This article is part of Measuring Magic, a three-part video series that explores the intangible indicators that give a public space a sense of place through interviews with Fred Kent. In honor of Valentine’s Day, the first in this series explores affection in public space. Read the second article in the series on comfort here, and the third on improvisation here.
A public space can be functional, busy, and highly Instagrammable, and still fail to become a place that means something to the people who use it. A sense of place only emerges in a public space when many people invest meaning in a space over time.
At the moment, no amount of quantitative data collection can capture how this aspect of placemaking occurs. The growth of meaning and attachment is slow, internalized, and dispersed, building up through countless little moments of affection, surprise, and symbolism that are best captured through direct personal observation. These moments require interpretation—through cues like facial expressions, body language, proximity, and tone of voice—that neurotypical humans excel at.
PPS founder Fred Kent has spent his life honing this kind of observation into an art, analyzing the qualities that give rise to these meaningful moments, and in turn, a sense of place. In the video above, he shares his insights on one crucial source of meaning—affection—including why it matters, what to look for, and how to make it happen. Read on for five key things to look for to measure affection in public space.
Places exude a kind of magnetism, a draw that brings people closer together—lovers and strangers, alike. Whether sharing a kiss, or simply sharing a bench, there are endless examples of closeness and affection all brought about by great public spaces.
This affection isn’t just icing on the cake; it’s a basic human need. “It’s a big idea, affection,” observes PPS founder Fred Kent, “because it’s everywhere. Every community, every culture, every human being has a need for affection, for engaging with people, for connecting with people.” As our recent Healthy Places report reveals, social support and interaction provides important benefits to mental wellbeing and feelings of safety. Meanwhile, social isolation contributes to depression, stress, and can also undermine a community’s resilience in the face of disaster.
But affection relies on a deep sense of comfort. People must feel physically and mentally at ease before they open up to show signs of love and friendship. Sterile and unfriendly spaces will be mirrored in the behaviors of people using the space. Kent notes that when a space is pleasant and relaxing, “People are proud to be with someone, and proud to love someone, and proud to share that love in a way that’s infectious for everyone.” In other words, as William H. Whyte observed back in his Street Life Project in 1974, in which Fred Kent was involved, kissing, smiling, touching, and eye contact are among the best signs that a public space is comfortable and well-loved. People show their affection for a public space in their affection for each other.
Importantly, however, affection is more than just kissing. As Kent notes, “it’s a casual thing.” There is a wide range of affectionate behavior that one can observe in public space ranging from the subtle to the blatant, from intimacy to courtesy:
1. Public Displays of Affection: The most obvious forms of such behavior are “PDA,” like kissing, hugging, holding hands, an arm around the shoulder, or a selfie. Counterintuitively, as William H. Whyte observed, these can be found in the most public parts of a public space, not the darkest corners.
2. Sharing: Whether its a milkshake or a handshake, sharing and reciprocity are signs of intimacy and trust. Not only does sharing require one party to relinquish some control over something they have some claim over, but the act of sharing usually requires the following three behaviors, too: touching, proximity, eye contact, and hopefully, smiling.
3. Touching: Beyond just PDA, a polite touch on the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek (or two or three), or even a grazing of elbows all represent mild forms of affectionate behavior, especially between acquaintances.
4. Proximity: How close people sit can be a good indication of their affectionate relationship to one another, as well as the level of “social comfort” between strangers in a public space. Surprisingly, as more people crowd into a space, people’s tolerance for proximity can increase to the point where strangers may sit as close to one another as family members might in a less busy space.
5. Smiling & Eye Contact: Although conventions differ from culture to culture, variations on a smile indicate happiness the world over. But when two people reciprocate a smile or a laugh, it is also a sign of sociability. Likewise, simply seeing eye to eye with someone, rather than avoiding their gaze, is an act of trust, respect, and warmth.
While these various forms of fondness are sincere, they are also a performance of sorts. Couples, families and friends all behave differently in public than they do in private, and often their affectionate behavior becomes more overt, not less.
And this great show is often what draws people to a public space, whether to watch or to be watched. Affection that both draws upon and contributes to the richness of public life. It is the raw material for memories, meaning, and a strong sense of place. So in the great words of Lewis Mumford, let’s “forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.”