The GuardianThe Guardian

Why have we stopped talking to strangers?

By Steve Chamberlain

02 May 2023 · 7 min read

Editor's Note

We’re increasingly cut off from human encounters, thanks to the way our public spaces are designed. The Guardian talks to author Andy Field about how we can reconnect with each other.

Andy Field reckons your life doesn’t have enough randomness in it – but don’t worry, it’s not your fault. “We’re sitting right in the middle of the problem,” he says, gesturing out of a café window towards the Olympic Park in east London. “No one is explicitly telling you don’t do this, don’t do that. But there’s no scope for the visitors to this park to be able to determine its meaning, which is the true joy of any park. It’s like: this bit’s for sitting, this bit’s for walking and this is for exercising.”

It sits in opposition to more traditional public parks that are blank canvases, providing a ragged “geography of openness and possibility”. These places invite, say, a pickup football game, a dog let loose, a blanket spread on the ground which can all lead to the kind of human encounters we are increasingly cut off from. But the Olympic Park is a place, he says, that seems to exist mainly for users to be ushered through as swiftly and easily as possible without lingering, except in strictly designated areas. The opportunity for valuable random encounters has been designed out, to our detriment – and it’s something that’s affecting more and more of our public spaces.

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