Public space, civilization and the self (long)
I go on about this thing we call “public space” quite often — most recently here — but I don’t think I’ve ever furnished you with an argument as to why I think creating, maintaining and actually using it is so important, from either the individual or the collective point of view. So on the eve of publishing a pamphlet that deals with the topic not a little bit, I figured I’d have a go at doing just that. You might want to settle back and pull up your cushions, because like the man says, this is going to go on for awhile.
For the past several years, exploring the ways in which we collectively understand and use the common spatial domain has been a primary focus of my design work, as well as my writing. One of the things we set out to do at Urbanscale was use digital cartography to surface and expose all those spaces of the city that are public in name and law, that are yours to use and to enjoy, but which generally remain beneath the threshold of everyday awareness. In New York City specifically, we wanted to use data furnished to the public under the various Local Law provisions to populate a map layer on our Urbanflow kiosks, and eventually personal devices connected to the Urbanflow service, effectively updating Jerold Kayden’s invaluable Privately Owned Public Space (or, for that matter, the Nolli map) for the age of networked informatics.
Discovery turns out to be critical to activating this scattered archipelago of courtyards, plazas and atria as a public amenity. Michael Kimmelman, in his Introduction to Beyond Zuccotti Park (a volume I recommend highly, by the way), emphasizes the idea that no space, however designated in law, can legitimately be described as “public” unless it is routinely occupied and used by members of the entire community, and of course I agree wholeheartedly. But you can’t use something that you don’t know is there. And despite the mandatory signage, to say nothing of longtime activism, advocacy and consciousness-raising on the part of groups like Project for Public Spaces or the Design Trust for Public Space, most New Yorkers seem blissfully unaware that these sites are in fact available to them.
These privately-owned parcels simply aren’t as self-evident as the sidewalks, squares and parks we more often think of as public space. And while some of them are of extremely high quality — Paley Park, for example, which is simply one of my favorite places to sit, read and think in all of New York City — more often they’re neglected, underutilized and unwelcoming, which is something I read as a direct consequence of their low profile. (In fact, their managers tend to rely on this relative obscurity, as well as a fair amount of confusion as to the contours of their rights and obligations, to prevent members of the public from using what is rightfully ours, and therefore contributing to their maintenance burden.)
Why go to the trouble of bringing these spaces to light? And especially why would Urbanscale, as a commercial enterprise, dedicate resources toward doing so? After all, firms like Control Group certainly don’t seem to think that any such thing is in their remit, when developing wayfinding kiosks for the MTA, and the notion that the city is suffused with spaces available for free use is something barely even alluded to in Pentagram’s otherwise-respectable, Legible City-based program of map plinths. Nor do these sites receive any particular attention or distinct graphic treatment in any other widely-used digital map of the city. So why undertake the effort involved in raising them to real-time awareness?
The honest, simple answer is “Because we live here.” That was true when Urbanscale was a “we,” and it remains just as true now that the practice is (but for the occasional collaboration) an “I”: for the most selfish of reasons, I want people to know these spatial amenities are available to and for them, because I benefit when they’re used routinely.
How so? Let’s start with the idea that, like anyone rational, I want the city I live in to be a humane, generous place, one that provides for its citizens and visitors at every level of the Maslovian pyramid. (I happen to believe that I’m better off when everyone around me is receiving the support they need, whether that support be physiological, material, interpersonal or entirely intangible in nature.) And public space in all of its forms is one of the few tools we have that’s capable of speaking to all of these dimensions of need, at least in potential. So it seems to me that there are few more worthwhile things a design practice might do than contributing to awareness, stewardship and use of this resource.
I’m comfortable going a good deal further than merely arguing that the presence of well-loved and well-used public spaces in a city is a collective good. I conflate that presence more or less directly with civilization itself. My reasons for thinking so are all pretty basic, even obvious, but I find that it sometimes helps to spell these things out explicitly. Consider:
— Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords.
