Good public spaces can help to achieve more inclusive, equitable and democratic cities

Good public spaces can help to achieve more inclusive, equitable and democratic cities
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    THE PLACE OF CITIZENSHIP Good public spaces can help to achieve more inclusive, equitable and democratic cities Fernando Barreiro  , lead-expert of the USER 1  project (Urbact II program) Public spaces are absolutely essential to the functioning of democratic politics. Public space is the product of competing ideologies about what constitutes that space –order and control or free, and perhaps dangerous, interaction. This are not merely questions of ideology of course, they are, rather, questions about the very spaces that make political activities and public life possible. The history of public space is both a form and an ideology. The notion of urban public space can be traced back at least to the Greek agora and its function as “the place of citizenship”, an open space where public affairs and legal disputes were conducted. While the agora was thus a political space, it was a market-place, a place of pleasurable jostling where citizen’s bodies, words, actions, and products were all on mutual display, and where judgments, decisions, and bargains were made. Politics, commerce and spectacle were juxtaposed and intermingled in the public space of the agora. It provided a meeting place for strangers, whether citizens, buyers or sellers and the ideal of public space in the agora encouraged nearly unmediated interaction. In such “open and accessible public spaces and forums” (Iris Marion Young, 1990), “one should expect to encounter and hear from those 1  USER (Changes, conflicts and dysfunctions in using public spaces) is one of the 15 thematic networks of the 3 rd  call of the European URBACT II program. USER is focused in the achievement of “successful public spaces” through the user’s involvement in the design and management of public spaces. 9 European cities are members of USER: Grenoble-Alpes Métropole (lead-partner), Lisbon, Malaga, Dresden, Copenhagen, Krakow, Lublin, Riga and Pescara.  who are different, whose social perspectives, experience and affiliation are different”. One should expect that is, urban experiences, defined by conflicting demands for the right to the city. Karl Marx pointed the idiocy of rural life. Idiocy in this sense does not refer to intelligence of the inhabitants, or event the nature of their customs, but to the essential privacy –and therefore isolation and homogeneity- of rural life. In contrast, cities were necessarily public and therefore places of social interaction and exchange with people who were necessarily different. Publicity demands heterogeneity and the space of the city –with its density and its constant attraction of new immigrants- assured a thick fabric of heterogeneity, on in which encounters with difference were guaranteed. The existence of some form of public life is a prerequisite to the development of public spaces. Specific places acquire meaning through their functions, further deepening their roles in people’s lives. The river used for laundering clothing can be a place for exchanging information. The market has long played a role in communicating local news, providing context for political behaviour. Public places have enabled the social exchange of a widely ranging nature covering individual as well as communal issues. They also provide the grounds for demanding personal and political rights. Although there are vast differences in the forms of communal life across societies, public life has been an integral part of the formation and continuation of social groups. But are people nowadays really interested in contacting other people, mainly strange people? Are we witnessing a declining of public life in our cities? It is not simply a problem about lack or deterioration of parks, streets and squares, but a crisis of the public sphere that is manifested in the spaces and the dynamics of the city. We should start questioning ourselves, is it easier and more attractive today to retreat into the private sphere? Why have we permitted the multiplying construction of such scenarios that exacerbate the problem and widen the gap between the public and the private spheres? It is suggested that the balance in our society is shifting strongly toward the security and pleasures of private life. Richard Sennett (1977) in The Fall of Public Man  , documents the social, political and economic factors heading to the “end of public culture”, the privatization of people’s lives. This development toward an intimate society began, in large measure, in the nineteenth century and has continued, creating “the tyrannies of intimacy”, denials of the reality and worth of impersonal life. I don’t want to romanticize public life, but it is important to acknowledge its value. At the same time, the need for privacy must be recognized as well. Our perspective is that a healthy life contains a balance of private and public experiences and that people need opportunities to engage in each domain. In any case, we believe that cities and neighborhoods could not survive without spaces in which all kinds of personal, cultural and economic exchange occur. At their best, public spaces act like a self-organizing public service, just as hospitals and schools provide a shared resource to improve people’s quality of life, public spaces form a shared spatial resource from which experiences and value are created in ways that are not possible in our private lives alone. The relationship of public space to public life is dynamic and reciprocal. New  forms of public life require new spaces. Public spaces have a “cultural mission”. When public spaces are successful they will increase opportunities to participate in communal activity. In good public spaces one can see the social world and other individuals in culturally favorable light. In well-designed and well-managed public spaces, the armor of daily life can be partially removed, allowing us to see others as whole people. Seeing people different from oneself responding to the same setting in similar ways creates a temporary bond. There may be a spontaneous exchange of smiles and, perhaps, a conversation. Even if there is no direct communication, good public space supports what developmental psychologists call peaceful parallel activity: individuals may pursue their interests but women are not harassed, older children allow young ones to play, the elderly are not bothered, and so on. Well functioning public spaces provide vivid examples of a society more egalitarian than we normally experience. When people wish to demonstrate their support for greater freedom and equality, they invariably chose a central public space as the most appropriate setting to join together and make their feelings known. Even when differences are great, people can peacefully coexist. These experiences foster a sense of community of the whole and reinforce cultural norms of tolerance across the economic and social distances of our society. In these ways, the public space movement can be a force in improving our public culture. The general history of cities in the twentieth century has been one of increasing segregation by residence and workplace. The most striking dimensions of this separation have been economic and racial. In our increasingly polarized society, we are creating a large, mostly urban “underclass” of virtually unemployable people. The appalling problems of homelessness, undernourishment, drug abuse, and crime that our economic and political system creates or augments, must become central issues for urban politics in the immediate future. When not addressed elsewhere, these problems become highly visible in public space, leading