Designing for sociability
British public space increasingly seems to be governed by the poetics of the Poor Law, with designers trying to find ways of preventing people stopping and socialising, at least unless they’re willing to pay Starbucks for the price of a coffee. The main – and unspoken – purpose, of course, is to prevent the poor (and perhaps the young) from stopping and socialising, lest they lower the tone of the place, and its asset value.
It can only be a matter of time in England’s unkind political culture before one of Theresa May’s Special Advisers proposes whipping vagrants and ne’er-do-wells to the parish boundary before then fulminating that the Human Rights Act prevents them from introducing this essential reform.
More seriously, this is one of the battle lines about contemporary public space in England, as seen by recent campaigns against “spiking” potential outdoor resting or sleeping areas, and to protect the South Bank’s Undercroft from being turned into yet more retail space. (Yes, I know the South Bank management explained over and over that they’d been misunderstood).
This whole issue has been compounded by the privatisation of public space in which special and idiosyncratic rules apply and are enforced by the private company or agency to whom management of the space has been contracted. (Anna Minton is essential reading on this).
Space for socialising
But it turns out that there is another way. It’s worth sharing some photographs from the Basque country of how to design in space for socialising. I’m not making special claims for the Basque region here: I’m sure that I could have found similar photographs across Europe. The point I’m making is that Britain has become an outlier in its peculiar fear of the poor.
The photograph at the top of this post is of the port area in Bermeo, which has chairs arranged in two semi-circles, close to a public statue.
The one immediately below is of a small open area in Mundaka: the chairs are concreted into the ground at these convivial angles.
I know: someone will point out to me that the Basque culture is not the Engish culture, and they would be right. It is more economically inclusive, and more resistant to official stories that blame victims (they had quite a lot of that during the Franco years and found it not to their taste). But in any system, “end-of-pipe” solutions that deal with consequences and not causes, end up amplifying the problem rather than damping it down.
Designers who produce designs that remove sociability in public spaces – even if it is “what the client wants” – are complicit in the brutish public culture to which this contributes, and the low expectations of public behaviour that follow. I’m not that close to the design world, but I hope there’s a lively ethical debate going on about this.
The photographs in this post are taken by Andrew Curry and are published here under this Creative Commons licence.