December 16, 2004

Interview with Chris Alexander for Fizz/Hiram Pines, by Maggie Moore

3349 words


MM: Hiram has sent us this wonderful story about Martin Luther King:

ďIíll always remember one particular story about the urban environment, in this instance from Dr. Martin Luther King. In 1965, the King family moved from the comparatively bucolic setting of single family homes on tree-lined streets in Atlanta to the black ghetto of high-rise project slums on the South side of Chicago. Dr. King felt he needed to live their experience to understand their experience, having previously focused so much of his time and energy working in and out from the South.


ďDr. King then related how the quality of life within his family, which included his wife and four children in a small and horribly maintained apartment, began to degrade. Everybody was more irritable and stressed, tolerances were lower, arguments broke out more frequently, despair and hopelessness began to be a part of everyday life. He then went on to make the point that they hadnít changed, but their environment had. And, with all that could be said about why that was, and what contributed to an oppressive living situation, the one thing that impressed itself upon Dr. King more than anything else was the absence of trees.Ē


What is your reaction to this story?


CA: There was a lot of controversy in the 1960ís and 70ís about whether the environment had an influence on human beings. It was generally concluded that it didnít really have much influence because what people were looking for was something along the lines of operant conditioning. At the core there were questions about whether the shape of the environment, in other words architectural design or the design of cities, had an impact on anyone in terms of manipulating them to do certain kinds of things. Of course, this is a pretty silly kind of question. Itís not very surprising that the answer was largely negative. But as a result, the real issue of interaction between human beings and their environment, whichwould otherwise have moved forward into more productive areas of investigation, was cut short.


Now, about the same time that Dr. King made his move to Chicago, we wereapproached by the National Institute of Mental Health to work on the question of exactly how the environment does interact with human beings, human needs, human behavior, and the deeper aspects of human nature.


Around that time I had been looking into small scale configurations that occurred all over the environment and had to do directly with human situations. I had not yet started calling these things patterns, but they were essentially the same as what later became called patterns. They were really quite tiny, some of them almost trivial. For example, to emphasize the apparent triviality of some of them, there was an issue about, when youíre coming home with shopping bags and you want to unlock the front door, whether you have a place to put down whatever it is youíre carrying while youíre rummaging for the key. Well, itís of course not difficult to solve that problem. Itís very simple to provide for it. In a rainy climate, itís more aggravating because then youíre not only looking for a place to put things down, but youíre getting wet if it happens to be pouring at that time, so the thing snowballs a little bit. But its still easy to solve. Andwe are still in what I would describe as a series of trivial things.


Now let me go to something thatís not trivial, thoughessentially of the same sort Ė the experience of mothers in high-rise housing in Glasgow. Mothers with young children Ėpeople living on the 6th, 7th, 8th floor, or higher:The children, like all children, are wanting to get out. It means a trip down the elevator. If that woman is doing something that she has to do for the family or her own needs, and she doesnít have the opportunity to take the considerable trip down accompanying a small child and then perhaps stay down there, but instead lets the child go down alone, then she will beexperiencing a continuous series of small worries about whether everything is OK down there. On the other hand, if in response to this problem she keeps the children upstairs in the apartment, then they will start playing havoc because they really need to be outdoors running around.


Whatís going on in a configuration like that is that various forces are tugging on the system, and they start to produce small stresses. Again, even in this relatively serious case, I donít want to exaggerate the importance of that one problem. Human beings are resilient, and one can deal with problems. In fact, up to a certain point, dealing with problems is what keeps you alive. So itís not as if the answer to this is some sort of monotone, perfect environment in which no problems arise. But if problems and problem-solving are good for the human organism, then what exactly is the nature of the difficulty here? I mean: is there a difficulty or isnít there with these very tiny things like the shopping and the rain and the lost front-door key, or more serious things like children needing to go down unsupervised into a not very friendly environment and the mother seven floors above them worrying?


Is this something to worry about or not? The answer to this question lies in the concept of stress, which was studied a great deal in the 1960ís and 70ís and is still being studied. Essentially, what each person has is a kind of stress reservoir. When small bits of stress come up, they are indeed challenging. Itís a cold day but youíve got to go out and get wood, or youíre cooking and youíve lost the recipe Ė these various kinds of tiny stress are challenging and by themselves they create a vigorous feeling in the person who is trying to solve those problems. But just imagine this stress reservoir in a human being as a kind of basin that is being filled with stress. Every small piece of stress comes in and the level in the reservoir starts rising. The nature of the stress doesnít matter. What matters is how many of these ďbitsĒ of stress are in the reservoir. If there are too many, even if they seem individually unimportant, they overload the human organism, and cause really serious problems.


