The psychological perception of the city | Ignacio Grávalos – Patrizia Di Monte

In 2007, and for the first time in history, the world’s urban population was already more numerous than the rural population.1 According to the forecasts of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2050 75% of the population Population will live in cities.

The situation was very different at the end of the 19th century, when only 10% of the population was urban. At that time, the incipient industrial city was already a fact. A new urban society was adapting to a new scenario and began to undergo a transformation in its main structures. One of the topics mainly addressed by urban sociologists in the thirties of the twentieth century, is the loss of primary relationships (face to face) in the face of the immense network of contacts (secondary ties) that drove the metropolitan reality. In those years there is a metamorphosis, for certain theorists bathed in nostalgia, of the modes of relationship of agricultural societies.

How does man react with the fading of this type of intimate and closed relationship in the face of the explosion of multiple and diverse interactions that the great city now offered him?

To what extent does the city determine the behavior of individuals and social life?

Chicago, 1909 | Fuente:
Chicago, 1909 | Source:

The multitude of the sensory impacts of the metropolis demanded an over-tension from the citizen, an impossible implication that he could not bear and that Simmel,2 at the beginning of the twentieth century, called the

“increase in nervous life”.

Something similar happened with the proliferation of the many interpersonal relationships of urban life that tended to saturate the emotional capacity of the individual. This one, was forced to select concrete facets in which to relate with the rest of individuals; Each citizen was a polyhedral being who showed some of his faces while hiding others. In a way, the individual was forced to rank, to focus their implications on those aspects that he considered a priority. And establishing, as a defense, a series of automatisms that freed him from the fatigue of certain emotional choices.

On the one hand there was the loss of the family nucleus, while, on the other, the citizen was inserted into a large group. Their decisions, increasingly, were influenced by a kind of social consensus, where individual choice in favor of a certain conformitywith respect to the behavior established by the social mass lost strength. At the same time, the urban being was camouflaging his way of feeling in order to play a role in the urban scene. And the set of all these representations is what constituted his personality. In the words of E. Goffman,4

“Life is a theatrical performance”.

Various sociologists at the Chicago School analyzed the relationship between the city and society, at a time when both were in continuous transformation. Robert E. Park,5 one of the founding members, posed the city as a laboratory, a

“state of mind”,

as a field of study of human behavior and psychology, a platform on which a new form was developed to live.

“Future city”, Corbett (Popular Science, 1925). (
“Future city”, Corbett (Popular Science, 1925) | Source:

Issues such as emotional distancing, the loss of family nuclei, the dissolution of religious groups and the alteration of social classes, were replacing the ties that once united people with the territory with more diffuse and relocated ones. This situation caused a reconfiguration of the feelings of identity and, likewise, a transposition of what Halbwachs6 called the

“collective memory”.

This memory, as the author explains, is a production that requires social frameworks (we are never alone), and is only built to the extent that it is able to establish benchmarks with the rest of society. However, those points were no longer the same. Those memories anchored in the tradition and customs of the agricultural society were those that ensured an intimate and necessary link with the territory which, in turn, was its own livelihood. With the new urban reality, a displacement begins, a relocation of the concrete referents that the city tends to disperse preventing the reconstruction of memories, of psychic representations.

But it is not only an emotional issue, it also begins a constant journey towards the disappearance of the “place”, increasingly unpredictable, or better, increasingly determined by the undetermined. Issues related to the loss of the anthropological site alter the symbolic ability of individuals to recognize themselves in the territory. In those years there was a tendency towards the study of urban artifact, most often considered harmful, as an element that interfered with social life.

Louis Wirth,7 another member of the aforementioned Chicago School, claimed that citizen behavior is determined by social structures and environmental factors. It is the scenario that defines the behavior of society. The emergence of the big city entails the emergence of a new emotional behavior, conditioned by the city itself, which presents a wide range of possibilities: from finding a specific identification for each particular obsession, traveling between strangers or the ability to dissolve in the anonymity. In all this, the city offers an indispensable element in urban life: the emergence of the unexpected, of surprise and what John F. Lofland8 calls

“the presence of a stranger”.