The most vulnerable among us have the greatest need for such facilities, of course. They ought to be able to avail themselves of same for pragmatic reasons of public health, but also because being able to clean oneself up helps immeasurably with “presentability” when applying for assistance, or a job, or otherwise moving uncomplicatedly through the bourgeois world. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to gather up the courage to walk into a clinic, a classroom or an office when you know perfectly well that you smell, and that the smell is offensive to the people around you.)
Most fundamentally of all, people should have free and unimpeded access to toilets and hygienic facilities for reasons of self-respect. Mitchell Duneier, in his 1999 book Sidewalk, describes a distinction the unhoused themselves delineate between those who habitually relieve themselves in public and those who, for reasons of pride, make a habit of doing so indoors whenever they are able to do so; I now think of this every time I see anyone but a drunken fratboy peeing in the street. In so many words: nobody should be forced to rely on the contingent goodwill of a friendly shopclerk or McDonald’s manager to take a shit in safety and privacy. The point is that most street people, just like anyone else, want to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity, and will do so if given the slightest chance.
And I should hardly need to point out that while the need for a clean toilet, a sink or similar facilities may be felt most acutely by those among us without a permanent place to call their own, the same need can beset any one of us, at any time. Even if for no other reason than “I just got crapped on by a pigeon, and I need a place to take my shirt off and scrub it down before my next meeting.” In this very direct and very real sense, the provisions we make for the ostensibly lowest among us are the provisions we make for ourselves.
We need to make at least some provision for the basic needs of all, and public space can do this.
— Civilization also means being forced to reckon with the consequences of our collective failure to provide such facilities. Last year, I joined a local group advocating for the pedestrianization of a service road just off Second Avenue near our apartment, and the furnishment of the resulting space with planters and seating. The (eventually successful) opposition to the pedestrianization plan hinged largely on the notion that with Bellevue Hospital and the city’s main homeless shelter/intake center for unaccompanied men in the neighborhood, if the service road were in fact to become a pedestrian plaza that plaza would swiftly come to be overrun by those with nowhere else to be.
Never mind that no one ever offered any empirical support for this scenario. And put to the side, if you can, the understanding that many of those opposing the pedestrian plaza on these grounds were fellow residents of the building complex I live in, and just like me able to avail themselves of the leafy, three-acre garden between our buildings at any time of their choosing. Assume that everything the opponents said was true: that if we successfully created a public amenity in our neighborhood, that amenity would be dominated by the vagrant, the unclean and the unstable.
My response to this is to say, effectively, “So what?” Those human beings, manifestly, exist. There they are. They have needs. As a society, we have made collective choices that result in their being unable to fulfill or even address those needs in the way you or I would as a matter of course. And now we’re going to begrudge them even the ability to sit down and take a load off, when we can do so wherever and whenever we want?
I don’t say any of this cavalierly, and I am under absolutely no illusion that every last person living on the street is an angel, or even particularly safe to be around; New Yorkers, of all people, are acutely aware of the risks of living in close proximity with people whose substance-abuse and mental-health issues have gone untreated, of what’s likely to happen when those issues are allowed to fester to the point that they become life-threatening (or indeed life-ending). But we don’t solve anyone’s problems — neither theirs nor ours nor the region of the Venn diagram where they overlap — by succumbing to self-satisfied NIMBYism, sweeping homeless people out of sight, denying them the basic lineaments of self-care and making tidied-up, fatuous little Potemkin villages of our neighborhoods. So if we don’t want to be confronted by the reality of homeless people sleeping on our public benches, taking up all our public chairs and being visible in the public way, maybe we’d better design public policies that provide them with better options.
We need to face the consequences of our actions, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the merely commercial. Even putting questions of homelessness to the side, I want to live in a city wise enough to offer its citizens and visitors some respite from the overwhelming pressure toward commercial transaction that otherwise characterizes our shared spaces.
At the most basic level, if a city isn’t furnished with a well-developed fabric of public spaces of different sizes and shapes and types, there is no place to simply be if you are not actively consuming. You never understand quite what this implies — just how stark and uncomfortable an urban environment can be, no matter how well-appointed otherwise — until you visit someplace where such a nightmare endstate is enacted intentionally and literally.