Now, what I didnít say when I gave the earlier examples is that there are literally many, many hundreds of such system configurations which are each quite capable of introducing a small bit of stress, or not, depending on how the physical environment is organized. Hundreds and hundreds of them, many of which have been identified by me and my co-workers. So, what happens is that, as the stress reservoir in people becomes fuller, it gets more and more difficult to deal with these stresses. If the environment is tranquil Ė made to allow the forces to flow freely, and allowing people to solve things for themselves, without being overloaded Ė then everything is OK. Otherwise, not. Instead of being a source of inspirational challenge that makes you feel more alive, on the contrary, the stresses gradually multiply, and with every one that you add, it becomes more difficult for all of the others to be solved. At a certain point, if the stress reservoir gets completely full, then the person cracks for the time being and says, ďI canít handle this,Ē and may exhibit all kinds of physical problems, mental stress, and ultimately serious mental illness. Even below that level, if the stress level in the reservoir is high, they will be operating quite far below their potential to live well, or to do good, because they are actually coping with what is in the stress reservoir, and as a result they are not able then to focus onthe problem at hand.(see box text at the end)


So, my assessment of Dr. Kingís eloquent and simple story is this. What he was describing is identical to what I have just explained. They moved into an environment where the many, many configurations needed to allow their stress reservoirs to stay at workable levels were missing. Then life became extremely difficult, and, as we know, there are thousands, millions, of casualties, all over the world, of this kind of situation. Dr. King described the experience he and his family had in essentially joining the casualty list, albeit (I hope) on a modest level.


I have mentioned our work for NIMH in the seventies. The assignment from NIMH was to develop a complete system of patterns which could be put into the environment that would actually alleviate these stresses and strains. They knew I had developed this way of separating hundreds and hundreds of these issues from one another in such a way that they could be handled independently and built up into a complete environment. They wanted me to develop it, catalogue it, and put it into a published and accessible form so that more and more people could become aware of these issues.


MM: And that became A Pattern Language?


CA: That was one of the major publications that came out of this effort, yes.


The fact that such impacts of the environment on people have not been widely understood has, incredibly, continued until the present day. The construction of streets, housing, work places, all of the environments that we build daily in our society Ė weíre doing it , and going on with it, without consciousness of this problem. Architectural fashions donít do anything to help solve these problems. They usually have negative effects, not positive. Thatís the nature of the deal. And so, in New York City, I guess 8 million, or 13 million, or 20 million, depending on which circle youíre counting, thereís a large number of people who are affected in this way. Right now.


MM: Thereís Dr Kingís notion of the absence of trees and how this absencecontributes to the problem, and Hiram has given us another good example. Heís wondering how the fact that we can no longer see the night sky affects us, which may be common in New York City. Having defined the problem, can we move down a path toward a solution? What kinds of implications do you think trees and night skies have in terms of the way we do our lives every day?


CA: Well, I think they are two excellent examples, both of them very well chosen. I found that Hiramís ideas about the night sky and the question of whether our arrogance is being fed by the fact that we can no longer see the stars and we donít realize how small we are --I thought was very fascinating. One could sum up much of that-- and also Dr Kingís love of trees and his view of trees, present or absent, as a major player in combating the negative impact of the urban desert -- with the word tranquility. We need tranquility. When we have tranquility, it means that our stress reservoir is only partly full, and at a level we enjoy and can cope with. How do we get that tranquility?


All of what I am saying about the stress reservoir depends on the degree of tranquility a person can obtain. This certainly doesnít mean that people have to live in a sea of calm, like old folks. Ifyouíre a jazz trumpeter or someone who is jumping and jiving around the world, of course thatísOK. You can still be adventurous and exciting while also being tranquil. Living a lively life is not the opposite of tranquility. Tranquility is doing all the most wonderful things that you choose to do or can do or have the opportunity to do, but without expending 85% of your energy dealing with the impact of the overflow in your stress reservoir, which is what actually consumes your energy Ė kills you, causes cancer and many other things. Tranquility is not just something pleasant. Itís fundamental to our well being, to our health. Itís fundamental to our emotions.


Let us takeanother example. Weíre used to beingin an environment that is essentially dominated by vehicles. Some of them are very fast moving and dangerous. Many of them are noisy. For very young people and for very old people they are extremely dangerous; but they are somewhat dangerous for everybody. Well, of course, most of us urban dwellers of the 20th and 21st century have learned how to negotiate these dangers. Itís not that weíre living in terror. But the moreenergy you have to expend dealing with the danger of traffic problems, the worse shape you are in topay proper attention to your own life, to the comfort and convenience of others around you, to the importance of whatever work you are doing, and so forth. If thereís a constant assault on you, of this kind (yet another addition to the stress reservoir), it becomes more and more difficult to pay attention to the things that matter.


