Public spaces, public places

Posted in cities, design, politics by thenextwavefutures on 8 August, 2013

One of the topics I’ve found myself writing on here more than I expected is that of public space – or, more precisely, its privatisation. I found it on my mind again on holiday in the Pyreneean village of Anso.

Anso was burnt to the ground during the Napoleonic wars and almost immediately rebuilt, this time in stone. It’s largely unchanged since then. One of the features of the village is that many of the houses have a seat built in to the outside wall, as in the photo at the top of this post.

The two public water fountains in the village also still work (try finding that in London). The villagers obviously like this way of arranging things, since in the central square, shown below, there is a row of more recent wooden seats, complementing the cafe tables.

Designing in ‘security’

Of course, when you look at recent city design, it has been going in exactly the opposite direction. One of the main features of urban design has been about designing out spaces in which unmanaged public and social interaction might occur, and designing in “security”. The rationale for this is that if you create areas where people can stop and talk they become magnets for the indigent and the homeless. (Of course, whisper it not, this is something of a ‘downpipe’ response to this particular problem).

Certainly the last time I was looking for somewhere to sit for a few minutes in the City of London (I had to make a call and wanted to be able to take notes) the areas I could find where I should have been able to sit had been spiked to prevent anyone sitting down.

The paraphernalia of control

The partial exceptions, of course, are in the public areas that have been handed over to private management, such as More London on the south bank of the Thames. The reason they tolerate it? Because with private management comes the paraphernalia of control, with rules, security guards and the like. The other reason they tolerate it? People like it, so it’s good for business.

I know it’s easy to say that different rules need to apply in the city, in the soft space where our identities are not  necessarily known, unlike the village. But that’s almost exactly the point. The old German saying was stadtluft macht frei – that city air makes us free. The same freedom to talk and mingle that creates social exchange, energy and innovation also creates dissent (after all, just a form of social innovation). You can’t have one without the other. If you try to choke off the parts you don’t like, you choke the life out of the city.

The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.