Triangulation & Public Space: Bringing citizens together.

A small crowd gathered around the baby blue public piano at Lonsdale Quay on a Friday morning.

After missing the Seabus on my way to work today,  I decided to go check out Lonsdale Quay Plaza instead of waiting inside the terminal.I then encountered something unexpected at the plaza:

Indeed, as we can see from the picture, that is a public piano placed right upon the edge of the plaza near the water surrounding Lonsdale Quay. Having just seen William Whyte’s documentary, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, there was something incredibly relevant about this piano; It seemed to fit directly into what Whyte would call Triangulation. Triangulation would be defined as “that characteristic of a public space that can bring people together, strangers. It’s usually an external stimulus of some kind”.

In this case, that stimulus is the piano; I really couldn’t think of a better addition to such a space. For starters, it was unexpected for such an environment; Strangers stopped and approached the piano (as we can see with the three ladies above). Others stood further away on the periphery, enjoying the sounds of the two amateur pianists deciphering their song.

Not only was the piano a magnet for people to stop and linger in the plaza, but it brought strangers together in direct way; a catalyst for conversations.  Indeed, the piano gave a tangible reason for strangers to interact with each other. Not only was I a witness of such process but I also took part in it asking a man about the piano itself. I also learned about a German couple’s world trip after they asked me to  take a picture of them with Vancouver as a back drop.

Other strangers were conversing as well, and it seemed to revolve around the piano. Some wanted to try it while others congratulated piano performers on their musical abilities. The main point here is that this example of triangulation, the piano, gave strangers something in common. In doing so, it stimulated and sparked interest in the immediate environment directly in front of them, resulting in a natural source for interaction.

Such opportunities for interaction between strangers is something I find vital for the health of a sustainable city. In 1996, Louis Wirth had famously defined the urban condition as “a relatively large, dense and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals”. Yet this definition misses a critical dimension. What really gives city life its special character and possibility are the interactions among these diverse individuals and their mixing. Urbanism without a certain degree of cosmopolitanism would just be a mass of completely unconnected, alienated strangers.

A Street performance like the one above is a great example of Triangulation

What the concept of triangulation brings to the table is a direct avenue to increase the possibility for the interactions of its citizens. But does this mean we have to place a piano at every public square? Of course not. To reiterate, triangulation can be understood as “any temporary disruption of civil inattention. It is a process by which some external stimulus creates a stimulus for social interaction that prompts strangers to talk to each other.”

This source of stimulation might be an external situation such as an unusual person on the street, a deliberate performance of a mime, music, or even an interesting physical object or sight. The quality of these events themselves are not necessarily important; as Whyte says – “the real show is usually the audience; many people will be looking as much at each other as at what’s on ‘the stage'”.

Indeed, what is important here is that the triangulating event provides a reasonable context where strangers initiate contacts. It accomplishes this in three ways:

  1. An external stimulus causes people to spend more time in close proximity to strangers.
  2. It directs the gaze and body posture of people in the crowd away from each other making their close bodily encounters less confrontational.
  3. It gives strangers something in common to base an interaction around.

Triangulation can be any novel event in public space that can provide a framework for people to observe strangers and then engage with them. For example, Street acts stimulate interactions between strangers in unexpected times and locations within public space. They break preconceived social roles and serious objectives and instead create “moments of true recreation.”

Although the examples of triangulation listed above are pretty common, I believe there is much to explore regarding the subject. As we saw in the introduction, the piano at Lonsdale Quay shares an additional quality which many other triangulation examples do not have. Strangers not only had the opportunity to not only listen to the piano, but play it as well. This idea of interactiveness is where I believe a lot of potential in triangulation lies:

This interactive art exhibition, Body Movies, made by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is a great example of how giant spaces can be turned into interactive areas where strangers can not only be given opportunities to socialize but to interact and create experiences together. I found this reference to Body Movies through the book Hostile Intent and Counter-Terrorism: Human Factors Theory and Application by Dr. Glen Lawson and Dr. Alex Stedmon.

Although I was initially confused, it turns out that triangulation can be used as a strategy for counter-terrorism, through “disruption of civil inattention as a means of assisting in informal surveillance.” This idea brought me right back to Simmel’s alienated blase citizen where things are experienced as unsubstantial. Therefore, attention is not put into the present moment. As Lawson and Stedmon describe, ‘natural surveillance’ (or ‘eyes on the street’ as Jacobs would call it) can be created through this triangulation whereby citizens are stimulated out of their daze and immersed into their present environment, paying attention to others around them. Although “anti-terrorism” might not be the narrative I would like to pursue, what is insightful here is the notion of citizens engagement in the present moment creates safety in the public realm in an natural way; natural as in, citizens do not regard each other as potential terrorists but if potential terrorists were to act in such public arenas, they would quickly be recognized due to such public engagement of the present moment. The next interactive art exhibition Hand From Above by Chris O’Shea is a great example of how triangulation can be used as a tool for natural surveillance of the street:

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that the these examples of triangulation are engaging people with the environment and each other, something I believe planners are not putting enough emphasis on. As Maslow in 1943 pointed out, people do not only come to the city to meet their physiological needs, they also move to the city to interact with people searching for love, esteem and self-actualization, and to experience the diversity of their surroundings. By designing spaces that are more engaging, bringing citizens together through triangulation, we are creating more connected citizens and therefore a more connected city. 

Charles Montgomery, author of Happy Cities states:

“Every time we have a trust building encounter, with friends or with strangers, it triggers feelings and actions that are more altruistic. We have a mountain of evidence, that the way we design our cities, their systems, and their places and spaces has a strong effect on how we regard and treat other people.”

It is inside public open space that people are best able and most likely to engage with other people, and if we can create more engagement through various forms of triangulation, then perhaps it is possible to build a stronger and more connected city. It is through these spaces that people can exchange ideas, form relationships and most importantly have empathy for their fellow citizens. 

– Luc Bagneres

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