Zee Spencer

Structure and Space

First we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.

I first heard this phrase from my friend and colleague Davin Granroth. While the phrase may originally have been meant literally; I prefer a more allegorical interpretation.

First we shape our society, thereafter it shapes us.

We may also remove the linear relationship if we desire:

As we shape our society, it also shapes us.

I believe the structures we put in place and the spaces we have available are the primary way society is shaped:

  1. Space - The opportunities/lack of opportunities to exercise agency.
  2. Structure - The support for/obstacles to exercising your agency.


Space may be thought of as the availability of resources. Including, but not limited to:

  • Time to use as we see fit.
  • Money to spend in a way we believe most beneficial.
  • Information, both accurate and accessible for our reference.
  • Tools which we can use with limited instruction or fear.
  • Wisdom we can rely on to guide our actions. Likely passed down from mentors.

For those who read Tom DeMarco it is similar to his definition of slack, a rejection of the time scarcity that is so prevalent today.


Structure can be thought of as:

  • The official, known rules we follow.
  • The social norms we conform to.
  • Physical constraints, such as the maximum speed for safe travel in an automobile.
  • Expectations we feel compelled to live up to, and hold others to as well.
  • Obligations we fulfill for those around us.
  • Habits which pervade our life in sometimes unexpected ways.
  • Other Affordances that restrict or expand our ability to interact with the world and people around us.

Space and Structure

Space and structure are so tightly related it feels impossible to seperate them truly. As we adjust the structures around us, our available resources change. As we make use of space, it impacts those around us. Often creating structures which may decrease others space.

Choosing how to use space and changing structures to create space for everyone is an important part of creating a positive social force. Such changes must be deliberate and thoughtful. Some questions which may help when considering structural changes are:

  • What is the intended goal of the structural change?
  • Who may this structural change effect?
  • How does this structural change come to exist?
  • Who is likely to adopt the change first? Why?
  • When will an impact be visible?

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