May 27, 2019

Is public space really for the public?

Public Space and Land Art

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It's often said that the places where we live have an effect on the way we perceive ourselves and the way society recognizes us within it.


Many urban dwellers consider cities safer than smaller towns. They offer a sense of community, accessibility and inclusivity because of the diverse range of people who reside there. However, is this true concerning all cities? Are cities as safe and inclusive as we think they are? A historical review of cities reveals they are not always 'tolerant utopias' and are characterized by timelines of turbulence, marginalization, inequality and social conflict. Moreover, regulations and policies that govern cities often appeal principally to specific groups in society and lack the perspectives of non-dominant identities such as women, LGBTQ+, people of colour (POC) and other minorities.

The International Making Cities Livable Council found "a decline in the use of public space as a community hub. What used to be the beating civic heart of the urban space, a place for people to gather and grow together has become increasingly privatized and sterile." This supports what Kristen Struthers highlighted in her article, Why the city bench is the unsung hero of good public spaces, how "hostile architecture" techniques are standard in many cities in the form of sleep and skate deterrents along with a whole toolkit of ways to alter behaviour." 

One of the biggest concerns regarding public spaces, however, is the aspect of safety—especially for women and minorities. Even though we can argue how we are in an era where less dominant groups are more vocal about their rights and to an extent, have been significantly successful with many legislative wins (i.e. gay marriage, repeal of 'don't ask don't tell'), there still exists a persistent fight against equality and freedom. Cities that were once deemed "safe" are now reporting increasing acts of violence towards trans-women and POC. Reports have also included rape and sexual harassment cases against women and hate crimes against religious and non-hetero groups. Nadi's Creative Communication's intern, Suzy Gilbert, wrote, quoting placemaker Jay Pitter, how real design flaws such as lighting, closed-in spaces and high fences contribute to feelings of danger and fear and the facilitation of violence in public areas against women, but this can also easily translate to LGBTQ+, POC and other minorities as well.

It is therefore critical to understand the reality and struggles faced by groups of people who do not fit into the 'standard' category— white, male, hetero or cisgender—and who refuse to denounce their identities in the quest for acceptance. It begs the question of how we might understand the complex nature of marginalization in urban spaces today and whether architecture or the bodies responsible for envisioning and making cities contribute to social movements may serve as an affirmation for potential liveable life.

In David Harvey's The Right to the City, he highlights why the relationship between self-identification and the built environment is one of the most precious and yet neglected of human rights. It's not merely providing members of society access to resources that already exist, but the right to express themselves concerning the processes of urbanization. The freedom to be oneself without fear of discrimination and the detectable physical presence of non-dominant groups (LGBTQ+, POC, etc.) within the public realm marks the extent of how inclusive our societies really are. On the other hand, the areas of sexuality, gender and ethnicity— to a great extent— do not exist in the vocabulary of dominant architectural theory. As argued by Jon Binnie, space is not created to have a pre-existing sexual identity or a specific form of identification but has been produced this way. 

Interestingly Adam Nathaniel Furman raises a similar argument in an article for the Architectural Review's issue on Sex and Women in Architecture. He writes, "marginal groups and identities are tolerated but restricted to private spaces, with any forms of spatial expression of their shared existence kept from the easily outraged gaze of the wider public". The acceptance of these "others" entails the oh-so-onerous task of containing "different modes of expression into the shared and— once diversified— controversial space of the visible". In some ways, the spaces set up to create some form of allowance for alternative groups within public space are similar to what Foucault describes as heterotopias as they do not entirely allow people to enter freely. Also characteristic of these spaces is their temporality— as defined by Cottrill— they exist but only for a limited amount of time (i.e. Pride Week and Women's March). They are separate and never fully part of society but act as local areas of change.

The subject of sexuality and space dates back to the '90s, following developing concerns regarding gender and architecture and its role in the production of identities, including the interpretation and experience of space according to non-dominant persons such as women, LGBTQ+ and POC. The gendering of space is not just a western issue, but a global one as well and can be experienced in other cultural societies in the most muted ways, from public displays of affection to the mannerisms of women and men. These subtle qualities manifest in everyday life and go unnoticed by most individuals. However, why does public space have to be classified at all? Why must a group of people be accepted, and others rejected? The exclusion of members of society based on their sexual orientation, gender or colour subjects so-called 'non-conforming' individuals to physical and mental attacks. It is dehumanizing and flagrantly declares one's life does not count.

In Judith Butler's Undoing Gender, she emphasizes that to redefine our ideas of community, society must examine possibilities that exist outside of the heteronormative. Our planning systems and the debate on what and how our cities should be must represent the views of sexual and gender minorities as well as other minority groups. The spaces described, as heterotopias where these "other" members of society exist must be made apparent and permanent, claiming territory within cities, suburbs and rural areas. The inclusiveness of our cities and public spaces is marked by our ability to genuinely transition from tolerance to acceptance. It is within this context that new meanings for architectural space can develop and we can find out more about our cities and ourselves.