to daily conflicts over appropriate use. Often public space improvements are promoted for their ability to stabilize a neighborhood or to “upgrade” it. It is necessary to understand not only the public space needs and expectations of the middle class, but also how they can coexist with poorer residents. Both, in neighborhoods or in cities as a whole, an inclusive public space policy will complicate programming, design and management. But the costs of exclusionary policies and designs will be to encourage conflict and hostility with public space as a battleground. Although there is no public space user’s “bill of rights”, we suggest that the rights provide a very useful guide to issues that are likely to be important in any design or management of public space for multiple user groups. The rights of access, freedom of action, claim, change and ownership are fundamental in a democratic society. They need not all be exercised in every case, but they must always be considered as a potential to be exercised. A central question is whether people are free to achieve the types of experiences they desire in public spaces. The rights to use a public space and have a sense  of control within it are basic and overarching requirements. In examining a variety of parks, plazas and other spaces, it becomes apparent that different degrees of freedom and control exist in different situations. The precise balance between these two factors at a particular time is dependent on a number of factors, including the norms and behaviours of the individuals and groups using the space, and the design and management of the space. Public places afford casual encounters in the course of daily life that can bind people together and give their lives meaning and power. They also can be the source of disagreements and conflicts. Open disagreements, however, may be healthier and easier to resolve than those kept in private. Public spaces not only can serve daily needs but also can be places to gather for special occasions. People can discover new things, learn from others and learn to live together. Public space can be interpreted as having primarily a social and psychological function through its place in the larger urban setting that allows people to interact and have a sense of identity and community, which relate to other social phenomena such as safety and mental well-being. But for the encounter with difference to really succeed, then, the right to inhabit the city by different people and different groups had always to be struggled for. The city is the place where difference lives. And finally in the city different people with different projects must necessarily struggle with one another over the shape of the city, the terms of access to the public realm, and even the rights of citizenship. That’s why public spaces engender fears, fears that derive from the sense of public space as uncontrolled space, as a space in which civilization is exceptionally fragile. The city must necessarily retain some tolerance for risk and danger. It must take for granted that at least some level of “fear” will always be present in urban life. Struggle –which is the only way that the right to public space can be maintained and the only way that social justice can be advanced – is never without danger of violence. How that potential for violence is policed, encapsulated in law, sublimated in design, or turned either regressive or progressive ends makes all the difference in the world. To create and maintain a good working relationship between a space and its users, designers and managers need to understand, in advance, the needs and expectations that potential users are likely to bring to the place. 2  The more diverse the range of user groups, the more difficult it will be to develop appropriate criteria for design and management. In our cities, strong ethnic, regional, and class differences make for complex relationships between public space and the people who use it. To intervene successfully in the dynamic relations between people and public space, designers and managers need a theoretical frame of reference and a way of working that helps them see these relations clearly so as to manage change 2  Involving users of public spaces, understanding their needs and establishing local actions plans to achieve good public spaces, are the core ingredients of the local experimentation that the USER project proposes to its partner’s cities.  effectively. The human dimensions of public space are intended to provide such a framework, focusing on the relationship between people and places, taking into account users needs, rights and meanings, rather than the place physical qualities. If some needs for active use are ignored, a space designed for one activity may be usurped for another, which creates greater management problems.   Rights and needs of users   are often not addressed when public spaces are developed. There is a frequent tendency to emphasize the physical qualities of a site to the exclusion of other qualities, a view that is one-dimensional and fails to cover the full array of factors that are critical to “successful public places”. An emphasis on physical attributes alone gives a simplistic, deterministic conception of the functioning of public spaces, one that has turned out to be limiting in many respects. The primary needs that people seek to satisfy in public space are those for comfort, relaxation, active and passive engagement, and discovery (Carr, Francis, Stone, 1992). Relaxation provides relief from the stresses of daily life and both active and passive engagement with others promotes individual well-being and community. It can be a place for discovery of self or others, a step into their larger world. Meaningful spaces are those that allow people to make strong connections between the place, their personal lives, and the larger world. They relate to their physical and social context. In order to have effective design and management of public spaces it is essential to understand the role that those places play in people’s lives, and why spaces are used or ignored. The specific reasons drawing people to public areas reflect many aspects of life, especially urban life. A stop in a public place may enable a person to rest and escape from the confusion, noise, crowds and “overload” in the surroundings, a common need in complex, urban settings. In this instance the place becomes a haven, a “stimulus shelter” providing a contrast to the outside. Some places offer a contrast to the daily routine or a transition from the world of work to that of leisure, however brief the stop may be. There are other reasons to stop, reflecting the need to go rather than the need to get away from. Public areas also enable people to connect with others, to affiliate in some way with other people. This may occur in a very passive mode, as in cases where people position themselves to watch the passing scene, content to have their eyes follow the flow of strangers moving by. In other cases a more active participation is desired, where a place is used to meet friends. People’s right in a space are not often explicitly considered in design. Partly as a result, conflict over access and use can become an onerous and sometimes overwhelming preoccupation for managers. Designers may take it for granted that if people’s needs are served by a space, it will be used. There are, however, many examples to show that perfectly “usable” spaces are avoided because the potential users do not feel that they have the basic right of access or freedom of action once there. The social value of public space is wide ranging and lies in the contribution it makes to people’s attachment to their locality and opportunities for mixing with
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