So often it seems as if those who seek to plan and develop spaces and those who use them are at cross-purposes. Being someone who has spent a lifetime exploring the implications of these cross-purposes, I find this to be deeply interesting. Today I would like to engage in a random exploration of various ways in which the design of space and the well-being and interests of its users are disastrously at cross purposes and comment a little bit on what this sort of thing reveals about those who plan and design and the limitations of their thinking and, perhaps even more to the point, their limitations on empathy. After all, when people design space that they do not plan to use, but rather design it for the use of other people, especially when they design space for companies or institutions which are building the space to be used are designing that space for other people of whom they do not consider themselves a part, it is easy for important things to fall by the wayside.
Let us begin on the small scale. For most of my time as a public school student, I had classes in portables, small modular buildings that were dumped on some sort of grass, often with sidewalks and a few stairs to provide access to and from various classrooms. It was clear to me at the time and remains clear to me even now, that had the people who designed such spaces or viewed them as fit spaces for students had to be in these classrooms themselves, they would have gone about things differently. For one, you are sending a message to children that their classes and their learning are not important enough to build sufficient infrastructure for. For another, portable classrooms are not very ideal buildings to have classes in because they are either very cold with noisy air conditioners making it hard to listen to instruction or sweltering hot. To get a portable classroom, particularly one in hot and humid Central Florida, to be just the right temperature is akin to the classic shower heater problem between hot and cold, and likely for the same reasons.
When I graduated from college and was working for a company that reviewed modular building plans, I realized why it was that portables and other similar spaces (like the assembly space where church services are held) were so uncomfortable and stuffy. If it did not make my own use of that space any more enjoyable, it did at least equip me with the knowledge of why it was that these spaces so conspicuously failed to provide a comfortable experience in sitting for hours at a time. And why was that? As it happens, the requirement for ventilation for assembly space is only 15 cubic feet per minute (hereafter cfm). Church buildings, which like many assembly rooms are only intermittently occupied, receive a “bonus” of 50%, allowing those who own and run such spaces to only provide 7.5 cfm for each person. When one combines this with the very low requirements of space for each occupant, the experience in spending time in such spaces can get very harrowing very quickly. To put it in contrast, offices require 20 cfm per person, which means that one has about three times as much fresh air, minimum, in an office than one does while sitting at church. Houses are required to have even more cfm, often ranging from 50-150, so one has another two and a half times as much fresh air at home, assuming it has been built and properly ventilated, to one’s office. Even restaurants have at least 30 cfm and often more per person, meaning that it is four times less stuffy to eat out at a restaurant than it is to sit at church. In fact, using an intermittent occupancy assembly space, like eating lunch in a school cafeteria or going to a school assembly or sitting at a church service, is among the most uncomfortable and stuffy places that one will ever be in, which demonstrates the sort of suffering that people are willing to undergo in order to learn, all because of poor design practices that actively punish the users of such spaces.
Nor does this stop when we look at larger space, and for similar reasons. If you read or listen to anyone involved with urban planning, the rage in planning urban spaces is for density. The higher the density, the higher the tax value of given space, and the more profitable such space is to the people who own it. But when you look at what people want, and this is especially (but not only) true of Americans, you will find that such people want room of their own to breathe, a certain amount of privacy, and “space.” In practice this means that people rush to suburbs and exurbs and even rural areas to escape the overcrowding that is present in cities even as cities themselves seek to increase density in order to increase their own tax revenue, all of which people actively wish to escape having to pay for. Here again we find the well-being of people and their interests being at cross purposes with others. To be sure, a high degree of density does make infrastructure more profitable for the same reason that chicken farmers like to keep their chickens in small coops to maximize profitability by cramming the most amount of profit into little space. But neither chickens nor people are at their best in close confines, and both prefer to be free range, which tends to mean more space and thus less efficiency. If that means that high-speed transit is not profitable and that cities do not receive as much tax revenue as they would otherwise receive, then tough luck. Cities and other institutions were meant to serve the interests of people, not the other way around. It is time that people remember that, as our lives would be a lot better if institutions knew their role and their place as servants of the people at large rather than spending so much time and effort trying to promote themselves as lords and masters.