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The Chairs Are Where the People Go

(I first wrote this blog post in September 2011. Below is a slightly modified version of the original post.)
The title of this blog post is stolen from the title of a short book. It's a witty and humorous book about city life, and I'd encourage you to look it up. But the content of this post isn't particularly related to that book.
Have you ever noticed how people are like marionette puppets, strung along by what is in their social and physical environment? I believe strongly in human agency, but I am repeatedly shocked by how puppet-like people can be.
Let's take one example that I've been reflecting on for years - the placement of chairs in public spaces. As a big fan of William H. Whyte, I greatly value — and pay attention to — sitting surfaces in public spaces. But why is it that the vast majority of people only ever sit where there is a clearly-demarcated chair? One of the main streets in Berkeley, California is Telegraph Avenue, and a couple years ago, the city decided to install some green benches at very random street intersections on Telegraph. And voila — people start sitting on them. Why couldn't they sit on the curb before, before the benches took up the same space? Really, these benches don't look much cleaner than the curb. Another main street in Berkeley is College Avenue. A while ago, the city put in some flat, raised surfaces that look like chairs, for a section of that street. And you start seeing people sit on those surfaces. Why do these same people not sit nearly as frequently on other flat, raised surfaces, like steps of staircases, or short mailboxes?
One of these days I am going to print the words "You can sit here" on sheets of paper, and tape them on perfectly sittable surfaces that rarely get sat on because they don't look like "official" chairs. It would be an interesting social experiment.
It's not inherently a bad thing, really, that people often completely change their behaviors based on tiny changes in their surroundings. It's important that environmental factors such as workplace culture, management practice, city planning, and item placement actually have effects on how people behave. But sometimes, the similarity between grown-up human beings and marionette puppets really make me rethink how I act on a daily basis.