Viewpoint overlooking Berkeley, California

Why Context is Important — Developing a Sense of Space

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be in Berkeley California for an Institute of Transportation Engineers event. The event was full of phenomenal students, professionals, and academics who all contributed greatly to the meeting, the conversation, and the field as a whole. Throughout the meeting, I found myself questioning what drew all of these people into transportation and what their collective goals were. Why was I here? What did I hope to contribute to the world through transportation engineering?

This post is my reflection on how I like to think about place, why I think context is important, and what I see as the role of the transportation engineer and planner.

What is place?

To me, place is a nebulous concept. Generally, it’s the environment or space where there is stuff, and things happen, especially as it surrounds a certain point, person, or object. I like to think about how people interact with the places around them. Place is a multi-sensory and interactive element. It’s a way to describe our reality. We mostly experience the things around us, with things further away becoming less and less clear.

Because of this, exposure in some way to the things going on around you develops your reality more deeply. This exposure can come as a result of both surroundings and context. Both of these are methods of spatial thinking that I think enhance reality in different ways.

  • Surroundings inform decisions and dictate experience.
  • Context provides meaning — the bigger picture.
Surroundings Context
  • Higher mental resolution
  • Larger scale
  • Experiential
  • Direction is relative/relational
  • Lower mental resolution
  • Smaller scale
  • Systematic
  • Direction is cardinal/absolute

Mental resolution: What you think about when you think of places or spaces of different scales. Level of detail is the most obvious parallel here. A higher mental resolution is a higher level of detail.

Ex. What I think of when I hear Portland is very different from what I think of when I hear Oregon. Oregon is the massive, mostly open, tree- and high-desert-filled place in the northwestern United States. Portland is the City in Oregon where there is great food, public transit, cyclists, and hipsters.

Surroundings —

Surroundings are the things directly around you. Developing a higher mental resolution of smaller areas increases your understand of your surroundings. Surroundings are the ‘what’.

Surroundings are how you orient yourself in your day-to-day life. ‘The supermarket is next to the post office in that strip mall’, ‘I remember that intersection because it has the painted pole next to it’, ‘I need to turn right, left, and then right again to get home from here’. This is the most basic way that we live our lives. This type of spatial thinking allows us to connect the things that we do without much understanding of the larger systems and geographies at play.

To not harsh too strongly on surroundings, I’ll say that they are the source of many of the fun parts of life. Knowing the side trail to take on a walk, the faster way home in traffic, or the house with the friendly dog are all benefits of a higher mental resolution of a place.

Context —

Context is the things around the things directly around you — the systems and neighboring places that in some way influence your surroundings. Developing an understanding of larger areas with a lower mental resolution develops your understanding of context. Context is the ‘why’.

Context is the reason for why our surroundings are the way they are. It includes the larger systems — social, political, environmental, etc. — that influence the places where we live our lives. ‘Traffic is bad because people are getting off of work downtown’, ‘I’ve seen lots of deer in this neighborhood by the woods’, ‘The high school district I’m in is West of the high school district of my rivals’. In contextual thinking, we explain our experiences. This type of spatial thinking develops our understanding of our place in the world at large.

Viewpoint overlooking the Bay Area

Why is context important? How do we develop it?

Context is the element of life that develops meaning.

Developing context means developing a deeper sense of understanding of the places that you interact with. Understanding the systems that influence your surroundings allows you to better understand your place and roles within those systems. Whatever you think the meaning of life is, you can pursue it much more easily when you understand the context of your actions.

Context is an inherently difficult thing to pursue because you are always in it. I think of looking into context like looking off a good viewpoint. The whole observable world is below you, allowing you to step somewhat out of a given space and develop perspective. No matter what you do, though, you are still part of the landscape you are observing. Of course, this distance comes at the cost of missing out on the sense-based elements of the surroundings of a given place. Looking into context best exercises your sense of space. The sense of space is independent of the five classic senses, working like an inner altimeter, compass, and map all in one.

Looking at context is exactly the magic of maps. Maps help give context for the setting they are documenting. Every map selectively displays only as much data as it thinks is appropriate, and is therefore a very narrow view of reality. What maps do well, though, is show very specific patterns very clearly — think road networks or demographics. More about all of this in a future post.

