5 Creepy Ways Your Town Is Designed to Control Your Mind
Get a dude who grew up in rural Mississippi in a room with somebody who was born and raised in San Francisco, and you find that where you live has a lot to do with how you see the world. You might think this is simply the difference in your neighbors, but it's not; the physical layout of your town or city affects you. And these days, a lot of that shit is done on purpose.
All around you are little design choices you've probably never even noticed, that are at this moment ...
Tricking Us Into Thinking We're Constantly Being Watched
"Architects are trying to control your brain with building design" sounds like a headline you'd see on a conspiracy blog, right above something about chemtrails (thanks for the link, Uncle Steve!). But it's honestly not that hard to influence a person's mind against their will -- you would, for instance, feel weird about watching a porno in a room with a huge stained glass window in the shape of a cross.
Well, there's a similar trick played when creating buildings, and all it takes is some carefully designed streets and windows. Humans are simply more likely to conform to social norms if we think some unseen entity is watching us, and this effect is strongly incorporated in the architectural layout of many seemingly ordinary places. Here's a residential area:
Those large windows and airy landscaping aren't just for letting the light in and keeping things nice and open. They're designed to create an environment where anyone could watch you on the street at all times, and there's no place to hide.
The same applies to business areas:
The cop car skulking there needs no explanation.
Again, the element of constant surveillance is there: large windows, clear signage, and lighting all plot together to turn the street into a "you're being watched, bitch" environment. This is known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a "multi-disciplinary approach of deterring criminal behavior."
One of the first designs to take advantage of the phenomenon was for prisons, because of course it fucking was. In the late 18th century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a round structure with a central, closed watchtower that could be manned by a single guard. The inmates, aware of the guard's presence but unable to observe where and when he was peeking out of the tower, had no other option but to assume he was looking directly at them, all the time.
Although Bentham's invention has only seen limited use, elements of the concept exist within a ton of urban design tricks. In the early 1970s, American architect Oscar Newman came up with the idea of "defensible space," which was meant to implement surveillance into architectural design by dividing urban areas to different "stages" of privacy, and enforcing them with careful architectural elements. This later evolved into CPTED and other nifty tricks that, along with a whole bunch of surveillance cameras, turn your city into Big Brother.
These tricks work, too. In 1991, the Five Oaks community of Dayton, Ohio decided to redesign the area according to Newman's principles, and violent crime alone dropped by a whopping 50 percent.
Still, while we're generally in favor of anything that prevents undue face-stabbery, research on the effects of security cameras indicates that an artificially enforced sense of being watched has a side effect: it's messing with our heads. A study on employees of U.S. telecommunications companies observed that the workers monitored with cameras found their job more stressful and boring than the ones that weren't, and also reported psychological tension, anxiety, depression, anger, health complaints, and fatigue.
Then again, maybe it's just that security cameras themselves kind of suck ass. Another study found that while crime rates do indeed drop in places where cameras are implemented, this only works when you're made to notice them. In Washington D.C., where surveillance cameras don't have flashing blue lights drawing our attention to them, the crime rate stayed the same.
Another issue is that a sense of being constantly under observation tends to create a feeling that someone doesn't trust you. After all, why would they watch you all the time if they didn't think you're doing something wrong? And if we feel like something doesn't trust us -- like if, say, a whole freaking city that is rigged to seem that way -- we're probably not going to trust it back.
Physically Forcing Us To Play By The Rules
There was a social media outrage a few months ago when photos of anti-homeless spikes in front of a British residential building made the rounds. Sure, nobody wants a bunch of vagrants piled up in front of their door, but putting wicked-looking spikes down to make it too uncomfortable to sleep? That's plain sadistic.
But if you are temporarily penniless and with nowhere to sleep for a night, you'll find lots of seemingly harmless design choices that, seemingly by pure coincidence, prevent you from finding any place to lie down. For instance, a bench sounds like the best place to catch a little shuteye ... until you notice there's a strategically placed third armrest, preventing comfortable sleeping positions for all but the most dedicated contortionists:
Well, that's annoying. So you decide to move under a nearby bridge, only to find the place full of really uncomfortable boulders:
Yeah, that shit isn't just decoration. In 1999, a movement called "Design Against Crime" started experimenting with architecture that can subtly deter crime without drawing unnecessary attention -- no wicked spikes or screaming signs, but little design choices that make the landscape inconvenient for undesirables. So in San Francisco, a city once known as the skateboard mecca of the world, many of the benches and other optimal public skating spots are now studded with metal flanges called "Pig's Ears," which could make your best Tony Hawk character eat shit.
Our favorite insane Design Against Crime creation comes courtesy of the Camden Borough Council of London. Meet the Camden Bench, also known as the perfect anti-object. Its purpose is to discourage sleeping, drug dealing, theft, littering, skateboarding, vandalism, and, arguably, sitting. It achieves this by being the most angular, cold, non-permeable object in existence:
Making Us Fat (and Friendless)
Do you live in a suburb? Do you own a car? We're sorry, that was a trick question. There's no living in suburbia without one. The distances and the lack of sidewalks make sure that even if you have the patience and physical fitness to walk around, you'll run the risk of getting mowed down by a motorist who doesn't expect some dick to be strolling in the street.
Say, ever wonder why this is? It's not like the suburbs popped up overnight. Someone has clearly planned them that way ... and because of this very specific, car-favoring layout, they are doing their level best to contribute to the obesity epidemic.
