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A Renewed Observance of Prevailing Cultural Norms in Public Spaces

People throughout the world spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook.[i] This figure is staggering and has sparked much discussion about whether or not technology is replacing face-to-face interaction in our society. While there are many different viewpoints on the subject, I find it safe to say that the sense of community in today’s world is drastically different than it was thousands, hundreds and even a few decades ago. Societies once consisting solely of public spaces utilized by an entire community, are now composed of more privately owned spaces that lack the same level of socialization. While differences in living and community exist among cultures, public spaces have nearly disappeared in modern societies and true face-to-face social connections seem to be on a constant decline. As technology develops, it becomes nearly too easy to keep in touch with the happenings of the world as well as the lives of everyone you know. This ease of communication has removed nearly all need to venture out into the world for social purposes. With this new reality, it is no wonder that public spaces do not operate in the same way that they did in ancient times. But as we think of how to move forward in developing our world for the future, we are faced with some very important questions that need to be addressed: Is there still a need for public spaces in today’s world and if so, how can we begin to rethink our design processes to recreate active and beneficial public spaces within our current society?

Public spaces have historically been the main location of socialization within a city, but with the changing perception of community, are these public spaces still a practical consideration in regards to urban planning? While the cultures and customs of socialization have changed, there will always be a need for human interaction in one-way or another. Humans are social beings by nature and need each other to exist in a happy and satisfied way. While technology creates another venue for socializing, it cannot entirely replace genuine face-to-face interaction, whether that interaction occur at work, the store, the market, or in numerous other locations and situations whether public or even more privatized. We need and desire social relations with each other for many different reasons, but most of all we desire human interaction in order to find meaning within ourselves. Richard Sennett’s review of “Lordship and Bondage” states:

That a whole being exists ‘only in being acknowledged.’ This entails a ‘process of [mutual] recognition.’

Simply to shut out another person’s existence, whether it is good or evil, powerful or weak,

would mean one is an incomplete person oneself.[ii]

As human beings, we find meaning in our interactions with others as well as our status in society. As an example, educated, successful and wealthy men tend to find pleasure, no matter how subtly, in their status over the uneducated man. While on the other hand, the uneducated man who works hard and produces a product for the educated man finds significant pleasure in his work and his capability to produce a desired object or service. Both of these men will thus be motivated to better themselves in an attempt to either maintain their current status or to create increasingly better work, respectively. This interaction between differing statuses and lifestyles is exactly what is needed for the world to move forward in a productive way. Unfortunately though, in current day society it has become more and more common to separate the educated and uneducated people from each other due simply to mere efficiency and comfort. This in turn has led to many adverse affects and caused them to develop negative opinions of each other due simply to a lack of communication over time.

As people began to separate themselves from others, they slowly began to lose sight of true reality. People who held different customs became a sort of unknown and mysterious race of humans and intolerance and misunderstanding between groups began to rise. This separation continued to grow even firmer and began shaping the society that we now live in, which focuses inward towards developing closed-in private spaces rather than open public spaces. Richard Sennett recognizes these changes and acknowledges that a city’s “current urban design reflects a collective fear of exposure to the unknown, an ‘unknown’ that contains more threatening experiences than stimulating ones. Flight from the unknown results in sharp divisions between the interior and exterior spaces of daily life”.[iii] With an urban design such as this, it is no wonder that public spaces have lost the sense of community life that they once held. No one will choose to subject himself to a threatening and tense environment when they could very easily choose to socialize within the safety and comfort of their own home. However, the fact still remains that people benefit from interaction with each other, both in and outside their own social circles. So how do we counteract that division and separateness that has become ingrained into our society and create places where we can comfortably interact again?

It is relatively well known that the built environment is developed according to the values and beliefs of a given society, so in order to change the way people interact, we must first focus on how to adjust the values of society back towards human interaction. People have a natural tendency to stay in a comfortable non-threatening environment, but it seems that over the years we have formed these so called “threatening” environments within our own minds by secluding ourselves from others. In an attempt to counteract this effect, Sennett proposes a policy of recreating an urban system that promotes density and disorder thus creating “survival communities” that will force people to confront each other on a daily basis.[iv] By doing this, the “fear of the unknown” will be lost and people will again have the experiences of public interaction that have since been lost. While at first this may seem an unwelcome change, it may eventually cause people to realize that there is no need to separate themselves from the rest of the world and possibly even reinstate the pleasure of being part of a social community again.

Today’s world, especially in more recently developed cities, is so well planned and organized that there is no need to interact outside of our own world other than for purely functional purposes. We wake up in the morning, drive or walk to work, sit in an office until lunch (which is often eaten while working), drive home after work, stopping at a drive through for dinner and spending the night at home. But what would happen if instead, cities were built in a hectic and disorderly way, allowing for a much greater opportunity for connection with the rest of the world. Rather than staying within a single convenient routine, you may instead be forced to interact and intersect with others’ daily routines allowing you to meet and interact in unique ways. Piazza del Popolo in Rome is a prime example of how people’s routines can be intersected, providing opportunity for more social connections. The piazza is formed as a connection point of five main roads of the city, funneling many people out of their own space and into a communal area with little to no structure. People are thus forced to weave through the piazza, encountering various people along the way and possibly stopping to talk or even people watch for a while. Even if no direct social connection is made, the visual connection to the people filled piazza becomes a social experience within itself. Connection points such as this seem to be formed unconsciously by a city’s inhabitants, as opposed to thoroughly planned gathering spaces that seldom have true purpose within people’s daily lives. Public spaces should be thought of simply as that, a public space. They need not be something that is overly designed, but rather a space that fits naturally into the lives of the users. Just as these spaces should be chosen naturally, they should be developed just as naturally into a space that accentuates all of the inherent benefits of the space.

