20 July 2012

Public/Private Space

Public Space

Of all the things considered when designing, whether architecture or city planning, among the most important are private and public space, and the transition between the two.  There are times when the need is obvious, private space in a residence for instance, and other times when it's more ambiguous, such as in the case of privately owned public spaces where who the "public" is can be widely interpreted.  The move between private and public spaces can also vary from a well defined boundary to a more loose transition.  These ambiguities are increasing especially in this time of increased connectivity.

Throughout history the outdoors has been considered the ultimate public space.  For millennia people have gathered outdoors for the most basic of activities from celebrations, sharing news, preparing and consuming food, and socializing.  Outdoor public spaces can take many forms, there are spaces that have been deliberately created for this function and others that have been adopted by the local population to serve this function.  In our time the manifestation of outdoor public space has largely included public parks and town squares but also includes the streets and paths that connect us.  These are the places that fill with people to commemorate an event, like the Fourth of July, join a parade, or start a protest.  When not used for this type of large scale function outdoor public spaces offer a place of recreation and relaxation.  People often use a public park as one would use a private yard; reading a book, having a picnic, talking with friends, or just enjoying the space.  Others have used the town square to sell their wares, provide entertainment, and practice their right to free speech. 

Public space is key to the health of a community.  While providing a place for the activities mentioned above they also contribute to public health by providing fresh air and a place to exercise.  Access to public space also provides the opportunity to be around other people.  Humans are social creatures and have a inherent need to interact.  An active public space can offer this interaction.  Jane Jacobs in her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" spoke of the security active streets offer, illustrating how public spaces and the surrounding community have a symbiotic relationship.  The value of public spaces offer to individuals and the community as a whole is undeniable.

More recently the shopping mall has become a type of public space.  While offering areas for some of the activities mentioned above the fact that retail centers are technically private spaces means that we do not necessarily have the same rights as we would in a truly public space.  A discussion of the pros and cons of this is sure to be a lively one but isn't the subject here so we'll save it for another time. 

Complementing public space is, of course, private space.  As with public space there are many different scales of private space.  The private space of your personal bedroom is quite different than the private space of a corporate office.  Regardless of the level of privacy a private space it is typically smaller than a public space, if for nothing else than the fact of a lower occupancy.  Historically private space has been as small as a bed or as large as a castle.  Either way it offers security, safety, and a place to rest.  Activities that society, or an individual, has determined are not appropriate for public are carried out in private.  Our society values personal space, whether a child or an adult we all want our own space.  This may be a space used for work, hobbies, self reflection or to wind down.  The best part of private space is we can do whatever we want.  As like public space, the value of private space is clear.

We seem to be entering an age where these two types of spaces are overlapping and, in some instances, shifting.  With the increased connectivity of the world and the rise of social media more and more traditionally public activities are taking place in private spaces.  The news media highlighted the role social media played during the so called Arab Spring in the Middle East towards the end of 2010.  This specific example demonstrates an overlap of traditional public and private spaces; people organizing, from their private space, protests to be carried out in the public space.  Generally this use of technology illustrates how people with common interests and/or goals can be brought together without the benefit of proximity, I would consider this one of its primary advantages. 
This type of shift in the relationship between public and private space is illustrated in the fact that people often use their private spaces to communicate with the public using online public forums.  More often than not the groups organized online or through social media never meet in a public space, in fact many participants may never leave their private spaces.  I write this now in my home office, in a room all alone, definitely a private space.  Where I start to see this shift as a detriment is in the fact that everyday people are making "friends" without ever meeting, while in their private space.  While this may not be harmful in itself, increased connectivity may negatively impact our interaction with the public.  I'll admit, the interaction available with the use of technology can be productive it doesn't yet offer the nuance, spontaneity, or physicality of real life interaction.  In the worse cases people are substituting online communication for real life contact.  While this can be quite troubling I don't think it is common enough to be cause for concern.

Where the biggest risk lies is the reduction of our public spaces.  If large numbers of our community are filling up on conversation and interaction in virtual public spaces will they still have a need, or desire, for our physical public spaces?  From my own observations it appears that many people don't want to interact in public.  I understand we don't always want to be social but it seems when walking on the street or taking public transportation people used to talk to each other and now they have their heads buried in some sort of device, trying to avoid the fact that they are in a public space.  I wonder, is one of the core functions of public space, to bring people together, is starting to disappear?  If it is the blame cannot be put solely on technology, there are other factors, but I would argue it is the main factor. 

Technology has given us many reasons not to use public space.  It has increased private mobility with the automobile, allowing us to travel to distant places without ever having to interact with someone we don't choose.  We now have abundant at home entertainment with the television and video games so we don't need to leave the house to have fun.  When I was young outside was my entertainment, many children now stay in for theirs.  Often we don't even need to leave the house to go shopping.  In fact the rise of social media may be the most beneficial technology for public space, reminding us that sometimes we need to literally stand together as was seen during the Arab Spring. 

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