For me personally, it’s an experience I had last year on a visit to Istanbul’s Kanyon mall that comes to mind when I think of what might await us, should the various tendencies toward privatization of the common spatial domain we can currently discern in our own environment go unchecked. Designed by the California-based Jerde Partnership (the same practice responsible for Universal CityWalk, the “parallel urban reality” dissected by Mike Davis in his 1992 pamphlet “Urban Control“), Kanyon offers plenty of places for visitors to sit…not a single one of which is not clearly demarcated as belonging to Illy or EAT or Le Pain Quotidien. God help you if you’ve come to look and see, but not necessarily to buy: you’ll attract nasty glares not merely from security guards, but — like something out of the “militarized subconscious” of Inception — from shoppers themselves, as though they suspect that your desire to sit somewhere and quietly eat the sandwich you’ve packed is in itself a token of being up to no good.
This may be true of malls everywhere, for all I know; I’ll confess that it’s been a good few years since I’ve been inside of one. But it was glaringly obvious at Kanyon, a place which seems to take Rem Koolhaas’s infamous description of shopping as “arguably the last remaining form of public activity” a little too firmly to heart. Its demand that we justify our presence by spending is a tendency that’s only likely to accelerate as Square and similarly “effortless” low-cognitive-load mechanisms for the transaction of value proliferate in the world, and fuse with the ability to throw a virtual geofence around a given locale. The inherent cruelty involved is something that affects us all, whether or not we happen to have the price of a coffee to spare by way of paying a half-hour’s rent on a place to sit.
I want to emphasize that I don’t begrudge the ability of small, independent operators to make a buck. James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism helped me articulate the distinction I think needs to be made whenever we discuss commercial activity in public space. It’s the same made in Pattern 87 of A Pattern Language, “Individually Owned Shops”: that between individual, accountable proprietors and those deadening enterprises that operate at national or global scale, and that function mainly to extract value from the local community. (I know it’s the hip thing to hate on the High Line these days, but to my mind it’s a place that gets this mix just about right. The kiosks and food stands feel refreshingly humble and local, and reasonably well-curated. You want an ice-cream sandwich, you get a ice-cream sandwich.) My point isn’t that all commercial activity needs to be purged from public space, but that it must never be allowed to dominate these environments, or drive out ways of using them freely.
We need to develop meaningful ways for people to use the city when they don’t have so much as a penny to their name, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means a place to sit down. I myself happen to think that sitting and watching the city go by is one of the great urban pleasures, ever and always its own perfect justification, and that if we’ve seriously gotten to the point that we need to articulate arguments in defense of this act we’re in a good deal more trouble than even I had ever suspected. But as it happens, there are good functional reasons why cities might want to provide pedestrians with abundant free seating easily accessible from the public way.
Georges Amar, formerly head of foresight for the RATP, reminds us that the sidewalks are a high-throughput mode of conveyance. He likens them to walking subways, and suggests that just as subways have stations, so too ought our pedestrian thoroughfares be well-provisioned with places to stop and rest at regular intervals — again, each complete with shade, toilets, drinking fountains and (I would add) free WiFi. Per the point above about small businesses, further, there’s no reason why each of these nodes can’t support an independently-operated food cart or coffee stand as an adjunct to and enhancer of experience. perhaps as a social focus. platform for impromptu conviviality.
To dip, again, into A Pattern Language, what Amar is proposing corresponds almost precisely with Pattern 82, “Bus Stop”:
Build bus stops so that they form tiny centers of public life. Build them as part of the gateways into neighborhoods, work communities, parts of town. Locate them so that they work together with several other activities, at least a newsstand, maps, outdoor shelter, seats, and in various combinations, corner groceries, smoke shops [!], coffee bar, tree places, special road crossings, public bathrooms, squares…
A city whose walking paths are well-provided with nodes such as these is simply a more merciful place than one that is not. I didn’t really take Amar’s deeper point, though, until I thought carefully about the routes I habitually take when traversing Manhattan on foot. There’s no question he’s on to something: I’ll happily choose a clumsy, meandering path, or even cut a block or two out of my way, if it lets me pass through one of my favorite public spaces, whether it be Union Square, Liz Christy Community Garden, Lincoln Center or the plaza in front of the Seagram Building. I find these places restorative, even without stopping to rest in them — they make the difference between a joyless trudge and a pleasingly punctuated journey. The happy fact is that, for a great many potential journeys one might take through New York City, something like Amar’s network of walkstations already exists.
