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Refuge, Prospect, and Intimacy Gradients

As I begin writing this morning I am sitting in Reagan National Airport. I have found the perfect spot to wait for my 9:35 am flight. I am alone in a row of only three seats, with a bulkhead behind me, a power supply just to my right, and huge windows in front of me that allow me to look over the tarmac, and even over the Potomac River beyond the airport. I have found what anthropologists, psychologists, and designers call a place with both "refuge and prospect."

The "refuge" comes from the fact that I am comfortable and secure, in a spot from which I am relatively protected on my blind side from predators and with a broad view of terrain in front of me. The "prospect" comes from the fact that I can look out over a vast terrain that holds a number of potentially good and/or interesting things that I can think and plan about. I am more comfortable here, on the edge of the refuge and the prospect than I would be if I were deeper in the bowels of the airport or sitting out on the tarmac.

Refuge and prospect is something that the earliest humans might have gotten sitting at the mouth of a cave overlooking a bountiful valley. Many scientists think that an innate positive response to such situations may be in our psyche as a result of millions of years of evolution. One-hundred years ago, our American ancestors might have gotten the same feeling from the wrap-around porches on homes along the Maine coast or in the Midwestern plains. When I was a child along the upper Ohio River Valley, refuge and prospect were to be found there on the front porches of wooden family row homes. At the same time refuge and prospect in New York City would have been on the front steps of brownstone row houses.

Campus designers in Europe built with a medieval fortress mentality, self-enclosed quads with internal open space, lacking large openings to the outside world. In the United States that changed, most notably with Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia, to plans with plenty of refuge and prospect--places of shelter from which students could look out on wide vistas, and that's pretty much been the plan for American campuses ever since. (That plan began spreading back into Europe via Spain in the early part of the last century and seems to be the major trend all around the world now.)

When it comes to interior space, have you ever wondered why everyone tends to sit around the edges of a traditional classroom and the front and middle fill up last? In a sense, the "prospect" here is the front of the classroom--where the knowledge is coming from, but it's also where the "predator" (the instructor) is located. Refuge is near the door, so you can get the heck out of there.

You can call areas that are prospect-dominant ones that are out in the wide open spaces--like if I were now sitting out on the tarmac. Areas that are refuge-dominant might include the very center of the airport concourse, away from the windows. (In an old-time Western movie, it would be at the bar, with a mirror on the wall so you could keep an eye out behind you.)

A related concept is that of "intimacy gradient." First developed for architects of physical space, it applies also in virtual space. Laying out the various screens of a course management system, it would probably be best to arrange for progressively more or less intimate spaces with clear markers of change between them.

Some of the aspects of social swarming that our millennial kids use without even conscious thought employ aspects of refuge and prospect. If you are in constant contact with dozens of your friends as you move around town in packs, you can know beforehand that there are people at a party that you'd just as soon not meet up with, so you go somewhere else. You're using cell phones and social connections with others to stay at the edge of refuge yet discern what is out there in prospect.

There are elements of refuge and prospect in the design of computer laboratory space, in technology-enhanced classrooms, and even in the design of software programs. People tend to prefer the edges, where there is both refuge and prospect. For a congenial online community interface, something that might be designed with this principal in mind would be a way for a user who is about to enter a virtual space to see who is already online in there before deciding to enter and let others know that they are there also. This may also be why there are so many people who simply lurk in threaded discussion boards or e-mail discussion lists. Lurking is a "space" that is on the edge of refuge but where you can see but not be out in prospect space (in prospect space you may be exposed to criticism through actively exchanging communications).

Some of the least well-designed spaces on many campuses are computer lab spaces with rows of monitors all exposed to the eyes of others in the room, and often arranged such that, as you work at a machine, there may be people behind you looking over your shoulder. Those designs--driven by some practicalities such as maintenance and security--violate everything that we know about refuge and prospect. I know that I have never felt comfortable in such spaces.

Analogies from refuge and prospect, and intimacy gradient, can be carried over in many places and in many ways. I hope that you will find that thinking about it occasionally, in terms of the space you are in--both physically and virtually--and in your professional work, will be both enjoyable (refuge) and informative (prospects).

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