Good public space is meaningful and enabling. It helps us make sense of our relationships, and supports our self-determination. It should be a platform on which we can all build, something like the old concept of the commons. Public space is filled with people pursuing various goals, individually and collectively, according to various value systems and ways of living. To imagine new kinds of public space is to imagine new ways to enable people.
Yet the question remains: what is public space, and to what extent is it something we can design or engineer? Before we can get any kind of handle on this question, we need to first consider what we even mean by public.
Public cannot be the leftovers
Defining “public” as “whatever isn’t private” doesn’t get us far. It makes the public a remainder, just whatever happens to be left over after all private claims are accounted for. If we think of public space like this, we’ll be predisposed to prioritise private concerns, and to see private realms as where all the real action and initiative is. Wherever we find cities with impoverished public spaces, we can be sure that behind the scenes there’s not a sufficiently clear shared idea of what public space is.
Publics is plural, not singular
To begin with, there isn’t one single public, so it makes sense to talk about “publics” or “a public” rather than the public. Often principles of membership apply, explicitly or implicitly, in the formation of a public: citizenship, residency, participation, civility, self-identification, even ethnicity or gender. It’s healthy for us to shift from speaking of ‘the public’ to publics, plural, because it prompts us to consider what actually connects the people in question as well as what principles of membership might be at work.
Making ourselves visible
Publics see themselves. This is easiest to imagine in the case of crowd at a sporting event or performance, or assembled in protest. This kind of public, writes social theorist Michael Warner, is “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space… has a sense of totality, bounded by the event or the shared physical space.” In one of these situations I see not only the event or performance. I also see myself as part of something. My membership of the public consisting of all the people inhabiting my country, is pretty abstract. I can imagine it, and participate in it, but I can’t really see it. As a member of a crowd, however, I concretely experience and know myself as part of some shared presence and action.
I’m not a habitual protester, but I recently joined one of the ongoing Climate Strike protests, one of thousands who met at a particular time and place in order to identify ourselves as a group with a shared purpose. The point of the gathering was to be visible, particularly to those with the power to make necessary legislative changes, and to others who might be prompted to action. But the gathering also made us visible to ourselves. As I walked, I saw people revelling in their presence in the crowd. Phones were out everywhere I looked, as people made and shared images that situated them as part of something. Being in public is a reflexive experience. We don’t just pop in and out of public space, we understand ourselves through it.
Public space is political
Because it’s reflexive like this, public space is inherently political. It’s not just that public spaces are subject to political processes — they are fundamentally political because they are to do with what we share, and who we understand ourselves to be. Any definition of public space (and any concretely existing public space) is a diagram of social relations, a map of how to fit together. There’s no neutral way of defining space, especially when we remember that claiming something is apolitical is one of the most political things there is!
It’s no wonder that philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to the public realm as political “world-building.” To build a shared world involves not only the design of systems for representation, deliberation, and governance. It also includes the ways we put together our physical context. Arendt wrote, “human existence is conditioned existence. it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.” We aren’t free-floating and self-contained individuals who just happen to come into relationship with various other people and things. To think this is to fall back into the idea of public space as the leftovers from private worlds. Political theorist Bonnie Honig extends Arendt’s idea, arguing that, “democracy is rooted in common love for, antipathy to, and contestation of public things. Without public things, action in concert is undone and the signs and symbols of democratic life are devitalized…Without such public things, democracy is reduced to procedures, polling, and policing, all necessary perhaps, but certainly not sufficient conditions of democratic life.”
Sharing space takes work
Democratic life, publics, and public spaces don’t exist by default. It takes work to assemble and maintain them. Honig gives as example of this work through the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, with his influential concept of “shared space” streets. Instead of separating out the various users of the street — cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and others — into separate lanes governed by signs, curbs, and road markings, Monderman flattened out the hierarchy of the street. By removing signs, barriers, and markings that prioritized car movements, he placed responsibility for situational awareness and appropriate behaviour back onto drivers. In these shared spaces, drivers aren’t permitted to assume priority, nor to simply tune out and follow the signs, but are required to take more responsibility for their actions. Monderman’s spaces highlight for us the work involved in sharing space. Honig writes,
“The relish with which Monderman explains the shared space model suggests he knows he is not just talking about traffic but is rather — or also — developing a vernacular for citizenship that emphasizes egalitarianism and mutuality. Clearly, Monderman hopes that the result will be a diminution of self-absorption, less focus on security, and the emergence of something like care, concern, collaboration, and play in shared space settings.”
Truly seeing one another
Monderman’s shared space clearly can’t be taken as a universal model for the public realm (and isn’t intended to be). What it suggests, though, is the way public space can require us to actually see one another. In Arendt’s famous formulation, public space is “the space of appearance,” a place where we can become meaningfully visible to one another as people, not as data points, market segments, customers, stereotypes, or debating partners. As the space of appearance, public space isn’t just the leftovers between private spaces. It’s an ongoing labour of shared world-building that affects how we understand ourselves. It’s the shared commitment that matters. The point of negotiating over public space is not just to reach a final agreement about how it should be. The point is the negotiation itself.
Carl Douglas is a lecturer in Spatial Design at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. His research into design and public space circulates around two main themes: unprofessional space-making (informal, ad-hoc, illicit, and amateur spaces); and procedural design techniques (cartography, design computation, abstraction, drawing, and intuition).