environments shape cultures.
I've been thinking a lot about the effect environments have on behaviour.
I'm uniquely placed, right now, to observe the impact environment has on my own behaviour. Over the last year, I've done life in a lot of different environments.
When i say environment, we can take that to mean a few things. physical environment first. the place you wake up, the place you work, the place you sleep, and so on.
Digital environment, too. in today's world, the digital spaces we spend time in can be almost as much a part of life as the physical spaces we do - perhaps sometimes more.
I've seen how differently I will behave in different environments.
Doing the same thing - living life - in different places - for me means life is different. TOTALLY different. Like I'm a different person.
But I'm not a different person. Flying to Cuba or Paris or New Mexico doesn't transform you.
It's that the environment affects your behaviour - to such an extent that it can make you feel like a different person.
A story. Havana.
I was in Cuba in june 2018. the hottest month of summer. I ate ice creams, and drank rum with full-sugar lemonade, and ate rice and potatoes and beans.
In the evenings, I took my ukulele and sat in town squares and watched the day fading and the evening waking up.
I took naps. I walked around at night. I sweated and didn't wear makeup.
I met people. On the street. And we hung out.
Right now I’m staying in a co-living space run by a property conglomerate.
I haven't cooked once. I eat kebabs on the way home, or order Uber eats, or eat cheese from the fridge and call it a day.
In even the two different rooms I've lived in here, my habits were different; in the first room I stayed in I watched youtube videos chromecast to the widescreen TV for hours on end.
In the second room, I lie on the bed and listen to music and My Dad Wrote a Porno for hours on end.
Certainly I didn't wander the streets and sit on corners playing ukulele watching the sunset and meeting strangers.
The question of why not is blindingly obvious, right now, sitting here in my room, on my bed, with my laptop. The double-glazed windows and thick curtains are almost blocking out the sound of Parramatta road. The cars don't stop all night. The curtain is cracked, a little, and the blue-red-green blue-red-green neon flashing sign of Fantasy 35 is distracting in the corner of my eye. I could walk west on this highway for fifteen minutes and be in Leichhardt, where there might be a nice square for me to sit on. But there wouldn't be anyone else there.
Why would I even try to behave that way? Those habits don’t make sense in this environment.
The most comfortable place is my bed. Double bed, cosily enclosed on 3 walls and raised a metre off the ground. There's a hard couch on wheels, and a spartan chair and desk, and a perpetually-empty courtyard with plastic chairs and bare concrete walls, surveilled by three levels of balconies. Despite their best intentions of communality, the common space doesn't invite you to linger. And so, without ever meaning to, I find myself spending lots of time sitting on the bed.
In Havana, my bed was a bottom bunk - spacious, comfortable - but not that comfortable. The labyrinthine house had a few internal common spaces - some couches in the centre, a much smaller courtyard on a landing, and a rooftop with lots of different spaces within it. A roofed section, an empty section, some stairs, a taller section still, and then a little more. A winding spiral of small connected rooms, with space for dozens of people to have privacy, together. But still, the streets were inviting too.
There are almost no cars in old Havana. The streets are a little dusty, run down, but they're for people. Students, old people, fruit sellers, musicians, beggars, police, all walking around together.
Every front step is a stoop and at night there are lots and lots of people sitting on their front steps. Because, of course, that's one of the most comfortable places to be. Outside in the cool, it's the right size for a seat, that's where the people are. The sound of this place is something amenable to humans - music floats out of windows alongside snippets of conversations and laughter and generators and the background hum of a suburb without cars.
There's a balcony on my apartment in Sydney, and it faces onto Parramatta road. There's nothing more to say than that it's obvious why a balcony facing onto a highway is a waste of space. The undampened sound of a highway is not amenable to humans.
Of course I sit on my bed, with the balcony closed and the curtains shut.
Sometimes it can feel like our habits are us. But if a simple change in environment can trigger a different set of behaviours, what does that mean?
This is just a story - one of so, so many I have - about how different environments facilitate different behaviour in me. I’m just one individual.
But the behaviour of individuals, on an aggregate level, is culture.
If our cities are made up of noisy roads and boxy apartments with useless balconies, then of course people sit inside. If whole streets of houses are built with big, inviting backyards and tiny front yards with cacti, of course people eat dinner in summer in the back yard, and never even see the neighbours. The only time they hear them is when they do something annoyingly loud. Of course they'll start to think of the neighbours as a nuisance and as the other. And of course if the best place to sit is the front step, then people will sit outside and see each other every day and begin to know each other and feel a sense of community in the space. Environments, shaping culture.
The good news is that we can design environments.
Changing habits is difficult.
Changing a culture is nigh on impossible.
But we can change environments.