It’s time to redesign the private aspects of public space
published on 29/2/2016
How public are our public spaces? Private and governmental organizations increasingly tend to decide how this space looks like and operates. This was a reason to organize an event in Hôtel Droog around public space and its "private parts." It clearly showed how the public and private live at odds.
First there was the Camden bench, introduced by Tom Coggins. This bench, named after the London authority that commissioned it, is designed in such a way to make sure that it is not used for anything else but for sitting. A special coating makes the bench resistant to graffiti and vandalism. The featureless surface gives criminals no place to hide their secret caches. The angled sides repel skateboarders, litter and rain. The cambered top throws off rough sleepers.
The Camden bench is not an exception. Over time numerous examples of defensive street furniture, architecture and infrastructure have appeared, trying to direct the way humans behave and to shape their daily public routines. One would really suspect this is becoming the new standard in the design of public infrastructure. It’s called public design, but the design itself does not give access to everyone, which isn’t very civic. Of course there are underlying reasons. One of these is the voice of citizens: people want to see their neighbourhood nice, clean, quiet and safe. Here, access for all means access for our own kind of people.
Then there was Joris Duindam of JCDecaux, a company specialized in street furniture, who was surprised that the public took away all the beach chairs which his company had placed all over the Museumplein in Amsterdam. He even seemed a bit annoyed: how was it possible that people did not appreciate the gesture of the company and leave the chairs for public use, just like the citizens of London and Paris respect the freestanding and movable chairs in the parks? One of the reasons could be that the chairs in London and Paris are conceived as public items, while the branded chairs in Amsterdam were seen as mere advertising, free to take away like the branded beer coasters in the pub.
It reminded me of the event Pioneers of Change, which I curated on Governor’s Island, New York City in 2009. I invited artist Franck Bragigand to design the space for public debates. He collected 100 old chairs and asked students to paint them in all kinds of colours. When the festival was over, Franck rented a truck and placed the chairs all over New York City, in the poorest areas as well as the wealthy parts. Especially in the poor neighbourhoods people immediately started to use the chairs. His gesture had a double meaning. It was not only chairs that he gave away to the people. It was also his art! However, the police only considered it as an illegal act, which therefore was not appreciated at all.
Could we design public space in such a way that the public and private are not at odds? Could we design a public space that could constantly change between public and private? A space in which individual people can take things, swap, produce and create, and that at the same time is negotiable for certain private uses and needs.
We need to design public space in such a way that conflicting desires can co-exist without ending up with defensive objects like the Camden bench. But first we need to gain insight in how people perceive and want to use public space and how this can result in a well-functioning infrastructure.
Public talk @Hôtel Droog