Milgram: The Individual in a Social World

February 19, 2014 - 9:51am by Amy Su

In "Experience of Living in Cities", Stanley Milgram asks some important questions regarding the methods of studying cities. Aside from numbers, density, and demographic facts, he stresses the importance of psychological facts which are obtained in numerous ways. Milgram seems to be very conscious about the benefits and faults of all the research methods he describes. He studies the experiential qualities of cities in logical and conscious manners and attempts to turn them into more objective truths about a city.

Many of the ideas Milgram writes about lead me to question the abilities and limits of architecture and planning. What are the effects and limitations of architecture and urban design in forming the quality and identity of a neighborhood? What influence does an architect have in developing an identity? Milgram writes that “most often the neighborhood boundary is an arbitrary street or intersection rather than physical barrier.” He continues later in saying, “Readers will also recognize that neighborhoods that deemed ‘desirable’ need not always have the best physical features.” So it seems that people identify an urban boundary or outline not based on the built environment but from a series of other factors.

At one point in the essay he addresses urban planning more directly. He writes, “Hall has remarked that the physical layout of the city also affects its atmosphere. A gridiron pattern of streets give the visitor a feeling of rationality and orderliness, and predictability but is sometimes monotonous. Winding lanes or streets branching off of strange angles, with many forks create feelings of surprise and esthetic pleasure, while forcing greater decision-making in plotting one’s course….We would no doubt discover that each city has a distinctive texture even when the visual component is eliminated.” What is this texture? And how do we design it? From the writing it seems that for Milgram, urban planning and architecture seem to be a small part of the entire make up of a city. But, aren’t factors such as walking pace and a sense of safety related to design decisions such as the length or the pattern of streets?

Conversely, because I am currently taking the Urban Studio it would be good to learn how these experiences of a city, distinct to a city can be more directly translated into urban form. As we find in this essay, the way in which a city is experience is the result of many factors and also varies from person to person. What Milgram writes about such as the pace of the street, interaction among strangers are key to my experience of a city but as a designer how does one translate them into built form?

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