Moving through space allows surroundings to develop into context. As you move, important or notable detains stay ‘visible’ at the lower mental resolution of a larger space. Learning more places is like weaving a tapestry — there will always be holes, but experience develops a more complete, wider ranging picture of an area.

As you move, the lines between surroundings and context blur. Moving quickly doesn’t allow you to take in as many small details, but allows you to make connections between places and things on the fly. I think movement is a really great way to develop a sense of space because of two reasons:

  • Movement provides an illusion of safety. With no scientific literature to back this up, I think that this reflects on the 99% of human evolution that was spent as hunter-gatherers. These people were largely nomadic, making a sense of space, context, and direction essential for survival. No doubt, these people learned to survive and thrive through consistent motion, learning as they went.
  • Active transportation promotes mindful processing of the environment. Again with no scientific literature, I’ll assert that exercise allows the inner monolog to become clearer or to disengage entirely. Without a rush of unrelated thoughts, the mind can focus entirely on the act of moving through an environment. Especially without the constant aid of a car GPS or smartphone (“turn right in 500 feet”), people must develop a sense of distance, direction and space to navigate effectively. The mindfulness and power in active travel allows more information to be absorbed and added to a mental model of a place.

I’d hope that mindfulness is the case in driving as well, but I don’t know how true that is.

What is the role of planning and transportation professionals?

If a place dictates a person’s experience of reality, planners and engineers are the designers of reality in developed areas.

Big caveat here – there is a lot of undeveloped land left in the world. What role to planners play in preserving, developing, or utilizing this land and its resources? I have a lot of opinions on this but those belong in another set posts.

That being said, most people today live in developed, urban areas, currently around 55% of the human population. In fact, that’s been the case since 2007. This trend is also predicted to keep increasing. That means that the daily lives, experiences, and realities of over half of the human population are in the hands of transportation engineers and planners.

On the flight home, I came across a line in the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling, claiming that “culture and freedom [are] the goals of development” and that the sign of successful development is “the freedom to do what we want”. At their core, planning, transportation systems and urbanization are practices in optimizing development. What ‘optimized’ means probably differs for each professional, consultant, or agency. Based on my reflection above, I’ll advocate for one particular idea of optimization: access.

The role of transportation professionals is to provide access. Generally speaking, access is the final and most crucial step in someone’s ability to do something. Even if all of the other factors align, people cannot visit a place or do an activity without being able to get there. Of course, most people can literally get most places, but tradeoffs often require people to make sacrifices in order to get to a specific place. This sadly often means that an activity cannot happen for someone. Access provides opportunity, flexibility of options, and ability — in short, Rosling’s view of the ideal developed world.

Feet walking on a paved desire path through a grove of trees

Taken literally, professionals should look to provide access to all experiences equally and indiscriminately. Of course, this comes with a set of challenges that every public works professional deals in daily: limited resources, differences in opinion, and questions of equity, health, and economic priority. The question ‘Which experiences deserve public funding?’ is a difficult one, and probably differs greatly between locations, parties, and philosophies.

Total freedom and access to to all activities equally is a free-market-style approach. We know this has its advantages and drawbacks but that discussion is more the realm of an economist than an engineer, so I won’t attempt to address it here. This is the model — per my understanding — that we operate under today. Transportation professionals facilitate people in moving where they demonstrate they want to.

This approach doesn’t incorporate much public, large-scale ‘lifestyle design’. Simply appealing to demonstrate willingness to go to a place doesn’t take into account environmental, public health, or economic concerns.

My concerns with the framework I’m proposing aside, I think that the work that transportation planners do is crucial. The ability to access more places more easily is the ability to develop context and meaning. This is the goal of our developed spaces — our cities are epicenters of culture, modernity and diversity. Seeing these as much as possible grows perspective and connection, creating a more meaningful life.

Where have you found meaning in your transportation, travel, and exploration? Has moving through a space given you perspective on the things you do every day? Do you think this is a universal right? Feel free to let me know in the comments or each out to me through the contact page. I look forward to hearing what you think!

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