Ar present,in spite of the massive and debilitating effect of this increasing stress, urban design and architecture press on blithely, with far too little regard for the gravity of the problem. For example, Iím about to write a paper for a Harvard bookon the contributions to urban design that were made by a group of urban designers and architects fifty years agowhen they met at Harvard to discuss where they hoped our environment wasgoing. Many of thembecame prominent and have contributed to the urban landscape we now have in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York City and Boston, and in the vast suburban areas across the US. But in fact, in all of that, with the exception of shopping malls (certainly not the loveliest environments), all of it is car dominated. The contribution to the human stress reservoir that has been added by the car in modern times remains largely ignored, and in fifty years, very few inventive solutions have been introduced. Even in shopping malls, the main experience is walking through the parking lot, not really the supposed pleasure of walking inside the walkways.


The point is, pedestrian life is more tranquilthan vehicular life. However, we live in a society which has gained incredible benefits from cars and planes, not only in the transportation of goods, but also in our own ability to move about freely, large distances, and so forth. Itís been such a wonder and something obviously so important and pleasant and productive, that we tend to put up with the bad side of it. But all of this gnaws away at tranquility. It keeps filling the stress reservoir, it keeps undermining our ability to be human.


Dr. Kingís observation about trees is interesting in this context because trees have a special quality that is not just tranquil. When you are near trees, especially in an urban environment, they are one of the few things in the urban area that remind you of how nature actually works. A tree exists by its own laws and has an entirely different way of being from the machines that inhabit urban areas almost exclusively along with us. The trees arenít just tranquil and pleasant by being green and blowing in the breeze. They cause a connection with nature and allow us to form such a connection, which enhances our ability to be human.


Of course the evidence of all of this is all around us. Look at Bowling for Columbine. You donít have kids going on shoot-em-ups in environments where they are tranquil in the sense that Iím talking about. I suppose you could say the positive pole of inner tranquility, or its negative pole which is stress, is the number-one health issue of our historical era. I donít know that it can be put any stronger than that. Our well-being and our health depends, absolutely, on these matters being resolved.


Has the federal government got a program to help our cities change in this way? I donít think so. NIMH was dissolved a long time ago, absorbed into the National Institutes of Health, and when this happened, it lost a considerable amount of its influence and power to affect our society. It is a very serious situation, this.


In 1972 I was given the American Institute of Architects medal for research for making the discoveries described here. But thirty years later, our awareness of the complex effect of the thousands of damaged patterns in our present environment has only been fully accepted by a small group of specialists. The idea that almost the whole population of the United States is under attack, day by day, from the combined effect of thousands of these individually small and harmful configurations, has not yet reached a general level of public awareness. However, this attack is far more damaging to us, daily, than the potential impact of terrorism. It needs to enter our public agenda, and receive active financial and political support so that health-giving environments can gradually be built to replace those now causing the damage.


MM: The readers of Fizz are living in mostly urban areas, New York City for one, and your words probably resonate with their experience. Now what? Do you have some clues on what to do about this?


CA: I do. But I think that given the scope of this magazine, it would be more sensible to reserve that for a second interview. Iíd like this interview weíve just done to be printed in full, so that it can be completely understood. Then, by all means, letís have a discussion about what must be done, and what can be done in practice, about all this, in New York or any other major city in the US.





[Start Box Text]

How is it possible for small causes to create such mighty effects?


How can one visualize the huge impact of the interaction of so many small things? How, indeed, can so many things which are, when they come singly, relatively minor in their effect, almost negligible. Yet when they cooperate, they become devastating in their interaction. Let us consider , for the sake of argument, a thousand small configurations having to do with kitchen, the sidewalk, house doors, the way cars are parked, the noise coming through the window, the sound coming from the next door apartment, the sunshine or lack of it in the living spaceÖ It is not hard to imagine a thousand configurations of this sort, all having an impact, but a tolerable negative impact on our daily lives.


But let us now consider the stress reservoir in any one human being who experiences these things. Simplifying, let us say that each of these negative configurations (when the pattern is damaged), causes a very small stress that goes into that personís stress reservoir. At first, there is plenty of resources in the personís adrenaline system (more accurately, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system), to cope with the stress. The first few stressful configurations are easily tolerable. But recognize that the available HPA system has a limited capacity for coping. Each stressful configuration that the system deals with, reduces the systemís capacity to deal with additional stresses. But this effect is not linear, it is geometric. Since each stressful configuration causes a negative impact on the systems ability, each stress interacts with each of the other stresses and this interaction is itself stressful. Thus the impact on the HPA system goes up with the square of the number of items in the stress reservoir. By the time 1000 tiny stresses are in the stress reservoir, the effect on the HPA system is of 10002 or one million stresses. This is no longer tiny, or of a scale the system can cope with. It is a massive effect which shuts the system down.


[End of box text]