Originally, the suburbs were pretty friendly to pedestrians. The Regional Planning Association of America, formed by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright in 1923, initially devoted themselves to making residential areas that promoted social interaction: tight-knit communities, friendly neighborhoods with cherry pies cooling in every window sill, wacky neighbors to shoot the shit with every morning while you retrieve the newspaper. Sadly, after the 1950s, urban planners started designing suburbs in a way that favored cars over pedestrians. Purely residential areas started expanding, shops and services crept further and further away, and sidewalks started a slow march to borderline extinction.
Soon, you couldn't walk anywhere, because there was no handy way to reach anything by walking ... so people stopped that shit and learned to hop behind the wheel, even if their destination is only a few blocks away.
As a result, obesity rates in newer neighborhoods exploded, while the older neighborhoods with their sidewalks and readily reachable services still kept people walking. It turns out that this everyday exercise is a good way to keep those excess pounds away: for every decade older the neighborhood is, obesity drops by about 8 percent in women and 13 percent in men. Those neighborhoods date back to an era when it wasn't assumed that everyone had a car was willing to drive the extra couple of miles to CostCo if it meant saving 20 cents on a case of pickles.
Because life enjoys dealing double punches, the newer suburbs aren't happy just piling up pounds on your waist. They also do their level best to leave you friendless; studies show that neighborhoods with tendency toward driving instead of walking only have one third of the amount of social ties of to their sidewalk-strolling brethren.
Hell, even accepting your fate and limiting your social life to chats with your immediate neighbors doesn't necessarily help. According to Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, residents in a suburban neighborhood chat the most with their neighbors when their yards are shallow enough for conversation, but deep enough to retreat back into the house when they're tired of hearing their neighbor talk about the new nanny smelling of cheap pot. Gehl calculated that the perfect yard for friendly contact was 10.6 feet -- close enough that a stranger can get your attention from the sidewalk without shouting, but far enough away that you can still dive back through the door if he pulls a gun.
Convincing Us To Buy Crap We Don't Need
Let us introduce you to a nasty glitch of the mind called Gruen Transfer. It's a design trick used by shopping centers, grocery stories, and just about any place that wants you to buy as much useless shit as you can possibly carry, thank you very much.
Here's how it works:
A. You enter a mall, aiming to buy a bar of soap and a new toothbrush.
B. You find yourself in a closed environment, facing a whole bunch of sights, sounds and scents solely designed to disorient you and make you lose your train of thought.
C. You lose said track of thought, and with it your sense of purpose, and idly decide to check out some of the shops while you're here.
D. You leave with a stuffed raccoon, a year's supply of lemons, and a Dane Cook comedy DVD, wondering what the hell happened.
Victor Gruen, Austrian-born architect and notable opponent of consumerism, is already a Cracked alumni for unwittingly inventing the pinnacle of modern spending: the shopping mall. The Gruen Effect was found when he noticed that people tend to get confused and go into "shopping mode" when they enter a closed environment with many similar stores, a deliberately confusing layout, and sensory stimuli created to disorient them. Yes, shopping malls are specifically designed to confuse you, and yes, this can turn you into a literal consumer drone.
Gruen had originally intended to use the Transfer relatively innocently, as a way to attract people in his original mall, which was meant to help people socialize with each other, instead of buying as much crap as humanly possible. He absolutely loathed what became of his design, but had no say in the matter. Less scrupulous architects grabbed his ideas and spread them throughout urban areas, turning whole cities into one big opportunity to shop, and forcing people to do so with a trick that bears his name to this day. This is why you should never invent anything, kids.
Keeping Racial and Economic Segregation Alive
Yeah, it's time to talk about who really gets screwed over by all of this underhanded shit.
It's almost ludicrous to imagine some politician running on a platform of designing cities to keep out the poor and ethnic folks, but really, they don't need to: thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, tons of our cities already come with that particular feature.
The world's second-favorite Roosevelt left a presidential legacy full of inspiring quotes and plucky New Dealin', but it also had its dark corners, such as a widespread system of deliberate segregation. During the Great Depression, FDR's government strove to build a strong middle class. Their idea of this happened to not include any black people, so they mapped out large areas in major cities and legally forbade them from buying property there, essentially restricting them to living in carefully selected areas.
This, of course, fucked the black citizens over something awful by creating areas of concentrated poverty. Since where we live usually determines the schools we attend, our safety, employment opportunities, and our entire social network, segregation through urban planning essentially cut off the black community's full ability to succeed as members of society. Or at least, it put a big, tall spiked fence in their way.
Meanwhile, certain urban planners designed their cities specifically to screw with everyone who wasn't well-off and white. The most influential of these architects of misery was Robert Moses, the unofficial yet insanely powerful "master builder" of mid-20th-century New York. Moses is responsible for much of the city's current design, and he did it according to The Total Dick's Handbook for Urban Planning. He smashed tenements to build houses for the middle class. He focused on building highways instead of subways to expand the city (again, restricting opportunity only to those already well-off enough to own a car) and if you thought you'd just take the bus, he was one step ahead of you -- he obstructed bus traffic by designing bridges to be too low for them. Moses even refused to let governor Nelson Rockefeller use toll money from one of his bridges to fund public transpiration.
After all, where you have cheap public transportation, you have "those people." Sure, the dude built a bunch of parks, houses, and functional infrastructure, too. But this was an era when the populace made it very clear what they did and didn't want in their neighborhood, and he gave them what they wanted.
Not that we're letting him off the hook. Some historians say he kept at least one East Harlem swimming pool deliberately chilled, for no other reason than that he believed black people were afraid of cold water. So fuck that guy.
For more ways you're being controlled, check out 5 Horrifying Secrets Supermarkets Don't Want You to Know. And then check out 21 Tricks Stores Use to Control Your Brain.
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