We are stovepiped by automobile.

    There is almost nothing within half a mile to walk to, so shopping always requires driving. The nearest school is a mile away, so it requires driving or a bus. The church on the corner was sold to another denomination of different ethnicity, so THEY all drive in and have no contact with those of us who live here. The smaller supermarkets have been shutting down, unable to compete with the WalMart which is 3.5 miles away.

  3. dave schutz says

    “..not because I am especially gregarious..”

    Not true! Rarely have I seen such a total fail in self-awareness!

  4. Bruce says

    I’m starting a faculty position (in the physical sciences) at Stanford and having a bit of the same feeling – I had a mental picture of being able to start all sorts of interesting multidisciplinary collaborations, but in fact barely even see my colleagues in my own department unless I deliberately wander down particular corridors to someone’s door. (Granted, I haven’t been on campus full-time yet and have mostly missed days with scheduled seminars or departmental discussions.) I don’t think it’s that people are particularly antisocial – I would agree with the suggestion that it has a lot more to do with building layout and other accidents of geography.

  5. Allen Knutson says

    I was a math grad student at Princeton, in the vertical Fine Hall, and MIT, in the horizontal Building 2. There were many other reasons that MIT enjoyed optimal mixing whereas Princeton was a sterile wastland, and I do hope the others have been ameliorated in the intervening 20 years, but I feel that the Fine Hall building merits the Pruitt-Igoe solution.