The lesson I draw from this: the measure we take to enhance one mode of using the city winds up being an investment in others. The same amenity that furnishes one set of users with the necessities of daily survival can afford others the makings of a safer and more pleasant commute. In other words, there’s a multiplicative, synergistic quality to the return we enjoy on whatever interventions we make with an eye toward improving the urban fabric. If nothing else, each place where people can freely sit and watch the life of the city furnishes an additional increment of Jacobian “eyes on the street.”
We need to think of the urban fabric itself as a source of amenity and succor, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the frankly functional. You can tell a lot about a society’s conception of itself by looking at the standards it insists on (or, alternately, tolerates) in its public accommodations, beyond the rather low bar of simply being fit for purpose. And there’s something profoundly ennobling about the commitment of collective resources to amenities meant for everyone to use and enjoy — neither to overawe, nor to instill a narrow sectarian pride, but to remind everyone using the space that they are a valued member of a meaningful whole.
We’re moving up Maslow’s hierarchy now. It’s not just a matter of production values, but of what those production values communicate. And what public investments like these communicate is that what binds us truly is more important than what separates us; that even the least “important,” most marginal member of our society is entitled to the same experience of belonging as anyone else; and there can be a dignity, even a grandeur in the everyday.
We need to celebrate what we are collectively and together, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means accommodating the needs of profoundly different groups. The other night, we stumbled onto this as we passed by Bryant Park. My initial response was that it was one of the most appalling displays I’d ever seen in New York, that there was something almost fascist about it. That it was not at all light-hearted, spontaneous and captivatingly romantic, as it so obviously ached to be, but exclusionary, pretentious, class-ridden and uptight, just an obscene misuse of a public park. (The event didn’t do itself any favors by stationing private security guards at entrances to the park, there to turn away anyone who wasn’t sufficiently compliant with the all-white theme.)
That was my initial response, and truth be told, it was my second one as well. But then I reconsidered a bit. No, Dîner en Blanc is not an ideal use of this public resource. No, it’s not acceptable for a private event to control access to a space maintained for the benefit of all. Yes, there are troubling aspects to it — not least of which is that the dinner struck me as being an all-white event in more ways than one. But it’s one night a year. I can find Dîner en Blanc not at all to my liking — in point of fact, entirely grotesque — but so long as it doesn’t persistently interfere with anyone else’s ability to use Bryant Park I can’t find particular fault with it. (And, in fact, as a traveling spectacle it’s highly doubtful it would impact the same neighborhood two years running.) At very worst, it’s sufficiently localized that anyone who finds it distasteful can avoid it, which is more than can be said for SantaCon.
Ideally, though, different groups would be able to pursue their multiple uses of a space simultaneously and non-exclusively, interpenetrating like strollers, joggers, runners and cyclists all using a path together. The benefit of doing things this way is that it more directly teaches us to accommodate one another’s needs, in a way that merely alternating in time does not. At a time when our city has never been more heterogeneous, and when the “interautistic” tendencies of foam-phase social interaction make it ever harder for us to read, understand or empathize with one another, the kinds of encounter and exchange we generally experience in public space furnish us with a crucial tutorial in getting along.
This applies to public spaces at the smallest of scales, as well. I believe that something was lost, for example, when Barcelona began to phase out its public benches a few years ago, in favor of appealingly designed but single-place seating; certainly, park benches were the site of some of my own first negotiations with strangers over contested space. Shared spatial arrangements such as this teach us the rudiments of being a citizen and an urban self — and sites in which young people can practice urbanity are even more necessary when contemporary technology otherwise allocates us into what Jane Jacobs, in another context, once described as “decontaminated sortings.”
