Socially Just Public Spaces Are Crucial to Flourishing Societies

Why Public Space Matters / Oxford University Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada

One of the most radical instances of public space transformation happened recently. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, public space transformed into “a medical resource, a distribution hub, an overflow space, a center of protest and resistance, a gym, a senior center, a community center, a daycare center, a schoolyard, a night club, a transportation corridor, an outdoor restaurant, a shopping mall, a children’s playground, an outdoor theater, a music venue, a nature center, and a place of belonging and ‘being at home.’”

As Setha Low writes in her book Why Public Space Matters, “public space mattered.”

Why do public spaces matter? For Low, an anthropologist by training and distinguished professor of environmental psychology, geography, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, their importance lies in their social value and their role in establishing socially just communities.

They are places of social interaction and community building. They are places where people learn to live with difference. They offer a stage for political and social protest and can encourage democracy and equality. They are crucial to the flourishing of people and their greater societies.

Public space encompasses all sorts of spaces: the typical parks, plazas, and libraries, but also streets and sidewalks, social infrastructure, and “environmental linkages.” Yet the definition of public space varies according to who is defining it. A landscape architect, for instance, centers spatial form and people’s interactions with the environment, while a social scientist focuses on social relations.

To establish a more uniform understanding of public space, Low proposes six characteristics that people across disciplines can use to define any public space:

  • Physical aspects
  • Ownership
  • Governance or management authority and funding
  • Control and influence, rules and regulations, and access
  • Symbolic/historical meaning
  • And political activity

Determining these six characteristics shows that “there are many kinds, not one ideal type” of public space.

Throughout the book, Low draws on her decades of public space research, which began in 1978. Since that time, issues including racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality, and climate change, among others, have always been important, but are even more acutely so now. It’s on these issues that she focuses her book.

Low points to Jones Beach, 20 miles from New York City and one of the most popular state parks in New York, as a public space where park visitors experience social justice. Her two years of research showed how many diverse groups of people frequent a space where they feel they are accepted and belong, especially in a context where surrounding towns restrict beach access.

Jones Beach State Park, New York / Wikipedia, Chanilim714, CC BY-SA 3.0

The site’s design accommodates and welcomes different people through physical design and markers—smooth boardwalks and ramps, ample benches, signs that speak to the historic Lakota Village, and so forth. But, furthermore, Jones Beach, has so “many kinds of people, environments to experience, and things to do that most people find a place for themselves and thus feel represented and welcome.” They also feel recognized and respected.

Low argues that places like Jones Beach are key to a democratic society and public space—and, as a result, so is evaluating social justice in public spaces. She offers the Social Justice and Public Space Evaluation Framework to both examine and design just spaces, which is useful to designers and community members alike.

Parks sites like Jones Beach, as well as other sites Low studies, such as Walkway Over the Hudson Historical Park in Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York, and Lake Welch Beach at Harriman State Park, New York, embody stereotypical public spaces, especially in the minds of landscape architects.

Another type of public space she examines is less often considered: the streets, sidewalks, plazas, bridges, and other public spaces used as part of the informal economy. This economy can be as much of 70 percent of the workforce in urban sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Working in these public spaces — including in neoliberal societies like our own that have few safeguards for poorer and unhoused people — makes workers especially exposed to physical violence, theft, police surveillance, and incarceration.

Dabbawallas delivering lunches as part of Mumbai’s informal economy / Wikipedia, Joe Zachs from Pune, India, CC BY 2.0

Selling, delivering, waste collecting, care-giving: all these activities unfold in public spaces. In the landscape profession where glamorous park designs often grab the most attention, it’s important to remember that “for much of the world, public space is a place of work or looking for work and building social capital to find a better or more stable job.” Low’s ethnographic case studies from around the world demonstrate how these spaces are adaptable and empowering to the people who use them as their workplaces.

In Paris, the ecologically sensitive Jardins d’Eole emerged from a brownfield site due to the activism of the surrounding West African and Maghrebi neighbors / Paris Government

As a medical anthropologist by training, Low consistently makes clear that social dynamics are at the heart of her understanding of public space. Yet she sees environmental sustainability as an integral thread of that understanding. Her first teaching job, in the department of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, was to instruct “human and environmental health as an outcome of ecological planning.”

For Low, elements like community gardens and urban agriculture are ecological boons not in themselves, but because they “[build] stronger communities, [support] social reproduction, and [promote] environmental justice.” She highlights the words of a Detroit resident: “Environmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff….It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been subjects and experiments of power structures.”

The book’s various chapters showcase Low’s systematic ethnographies that undergird her findings. She observes, talks, maps, and writes field notes which ultimately reveal patterns of behaviors and interests. Low appreciates this methodology of ethnography because, rather than, say, counting the number of people in a space, “it focuses on why people are doing what they are doing from their own point of view.”

Ethnography also means that the perspective of the researcher—by nature subjective—plays a significant role in the research. To illustrate her reflexivity, the book is scattered with excerpts from Low’s field notes about children creating play spaces in Nairobi, improvised workplaces on the streets of Varanasi, her ecological planning work on Sanibel Island, Florida.

It’s these sharp, empathetic observations of public spaces—what makes them work, the people that activate them, and the diversity of ways in which they use these spaces—that animate the book and so vividly illustrate her assertion that public spaces are crucial to flourishing societies.

Low writes of her decades of research in a way that makes her work seem effortless. Her evocative field notes reveal the pleasure she takes in experiencing and doing her work understanding urban landscapes. Yet it’s also clear that she dedicated much effort and time to each of her case studies. She acknowledges that certain projects took years as she observed participants and conducted extensive interviews.

She knows this is an impractical span of time for landscape architects wishing to conduct similar research or evaluation. But they nonetheless require a rigorous way to study interactions between humans and their environment. So the book’s final chapter offers toolkits, methodologies, and resources for designing and evaluating public spaces. Most notably, Low provides a blueprint for how readers can achieve less time-intensive public space ethnographies in the same vein as her own.

Low calls this method the Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space (TESS), which she developed in conjunction with her colleagues. She co-opted some techniques from the Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure, a methodology used by medical anthropologists that takes only months, as well as other behavioral techniques.

Ultimately, TESS consists of five steps:

1) Mapping
2) Participant observation
3) Interviewing
4) Historical documentation
5) Analysis

“It is not a design toolkit,” she writes, “but an ethnographic one developed to enable you to become your own social scientist and get directly involved in public space activism to improve cities for the future.”

Tompkins Square Park in East Village, Manhattan, New York City. Low created a case study of the park using the TESS method / Wikipedia, David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0

Low believes in the power of socially just public space to have transformative effects. While a park or sidewalk or plaza may not resolve issues of social injustice alone, she believes they can be places to start. She has presented the framework, and her own examples, to empower the reader to begin transformation of their own effort, in their own community.

Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

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