Lobsters and our Public Realm

We can learn a lot from lobsters to help understand the dominance hierarchies that play out in our public realm. Acknowledging these shared value systems is a step toward strategically deciding whether to allow them to play out in our public realm.

Any public realm design decisions that change the status quo (our “shared value systems) will evoke emotions and seem unfair.

Lobsters & Territory

Lobsters have been around for 300 million years. The dinosaurs came and went, the lobsters are still with us.

Lobsters need territory, to live, to protect themselves. As suitable territory is finite, this leads to conflict. The result of conflict re-affirms the dominance hierarchy: one lobster is more important than the other lobster. The more important lobster even releases more serotonin and is happier, while the losing lobster droops its shoulders. This dominance hierarchy has been played out for 300 million years. As Jordan Peterson describes this scenario in his book The 12 Rules for Life, the longer a hierarchy has existed, the more stable it is.

Dominance Hierarchies

Peterson argues that the same is true in society. We have shared value systems, to help decide “which lobster should be given a wide birth” when moving past. It’s a way to understand the world, to reliably understand how to act in our public realm. These shared value systems decide who gets to move first, who can keep moving. It’s a game of status and hierarchy: the person feeling in a more dominant position will go first or keep moving (unless, of course, they acknowledge that system and break out of it, letting another person move through that space first).

If you feel that you don’t participate in this dominance hierarchy, let me pose to you this context: you are driving down an urban road. A teenager, at the same time, has decided to cross the road in front of you. The space you’re going to travel through at your current speed would mean your car will hit and likely kill her. Will you judge that person, and perhaps not slow down to let them cross, swerving a little instead to make your point? Or at least utter in frustration how “stupid” they are? This is the dominance hierarchy in action. Your values are applying to this specific situation of who should be allowed to go first.

Let me be clear that I’m not arguing against having shared value systems for our public realm, of course we need order to help us to consistently understand who should move first. What we need to do is to first acknowledge our shared value systems, and design in spite of them.

The Road “Safety” Authority perpetuate this dominance hierarchy in Ireland. They firmly and continuously use messaging to train society to give people in their vehicles the go-to response to a person they’ve just killed: “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”

The idea of “shared spaces” in Ireland completely fails, because it purposefully ignores the existence of the dominance hierarchy in our established shared value systems.

Shared value systems on our roads

What do lobsters teach us about purposefully designing our public space?

  • Between people driving, there is a dominance hierarchy. There is the stereotypical male in his 30s revving his engine at the little student in his little Nissan Micra.
  • Between people walking and people driving, the shared value system is clear: the driver will take precedence even if it’s in an explicitly pedestrian area.
  • Between people cycling and people in vehicles, there is even higher chance of conflict on the road. The road gives finite territory, and the person driving will likely be following the shared value system of “get the fuck out of my way”.
  • There’s also a notable scrap at the bottom of road space, with some bus drivers habitually driving threateningly next to someone on their bike.
  • Even between people walking, there is chance for status and hierarchy games to play out. The cocky teenage boy is more likely to strut down the footpath, not “making space” for another person.
  • And I dare the walker to use the Rule of the Road that you may cross first at a junction, even if there’s a person driving who intends to turn in your direction. The lack of applicability of that rule is an indication of the strength of this dominance hierarchy.
  • Footpaths lose out to the dominance hierarchy of the road, which is “do not park in my way“. So rather than follow the Rules of the Road and not park on the footpath, drivers the world over will park up on the footpath, out of the way of the dominant road users (other drivers on the move), at the expense of the people who are legitimately trying to walk there.

How lobsters can inform our public realm design

Acknowledge the well-established dominance hierarchy in our public space:

Big vehicle first,
fast vehicle next,
then smaller vehicles,
then (possibly) a person on a bike,
and certainly at the bottom of the pile are the people walking.

(I could be wrong here. A person walking a cross the road will tend to not give way to me on my bike, but this is context-dependent.)

Public realm design allows us to design space to ACTIVELY and EXPLICITLY counter-act the dominance hierarchies that are firmly in place in our society. In practice, for me, that means walkers first:

  • Priority of movement for walkers (and other footpath users) in urban areas (and explicit measures in rural areas, although I have not thought a lot about personally).
  • Walker priority at traffic light junctions
  • Continuous footpath design
  • Sharp corner radii at any road entrance
  • Abundant and reliable use of simple pedestrian crossing throughout urban areas (e.g. Sweden)
  • Flip the arrows around at raised pedestrian crossings, they’re the wrong way around
  • Enforcement of no parking on footpaths
  • Generally wider footpaths

Explicitly cater for cycling next:

  • “Segregated cycle lanes” really mean giving explicit unquestionable priority to people on bikes at any junction they are passing through. Any partially-designed design is undervaluing the strength of the value system. (The Dutch idea of “sustainable safety“.)
  • Road territory is a major question. The finite size of our public space is currently dominated by the person in their car or parking their car. Territory MUST be clawed back, against the existing dominance hierarchy.

For people driving:

  • Reinterpret a driver’s argument about “but that approach will slow down traffic” as “but I want to get to where I’m going as fast as possible, you do not have a right to question my rung in the dominance hierarchy“.
  • Share the space: give up some space, for a radical cycling network in Limerick, which could be achieved in ONE YEAR
  • Insist that driving in our towns and cities must be “inconvenienced” by added one-ways, residential-only access streets, and lower speed limits.

Do my proposals sound harsh to people driving? They MUST be, anything that goes against our currently-established shared value systems will evoke emotion and upset.