We need to learn the comfort with oneself that allows us to accommodate the needs of others, and public space can do this.
— Finally, civilization means supporting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for the redress of grievances. If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, in object lessons from Tahrir Square, the Plaça de Catalunya and Zuccotti Park to the Place Émile-Gamelin and Taksim Square, it is the enduring symbolic power of physically occupying public space, even in our putatively mediated age. We seem to have arrived at a renewed understanding that no political gesture is quite as resonant as the act of coming together in shared space, to join our voices and the presence of our bodies.
I can’t meaningfully discuss what happened with 15-M in Spain, or the various protests and uprisings of the Arab Spring, because I wasn’t anything but a distant observer of those events. But I can speak, a little, to what happened in New York City, and I can tell you that some of the most exciting, empowering interactions I’ve ever participated in happened in Zuccotti Park and Foley and Union Squares in the fall of 2011. Whether or not it was effective in bringing about the precise change desired, the consensus now seems to be that Occupy Wall Street was responsible for the prominence income inequality retained as an issue throughout the 2012 Presidential campaign; for all the good it seems to have done over the long term, it definitely forced the Obama campaign to shore up its bona fides on the left. Among that subset of my friends, anyway, who believe that constitutional democracy is something other than a shuck and a con, just about everyone is disappointed with the Obama Administration, and to a degree that surprises me I share their sense of disillusionment…but I continue to believe that everything we face would have been much, much worse under a Romney Administration.
While only a fool would try to draw a direct connection between Zuccotti Park and, say, the 50% reduction in health insurance costs New Yorkers now stand to benefit from, the events of 2011 are a potent reminder that democracy is something that still happens in public. And the experience of Occupy benefitted New York in other, less obvious ways, as well: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it was precisely the connections and networks that formed in these spaces that laid the groundwork for the city’s single most effective response to Hurricane Sandy.
Both by happenstance and design, our city furnishes us with a network of spaces in which the rights of free speech and assembly cannot be abrogated. The particular ways in which we pursue and enact those rights are continually in the process of being constructed, renegotiated and challenged, but the act of doing so places us in a tradition that extends from the first beginnings of our nation — and beyond that, from the very roots of democratic practice itself.
We need to negotiate the terms under which we pursue our individual destinies within the overarching framework of common purpose, and public space almost alone can do this.
…and the self (a personal coda)
I think it’s clear by now what I mean when I use the rather loaded word “civilization,” and why I make the perhaps curious linkage between this quality and the various modes of land use we collectively describe as “public space.”
But none of the above really explains why this particular platform for social interaction is so important to me personally, why I’ve chosen to dedicate my practice to it, or why I try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the parks, community gardens and plazas of New York City. Maybe I can approach an answer sideways, by putting it in one final axiom: Civilization means that each citizen has the right to grow and to become who they are, and it also means that the city is designed and structured in a way that helps them do so.
I’ll try to explain this as best I can. Anybody still reading who doesn’t care about the particulars of my own history, or finds this sort of detail distasteful, is more than welcome to skip forward to that bit with the bullet points at the end. (I won’t be offended, I promise.)
Sometimes in life, we’re attracted to some endeavor not because we have any particular talent for it, but precisely because it represents a weakness. And so it is with me and the city.
I am a fairly shy person. I grew up physically ungifted: weak, clumsy, unbeautiful, inelegant. I’m saddled with the kind of voice (and manner of speaking) that just seems to set some people’s teeth on edge, the moment I open my mouth. I don’t do well in crowds. I haven’t, historically, had the courage to acknowledge the essential personhood of the others around me, preferring a succession of armored or dismissive poses to the complexity and challenge of engaging them as fully human individuals. It was just more comfortable that way. Of course my entire life is one episode after another of me throwing myself into circumstances in which I wasn’t comfortable, which you can read if so inclined as a desperate attempt to make myself whole by main force, but the fact remains: I preferred life inside my armor. And the seeming wisdom of this was reinscribed by the things I experienced when I first ventured into the American cities of the 1970s, one of which I describe in the video linked here.