While many people view public spaces as developed areas created for certain activities and events, historically the most successful gathering spaces are formed through a very different mindset. Piazza del Popolo is one of the most successful piazze in all of Europe and remains very active even in today’s society. While the piazza was originally created as the north gate of the city of Rome, its use has changed quite a bit over time. There are many factors that contribute to the success of this piazza as a public space, but one of the key factors is the changeability of the space. There is very little set form within the piazza, allowing for people to use the space however they deem necessary. This use has changed over time from being the main entrance of the entire city to an area for public executions to simply being an intersection of 5 main roads throughout the city. The piazza was planned for a single purpose, but the options within the design are what make the piazza so successful. Architecture should not simply be a built form that provides for a single specific purpose, but rather a space that has the ability to perform in many different ways. Loretta Lees, Professor of Human Geography at King’s College, argues “that architecture is performative ‘in the sense that it involves ongoing social practices through which space is continually shaped and inhabited’”.[v] Architecture is not something that is static. It cannot be understood outside of the context in which it is built and used from one generation to the next. It takes an understanding of the possibilities of the space both within the current situation as well as future ones, which is one of the reasons why well-designed places are hard to come by.

Even when extreme measures are taken in efforts to create active public spaces, the success of the space is not always a guarantee. Architects and designers Elizabeth Denby and Maxwell Fry worked on a project called the Kensal House with the goal of creating what they called ‘social institutions’ that were focused on creating a strong community of participation. The project contained “a nursery school, allotments, workshops and a club” with hopes that “the residents would run the place themselves, and that the estate would become a sustainable community”.[vi] While the project was not by any means a failure, it was not nearly as successful as expected. In fact one of the residents commented, “I think why this worked…was because [we] all knew one another. But if you’d brought a lot of strangers in, I think it would have taken a long, long time to get together”.[vii] No matter how well the spaces were designed, they did not work as intended by the architect. Differences between a proposed use and actual use is something that must be understood when designing any kind of built environment. People will always use a space in their own way regardless of the intended use of the space. Thus one of the most important considerations in any design should be the changeability of space and its ability to perform through many various uses in both present and future times. When this variability is not considered, people are much less likely to embrace and inhabit a place and may even feel trapped within such an environment.

In today’s world it seems that we constantly feel the need to make the most of every inch of space we have within our urban environments, but this is not always the best view when it comes to design. While we know that green spaces within a city are of course desirable, we seem to overlook the simple beauty of open public spaces that allow for constantly varying activities to occur. Even when an open public space is slightly developed, the entire experience and usability of the space can be permanently affected. This was on the verge of occurring to People’s Park near the University of California Berkeley when the public realized they needed to protect one of the few truly public spaces in the area. The plan for People’s Park was simply to develop the open park into two sand volleyball courts, but it was enough to drive the community to form what became known as The Volleyball Riots of 1991. [viii] While the park was not being destroyed or developed into a building complex, the people desired the freedom that the park provided and were more than willing to fight for it. The riots even developed into a violent situation that caused many injuries and evoked police brutality, but the people felt that giving up on their public space would be the same as giving up their freedom and were not about to go down without a fight.[ix] While situations such as this do not happen very often, it is a strong reminder of what we once held important in our communities. It appears that we have forgotten, within our highly structured world, what it is like to have enjoyable public spaces as an integral part of our lives.

It seems that we have lost track of the true meaning of a public space and have consequently lived our lives without them. We seem to think that by developing areas into a well-designed and finely tuned space that we are promoting people’s desire to inhabit a space, but in reality we are often doing just the opposite. By making things too efficient we are providing ourselves with a perfect reason to reside within our own little worlds. If we have no need to wander, to socialize, and to explore, we will simply choose to live within our finely tuned daily routines. Humans are naturally social beings who thrive upon interaction with each other, all we need is for our daily routines to be broken with a little disorder every once and awhile. We need spaces that open up our imaginations and give us opportunity for creative enjoyment. We need to step away from the precision of our city systems and lose ourselves in disorder. We need a reason to leave our homes and interact with people other than just those whom we work with. We need new experiences, to learn from each other and to motivate each other towards a better future. What we need is a truly public space.

[i] Http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics (29 November 2010).

[ii] Richard Sennett, “Authority and Freedom,” The Kenyon Review 2, No. 2 (1980): 81.

[iii] Daphne Spain, “Review: The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities,” The American Journal of Sociology 97, No. 4 (1992): 1186.

[iv] David Nexon, “Review: The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life,” The American Political Science Review 70, No. 3 (1976): 987.

[v] Mark Llewellyn, “Polyvocalism and the Public: ‘Doing’ a Critical Historical Geography of Architecture,” Area 35, No. 3 (2003): 265.

[vi] Mark Llewellyn, “Polyvocalism and the Public: ‘Doing’ a Critical Historical Geography of Architecture,” Area 35, No. 3 (2003): 267.

[vii] Mark Llewellyn, “Polyvocalism and the Public: ‘Doing’ a Critical Historical Geography of Architecture,” Area 35, No. 3 (2003): 268.

[viii] Don Mitchell, “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85, No. 1 (1995): 108-133.

[ix] Don Mitchell, “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85, No. 1 (1995): 108-133.