Making more friends in your building is not about luck — You just need middle spaces
“I guess we just got lucky,” my Chilean neighbour said to me one day sitting on our building’s shared roof terrace.
She was referring to the fact that she and her Spanish husband had made several friends in the building since moving in less than two years earlier. There are a total of 16 apartments in the 4-storey building that we live in, and the Chiliean / Spanish couple knew most of the people living there. Probably around 6 or 8 of them had become proper friends — people they would barbecue with or have a Saturday afternoon drink with.
“The people we know in other buildings say it is very different where they live,” she continued. “They may nod at somebody on the staircase once in a while, but that’s about it.”
But did our neighbours just get lucky? Are people in our building just nicer and more sociable than other people?
No, they are not. But they live within a structure that allows them to interact and form social bonds. They live in a building that has “middle spaces”.
A game of stages
Whether you live in a suburban home or an apartment block, you are probably used to retreating. When you enter your home you move “back stage”, to a place where you perform more casual actions and often feel more “relaxed”. There is no audience here and no social norms are being imposed on you.
When you move outside your front door, you step onto the “front stage”, always aware that you now have a potential audience and a certain element of performance will become part of your actions.
One reason that city life can sometimes feel pressured is that we spend a lot of time on the front stage. A lot of time surrounded by many other people.
The fact that the crowds can be hard to escape continuously imposes social norms on us, whether we are aware of them or not. This means that there are certain things we must do — or not do. Certain actions we must perform — or not perform.
However, if we are potentially able to escape the crowds, should we want to, we are much more accepting of actually being in them. A lot of the pressure we perceive is due to the lack of control over the stage set. Stepping off the front stage can be impossible for long periods of time when we are in the public space. And when we experience pressure, we are much less likely to form bonds with other people.
At home, of course, we don’t form bonds with other people either. Unless they have explicitly been invited in. But some homes, particularly in denser environments, offer the all important “middle space”.
An unusual building
The “middle space” lies somewhere between the front and the back stage. In the middle space you will meet other people, but the number of people is manageable and you can easily remove yourself from the space should you want to.
Our building in Copenhagen is quite unusual in that it offers several of these middle spaces. From the street you enter through a large gate and on your left you will find a staircase leading up to a number of the apartments. Walk straight ahead and you enter the building’s courtyard. It’s nothing special really — tarmacked and primarily used by the residents to park their bicycles in.
But the point is that you have to walk through the court yard in order to access both the second and third staircase of the building. The latter of these lead up to the shared roof terrace. You also need to walk through the court yard to access the underground parking where several of the apartments have a space for their car.
This layout means that you will fairly often bump into people in a space that is small enough to warrant some sort of recognition of each other but large enough to not just be a transit channel like a staircase. The court yard also offers a few places to sit down and pause. This means that people will sometimes stop and have a little chat — especially in the warmer months of the year. The court yard is not quite home and not quite the city’s main stage. It’s a middle space.
More in the middle
In our building, the effect is amplified by the presence of a shared roof terrace. The court yard does have some plants in it and is a fairly pleasant space to be in, but the roof terrace is truly a middle space that gives you a reason to pause. The residents come up here to barbecue, sunbathe or just have a drink while they watch the kids play in the little sandpit.
The terrace is spacious with room for more than the roughly 40 people living in the building. It offers views over Copenhagen and plenty of seating.
If you want, you can come up and find your own table — preferring to sit by yourself. But the terrace is still small enough to make it an intimate space where it is easy to start chatting to your neighbours, just as it is very easy to leave the space and retire, should you want to. Your apartment is just below.
This little environment of shared, yet secluded, areas — the roof terrace, the court yard and in part also the underground parking — creates a whole cluster of middle spaces around the nucleous that is your home. Places that are somewhere in between your most private space and the front stage of the city.
It was due to the presence of these spaces that my Chilean neighbour was fortunate enough to make several friends in her building. Had they not been there, she would not have, even if she is a very likeable person.
What can we learn from this? Well, the concept of the middle space can easily be extended into other contexts than your home. If you are a traveller, you may have experienced partucarly comfortable hotel lobbys. Spaces that are not your little room upstairs and not the big city outside. An environment that is more manageable yet still invites to interact with other people.
I particularly remember a stay at the Hyatt in Mendoza in Argentina. This is one of the nicest hotels I have have ever stayed in and not your standard hotel by any means. But what really set it apart from other hotels were the endless middle spaces. The standard lobby, the “relaxed” lobby around the corner, the street side terrace, the court yard terrace. The list goes on.
I remember chatting to several people during our few days there. Many more than I normally would in a hotel. The well designed middle spaces provided an environment that made is possible, even desirable, to connect with other people.
Middle spaces in cities
But apart from incorporating these spaces into architecture, we can also incorporate them into entire cities when we design our urban spaces.
Cities have endless public spaces, but can generally do with more of these middle spaces: Squares small enough to only house a small group of people, pocket parks — or simply a pavement outside your building wide enough to accomodate a few chairs to sit in on a summer afternoon.
I remember years ago, as a student, living in another building in Copenhagen. It had no courtyard. No roof terrace. Just a staircase. So I knew very little of my neighbours. One summer day I had a friend over, and we decided to create our own little space. We bought a disposable barbecue and set it up on the pavement right outside my ground floor apartment. If I stood on my toes, I could reach things in my window sill from there.
We put up a couple of foldable chairs and lit up the barbecue. Slapped on some meat and vegetables and had a cold beer, sitting there on the narrow street right in the old heart of Copenhagen.
This was in the middle of the busy shopping and café district. Hundreds of pedestrians will pass by in an hour but thankfully very few cars. I can still remember all the smiles and nods we got from people walking by. The presence of this makeshift middle space seemed to have a pleasing effect not just on us, but on most people who were somehow “calmed” by the relaxing of social norms that it signalled.
Middle spaces won’t necessarily make you befriend the entire city, but they supply an environment for interaction that, even if you don’t talk to anybody at all, fill that mental gap in between full blown front stage and entirely private back stage.
Having this in-between is crucial for community building in much the same way that the advent of coffee houses in the 17th and 18th century created something that was not there before: A public sphere. It was in the coffee houses that people started to form bonds across traditional divides, at least to some extent. It was here they could communicate and debate the state of things in groups controlled by themselves.
Just as all this chatting over coffees ultimately contributed to a more harmoneous public by helping to articulate reforms that would reduce class divides, the presence of architectural and urban middle spaces are key to fostering harmoneous city dwellers.