But I wanted more. I wanted to venture beyond the safety and sterility of my containment. I wanted to stop dismissing people out of hand. I wanted to feel comfortable anywhere — and for the people I met, reading that comfort, to feel comfortable around me. I wanted to stop sacrificing friends, lovers and opportunities to the fulminating assholeism that goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of insecurity. And the only thing that seemed to get me even the tiniest bit closer to any of that was being out in the city, on the sidewalks, in the parks, or anywhere else I could test my ability to coexist with others undefended, unarmored and vulnerable. These were relatively safe spaces in which I could practice the art of not constructing everyone else around me as a potential threat to my self-esteem — as something that had to be preëmptively taken down a notch or two — and just letting them be what and who they were.
So all of that stuff in Sennett, about the encounter with implacable urban diversity as an indispensable part of coming to maturity? You better believe I read that very personally. If I am anything but entirely broken as I write this, it’s because the effort it took to manage the experience of urban complexity and difference annealed me. Far too late in life, but thankfully while there was still plenty time for me to enjoy it, my city taught me to be a human being.
Were the others I encountered still, occasionally, obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled or manifestly interested in making my life more difficult? Of course they were. I’ve already said: this is New York. But by and large, I found truth in the rather anodyne notion that people mostly just want to get along. And so a virtuous cycle kicked in: the degree to which I dropped my character armor was that to which the city began to open itself before me.
I do not deny that there is a strong element of privilege in this, and of course it didn’t hurt that New York has become very much safer over the time period I’m describing. But to this day, part of the great pleasure I take from the public places of my city is in noting how very small the voice of panic and flight has become in me when I spend time in them. It’s still there, and it will almost certainly never go away entirely. It’s generally overmastered, though, by the joy I take in simply being with my people, the people of my New York.
We need desperately to become whole, some of us, and public space can do this.
Assuming you find any or all of the above convincing, what can you do to act on it?
• Read everything you can get your hands on. I recommend this book as a useful overview of a few threads of contemporary praxis, but there are thousands of others. (Not all of these will be directly and entirely relevant, but they’re all worth reading.)
• Tease out the commonalities between contemporary forms of public-space activism, whether that activism takes place under the banner of “tactical urbanism,” as part of a longer-standing and more explicitly oppositional tradition, or entirely spontaneously. Work toward building bonds, alliances or coalitions between the individuals and communities involved.
• Engage in that activism yourself, in whatever way feels most natural and appropriate to you. In New York alone, there are literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to these and related issues, from 596 Acres and the Green Guerrillas to the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Transportation Alternatives. Honestly, if you can’t find a group or space convenient to your neighborhood and aligned with your inclinations, you’re probably not looking hard enough. (If community gardens are your particular thing, this is a great resource.)
• Wherever possible, design networked or digital maps, tools, environments and interfaces to surface and highlight available public spaces, and the connections between them and the communities they serve.
• Recover older traditions having to do with the shared use of spatial resources, of which there are far too many to list here. (Some of my favorites: the semi-annual day of neighborhood self-care the Norwegians call the Dugnad, and the shelters called bothies in the Scottish and Irish traditions.) And reflect for a moment on what’s implied by that “far too many to list here”: there happen to be so many distinctive local traditions along these lines because those provisions were recognized as inalienable right throughout most of recorded history, just about everywhere in the West. It’s everything represented by Kanyon and its equivalents that’s anomalous.
• Take in a talk. In New York, the Institute for Public Knowledge regularly hosts high-quality lectures and discussions on everything from public toilets to the design of mobility for democracy. If talking over a meal is more your speed, the Design Trust for Public Space throws regular potluck picnics in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.
• Finally: be a public person. If we make the road by walking, we make the city by citying. You know I believe that civilization depends on it. Be generous, be safe, have fun, and let me know what you discover.
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- My back pages: Ten chapters on ¡Tchkung! (1994) 11 July 2014
- Four ways of funding an urban intervention 23 June 2014
- I will not comment on the attendant irony 29 May 2014
- Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context 28 May 2014
- More questions on the smart city 26 May 2014
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