In the most absolute sense, public space is open access, available for anyone without limits.
In practice, public space is far more complex. Is it that there are many publics, or is it that there is no such thing?
If I walk through a city square, I feel entitled to be there. I, in my anonymity, am acting in accordance with all the codes of conduct which make me part of the public. This is public space in the most absolute sense.
It is an experience that is both very limited and very rich. On the one hand, I pass many people, see them as they go about their business, catch snatches of their conversation, enjoy being surrounded by busy, alive people. On the other, it is an experience of alienation: all interactions are passive. A brief exchange of words with a shop assistant or declining an offered leaflet is the extent of social interaction. While I abide by the social codes of conduct – walk, talk to a friend, eat or drink, shop – I am accepted seamlessly into the public realm. But to act in some other way – running around shouting, perhaps, or lying down on the ground, or spinning in circles, would instantly make me ‘other’ to the public. I would stand out as a strange element. The freedom of the public realm depends on this strict societal control.
There is something seductive about the anonymity places where the user is somehow divorced from the place and relieved of the need to engage. It is a kind of retreat. Ageographia – a dislocation of place.
If, as has been posited, the quality of the public realm depends on the interactions that occur between people, what kind of a place is this? A poor one, if one depends on active involvement with others for a sense of community. ‘The street’s function has been lowered to that of pure infrastructure.’
This is the rhetoric of loss.
To regard these new, alien urban elements as placeless is meaningless: everywhere is a place by definition… Rather, the sense of loss comes from the changes they bring to the character of a place, and the contrast they create with the previous, which will in many cases have been a very different urban realm. The change in real terms is not of place to non-place but of one kind of place to another; the sense of loss comes from the attachment people feel to their city.
If a person’s sense of belonging in their own home depends on their freedom to introduce specifics – the control they exert over their environment – then it follows that a sense of urban belonging, too, comes from control over specifics. The critical sense of control, though, is held not by the individual member of the public but by those whose role changes the urban space: shop-keepers and owners, councils and authorities, and interested public groups.
The difference is in the scale and scope of the population who exert this control: the smaller and more familiar the entitled population, the more specific the decisions and the greater the sense belonging. In the old and traditional urban realm many of the businesses, much of the land and most of the decisions are specific to the place. The newly developed city can be accused of being ageographic because, facilitated by communications and infrastructure, the control is held at a remote, often national, level, with shops replicated in one urban centre after another and streetscapes redesigned with a view to propagating a metropolitan, European model.
As these changes are administered remotely, so the freedom to introduce specifics is very much limited, and this is read and understood by everyone.
This is not to condemn new urban developments. Many are much appreciated, well-designed and considered, enjoyable places. It is simply important to recognise that control of the place is remote, and so that when we visit it we enter a realm in which the people of the city are disenfranchised, powerless, unable to make the place specific. It is hardly surprising that such experiences result in a rhetoric of loss.