Designing for a crowd eased by new discovery

U scientists discovered a new law of physics explaining how people interact in large groups.

Danielle Korby

University of Minnesota researchers discovered a way to mitigate the frustration that can sometimes come from interacting with large groups of people.

The scientists analyzed video footage to uncover a law of physics that explains peoples’ interactions in large crowds —  findings that architects could use to design safer and more efficient buildings. According to their equation, the more discomfort people show in a crowd, the more likely they are to collide.

The law could be used to create accurate computerized simulations of large groups of people, said Ioannis Karamouzas, the project’s lead researcher.

The way different crowds flow and interact can influence the placement of things like signs, visual cues, pathways and rest areas, said Derek McCallum, design director at Minneapolis-based architecture firm RSP.

Architects sometimes observe patterns in the movement between clusters of people and the shortcuts they take to design buildings that facilitate fluid crowd movement, he said.

“I think those patterns can greatly affect how you organize the space,” McCallum said.

But Stephen Guy, an assistant computer science professor and co-author of the research, said the law creates a more accurate way to help architects study crowd movement beyond looking at patterns.

“If we’re trying to answer scientific questions like ‘How can we design better buildings?’ you need to go beyond crowds that just look right,” he said.

Computer graphics and animation classes at the University have already begun to teach the research, Guy said.

Jeff Spear, lead project designer of TCF Bank Stadium, said he wanted to build a stadium where people weren’t constantly bumping into each other while still creating an intimate experience.

“The goal is to make [the stadium] as fan- and as experience-friendly as possible,” Spear said.

Researchers created various crowd simulations, one of which was called a “bottleneck situation,” where a large group of people had to squeeze through a small space, Karamouzas said.

The escalator banks at the Target Center are an example of a bottleneck situation that stems from poor architectural design, said Craig Peterson, a senior design leader for the St. Paul-based architectural firm BWBR.

It takes a long time for Target Center attendees to get to their seats and leave the building because they’re all using the same escalator bank, he said.

Peterson, whose firm has worked on the designs for University buildings like the Athletics Village and the Microbiology Research Facility, said it’s important to create convenient and simple pathways for buildings that people flock to all at once, like sports facilities.

In places like museums, where people tend mill about, an architect might prioritize the building’s aesthetics above its accessibility, he said.