6.1.4 Architecture or built environment

‘Architecture’ or the built environment – i.e. how the physical world is – also regulates behaviour.

Like market forces, constraints on behaviour imposed by architecture happen when we are trying to engage in that behaviour. For example, if a building has steep steps at the entrance and no other way in, it is difficult for a wheelchair user to enter the building unaided.

The notion of architecture as a regulator is not new: the founders of New England meticulously laid out their towns so that the relationship of buildings to each other and the town square meant that the Puritan inhabitants could keep an eye on each other. For practising Puritans, at that time, allowing friends, family and the rest of the community to pry into their private lives was routine. Good behaviour in private was considered to be essential for society. However, it was believed that good behaviour would only be forthcoming if people watched each other closely.

This practice has been brought into the internet age by a company called NetAccountability, who were concerned that software filters were not effective in preventing access to pornography on the internet. NetAccountability launched a service in the autumn of 2002 under which people can sign up to have a morally upstanding friend or family member monitor their web surfing habits. The monitor receives regular comprehensive reports of the websites that person visits. The thinking is that if people are aware they're being watched, they will think twice about visiting inappropriate sites.

Napoleon III had Paris rebuilt so that the boulevards would be wide and there would be multiple passages, making it hard for potential revolutionaries to blockade the city; the wide boulevards also provided the artillery and cavalry with room to shoot.

A major airline noticed that passengers on Monday morning flights were frustrated with the length of time it took to retrieve their bags, so it started parking these flights further away from the baggage reclaim lounge. By the time the passengers got there, their bags had arrived. The complaints stopped.

Prolific 20th-century New York City planner Robert Moses built highway bridges along roads to the parks and beaches in Long Island that were too low for buses to pass under. Hence the parks and beaches were accessible only to car owners – many of them white middle class. Poor people without cars, mainly African Americans and other minorities, would be forced to use other parks and beaches accessible by bus. Thus social relations between black and white people were regulated, an example of discriminatory regulation through architecture.

It should be noted that Moses vehemently denied that there was any racist intent on his part. In one sense, his intent is irrelevant. The architecture regulated behaviour whether he intended to or not. Recall that complex systems often have unintended emergent properties – I referred to this earlier as the law of unintended consequences. Changing things in complex systems results in unintended consequences, sometimes negative, sometimes positive. Irrespective of the intent of the architect, therefore, architecture can regulate behaviour in ways not originally envisaged.

Constraints of the context – the built environment or the architecture – change or regulate behaviour in all these cases. Lessig often refers to the built environment or architecture as ‘code’. Architecture is also self-regulating – the steep steps I referred to earlier get in the wheelchair user's way because they are steep and they are steps! Laws, norms and markets can only constrain when a ‘gatekeeper’ chooses to use the constraints they impose.

6.1.5 Law, norms, market forces and architecture all regulate behaviour