Fotograma de Wonderland, de Michael Winterbottom
“Wonderland”, by Michael Winterbottom

Already in the sixties, Kevin Lynch9 conducted studies on the city trying to systematize those environmental images that transmit an emotional security to the individual. He articulates them around readings on the path, the landmark, the edge, the node and the neighborhood. However, despite requiring a very well organized, poetic and symbolic urban environment, it does not lose sight of the fundamental capital of urban reality: citizens and their daily flows that give meaning to the metropolitan scene.

So there are a number of physical dimensions or digital urban condition behavior. And there is, likewise, an attempt to humanize and rebalance both trends. David Harvey called it

“The urbanization of consciousness”,

Saskia Sassen refers to the

“Urbanization of technology”.

Psychosocial care studies on the city begins in the early seventies. There is special attention to the psychological changes of urban society. In parallel, in those same years, a new way of regulating the foundations of urban planning is experienced, in which the figure of the planner becomes more permeable through citizen participation processes, and becomes an element of balance, a facilitator among the various agents involved.

These studies derive in a special consideration about urban spaces as a privileged scenario to articulate social relations. Based on the study of several authors Proshansky y Fabian, Gehl), Corraliza10 summarizes the quality criteria of these spaces in the following points:

· The need for contact control and social interaction.
· The need for security and maintenance responsibility.
· The need for varied social activities.
· The need for aesthetic satisfaction.

These criteria give us the key to the success and failure of public spaces. And it is no accident that it is precisely on these arguments on which the issues (and frictions) of the public and private sphere are articulated. Based on these criteria, a diagnosis could be made as to why some authors have called the

“privatization of public space” and,

in the same way, the

“social massification of private spaces”.

One might ask, therefore, what has failed, what we have forgotten in the conception of public spaces.

Ignacio Grávalos – Patrizia Di Monte. Architects (estonoesunsolar)
Zaragoza-Venezia. Noviembre 2019.

According to the World Bank’s development indicators, in 2013 the urban population was set at 53% of the total.
Simmel, Georg. El individuo y la libertad. Barcelona: Península. (1911)
The conformity trend was studied by Solomon Asch in “Studies fo Independence and Conformity” (1956)
Goffman, Erving. La presentación de la persona en la vida cotidiana, 1959
Park, Robert E., La ciudad y la ecología urbana y otros ensayos, 1952
Halbwachs, Maurice. La memoria colectiva, 1950
Wirth, Louis. El urbanismo como modo de vida, 1938
Lofland, John. Analyzing social settings, 1976
Lynch, Kevin. La imagen de la ciudad, 1960
10 Corraliza, José Antonio. Ciudad, arquitectura y calidad de vida: notas para una discusión. En R. de Castro(comp.), Psicología ambiental: intervención y evaluación del entorno, 1991.

Article originally published in The Living City in April 2015.

Ignacio Grávalos es arquitecto por la ETSAB (Barcelona, 1994). Doctor por la Universidad de Zaragoza (2020) con su tesis “El fin de la modernidad. Visiones del espacio urbano desde una perspectiva cinematográfica”. Master de Investigación y Formación Avanzada en Arquitectura por la Universidad San Jorge (2013). Es profesor titular de Expresión Arquitectónica y Proyectos Fin de Grado de la Escuela de Arquitectura de la Universidad San Jorge.

Patrizia Di Monte es arquitecta por el I.U.A.V., becada por el Gobierno Italiano para estudios de postgrado del 1996 al 1998, titulo de Master ETSAB-UPC-CCCB, doctorado ETSAB-UPC, profesora de Urbanismo y Arquitectura Social y coordinadora de relaciones internacionales de la ETSA USJ hasta 2014. Visiting professor del Politecnico de Milán, Master NIB, y SOS en Italia desde 2015. Validated Lead Expert Urbact + Cost.

En 1998 fundan gravalosdimonte arquitectos, desarrollando proyectos culturales, que abarcan desde el arte a la arquitectura, estrategias de regeneración urbana, paisajismo, arquitectura participativa y urbanismo sostenible. Autores intelectuales del programa “estonoesunosolar”. Ganadores de los premios internacionales, Eurocties Planning for people, 2011; Innovazione e Qualitá urbana 2010, Saie Selecion 12 Urban Regeneration and development, Biennale Spazio Pubblico 2013 Cittá sociale, mención de investigación XI BEAU; sus trabajos han sido expuestos en NAI – Rótterdam, DAZ – Berlín, MAXXI – Roma, Biennale Architettura Venezia y Bienal Arquitectura Urbanismo Española.

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