Public - of or concerning the people as a whole!
How you occupy space portrays your relationship with your environment. It also informs your interactions with others within that environment. Think about it; you're meant to meet a friend for a drink at the bar. You get there early. You're likely to grab a drink, whip out your phone and head for the closest corner. Small spaces make you feel invisible and safe.
However if you're feeling buoyant and excited and safe, you're likely to be right in the middle of the action. This concept is clearly exemplified in how our body language changes in relation to space in different situations. Amy Cuddy (social psychologist) discusses (in her 2012 TedTalk) how body language & our occupation of space shapes who we are. The most interesting thing about this concept is how non-verbal language and occupation of space informs how we view ourselves and how we feel about ourselves.
I hope the above creates some context into why I think public spaces matter and the impact they can have on someone's psyche & relationship with the world (if this is not clear yet, worry not)
Now, here's the problem; some people have absolutely no trouble with the idea of fully occupying the spaces they inhabit. They have the confidence and carefreeness that allows them to walk around like they own the place or if not own it, don't give a damn who does! Unfortunately these feelings of belonging do not extend to everyone equally. As a result of barriers; historical and present, physical and mental, a large group of us tiptoe as we navigate through the world we live in. Too careful not to step on other's feet, not to take up too much space, not to go where we're not wanted. Basically living on the edge (not in a good way) and constantly apologising (consciously and unconsciously) for the space our breath occupies. Unfortunately man-made rules around ownership and access perpetuate this disparity. Social convention, that which is taken to be, also perpetuates this.
A public space is a social space that is generally open and accessible to people. Roads (including the pavement), public squares, parks and beaches are typically considered public space.
In this series "Public Space", we will explore questions around how we currently define public spaces & why, we will question ownership and access, we will question expectations around occupation of public spaces. We will ridicule, shame & expose where necessary. We will explore the rules of engagement; what are they, who put them there and what purpose do they serve?
Although there will be a lot of commentary, the idea is to provide information around this very relevant topic. Information is neither good nor bad. What you decide to do with that information informs what is good or bad.
Now, in order to set the scene & get started, I'd like you to read this letter below. A friend recently had an experience which made her question the very idea of what public spaces are about. She wrote this letter in an attempt to get answers, or at the very least to plant a seed for those behind the veil to start questioning.
Letter to central library manager in Cape Town
I write to you as a result of an unpleasant happening outside of Central Library Today.
As I was sitting on the cement structure outside of the entrance, I was asked by the security guard to stand up. When I asked 'why' I was told it's the manager order to prevent school children from making noise. I questioned the logic, but was told you are the only one to speak to. You were unavailable to hear me and all I got was this email address.
I find it illegitimate regulation of a public space and unnecessary restriction of public freedom of movement.
It does not make any sense to prevent people from sitting in the street. There are no public benches in Cape Town, as you well know. By making people stand in the same place where they are not allowed to sit - you make no difference to sound or crowd.
I would strongly encourage you to rethink this custom. I strongly think it might be not legal, but that wouldn't be my main reason for this email. I find public spaces in Cape Town to be extremely! restricted and lacking freedom. Security guards are passing on orders from managers who are not there; orders they do not understand or question because they are afraid to lose their low-paying jobs. Those unseen managers are unavailable for public to question. It was sad to learn that the public central library is no different.
As Central Library is the most inclusive public space in CBD, I believe it can behave differently from that custom. I am passionately advocating for the development of your facility - including free! public art talks which I initiated last year. It was a pleasure to work with various people in the library. I love coming to the space for books, CDs and Internet. Because of this positive involvement I bother writing to you, and presenting to you another angle of your decision.
I hope you will consider those arguments, and perhaps see things in a different light. I ask you to respect the side-effects implications of the restriction you've ordered.
And I hope you will be more available for public comments, as you are running a public library, not private. And that category has a big responsibility to engage with its public and not assume whats good for 'them'. Engagement via complain-boxes or emails is unequal and discourages most people from expressing themselves. I expect a public library to be better than another corporate with its head-offices and call-centres.
I wish you well and am looking forward to engaging in constructive conversation.