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Looking for Faces in Boston’s Landscapes

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Buildings are beautiful. Especially in Boston. But people are eye-catching, too. So in a battle for our attention, which one wins? Let’s look at some major landmarks for to judge.

A time-honored tradition in any city is people watching, and Boston is a prime place to observe the behavior of any type of person you could imagine. The corner of Winter and Washington Streets in Downtown Crossing, for example, is known to be the second most populace intersection of pedestrians, second only to New York City. We’re primed to stay aware of our surroundings, because of our brain’s wiring to constantly scan for people.

We’re also looking for cues to understand our environment. And, of course, buildings are a big part of what we perceive in our everyday experience. When we see images of an environment with people, we process it differently than when there are no humans present. But how do we know that? And when we look around, what exactly do we see?

Justin Hollander, PhD, AICP, aimed to answer just these questions. With study participants who wore biometric sensors and eye tracking glasses (no, it’s not Google Glass), he had study participants stop at specific points in a city to track what they’re seeing. Case in point? City Hall, our favorite love-to-hate it Brutalist structure. What did people eyes focus on in an image with people, versus without it?

Well, if viewers spent fifteen seconds looking at a photo of City Hall, they spent more than twice that time looking at the people than the people in it. That may be because City Hall may be a little too rough on the eyes for some folks.

And what about Copley Square, comparing Trinity Church and 200 Clarendon (i.e. Hancock Tower)? Same thing—of all the beauty and wonder within the architectural style, viewers looked at a temporary art installation of a man on a raft in the tower.

Verdict? People win the battle for our attention, every time. But why is it important?
Because these studies have implications beyond whether we stare at the interesting person with all the piercings over the Gothic structure.

Hollander believes that observing human behavior is key to understanding how to create our built environment. He remarks that “most planning history has not even been human centered, but in recent decades, there’s been a growing interest in designing places through the lens of the human experience.”

This could extend to understanding how to design signs that are more easily noticed in the real world, because it takes classic design principles of contrast, color, and placement and proves their effectiveness.

So, next time you catch yourself staring at someone on the street instead of at the architecture, just remember that you were wired that way.