Creating Public Spaces which Encourage Strangers to Interact


This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional), Spanish

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case meets Charlie Todd – activist, author and founder of Improv Everywhere – as part of a series discussing the future of the city on Smart Urban Stage

Modern cities are full of “non-places” – locations where people are strangers to one another and have no impetus to interact. In a modern world of isolation and non-places, cell phones are a comfortable lighthouse in a sea of uncertain social situations. The problem is that most people choose cell phones over meeting each other. This results in a sea of people looking at their phones instead of experiencing the world and the people around them. I’d love it if public areas were reconstructed in ways that would make people comfortable enough that they could interact without their cell phones. There’s no way of predicting the kinds of interesting moments that might occur!

Amber Case: How do we make public areas where strangers are encouraged to communicate with each other instead of stare into screens?

Improv Everywhere: When I moved to New York in the summer of 2001, it was my first time living in a large city. The biggest adjustment for me was getting used to how people dealt with each other in public spaces. Coming from a smaller city, I was used to eye contact and smiles with strangers. You would usually wave hello to a passing car on the street, even if you weren’t sure you knew the driver.

That summer started Improv Everywhere, in part, as a tool to create disturbances that would encourage random strangers to interact with each other. As it’s quite easy to create a negative disturbance, I decided to challenge myself to create positive moments. Strangers may occasionally chat with each other if something annoying is happening (why is the bus so late?), but it’s not often that strangers get a chance to connect over something fun.

As technology has advanced and we’ve come to a point where a huge percentage of citizens carry around computers in their pockets at all times, communication among strangers has become even less common. I, myself, am as guilty as anyone. I rarely ride the subway without my smart phone- reading an article and listening to music simultaneously, closed off from others.

Smart phones have created a situation that further challenges Improv Everywhere in staging spectacles that break through the routine of daily city life. When our projects succeed, we get random New Yorkers to look up from their screens and become more observant of their surroundings. A commuter is stopped in his tracks when he realizes there are plenty of people giving high fives to a stranger on the escalator. A conference talk is turned upside down when it suddenly bursts into a musical performance.

The world starts to loosen up. You see people asking if anyone knows what’s going on, smiling at each other and grouping together. That’s what Improv Everywhere does. We challenge the routines within various cities, interrupt the everyday boredom and spice up urban life by creating surreal stunts within the cities. Improv Everywhere gets the busy city crowd to stop and shift their attention away from their phones and laptops back to real life and the people who surround them.

This article is part of a series discussing the future of the city. Check out the rest on Smart Urban Stage

  • Tina

    Although I understand the idea of this and often find it uplifting when in positive contact with strangers, I also want to point out something that is often forgotten in discussions about how boring it is that people do not talk to each other in the subway, and that is the freedom that comes with being in exactly in-between-places, where we don’t have to be anyone special, but can just have time to pause or transform between our roles in society. I recently had a discussion with some friends about how much we need that time for calming down, collecting our thoughts, listening to music and almost meditate as the subway keeps moving…

    • Joe Peach

      I very much agree with you Tina. As ever, there needs to be a middle ground!

    • scooterj2003

      perhaps, though this may overestimate how people use their “calming down time”. If you’re staring into a screen, and you’re not playing a game, you’re probably doing *something* like tweeting, facebooking, texting, emailing, and so forth. In other words, you’re still in the same role you were before, only your environment has changed.

  • Chris Richards

    This is interesting to me because I wrote a little rant a while back after experiencing this in DC!
    I was amazed that no one could even make eye contact: