Better Public Space

Find Your Beach

I grew up in the suburbs, where private space is king and cars create little cocoons so we can safely travel from point a to point b without dealing with the public. I first fell in love with public space at the beach during my summer vacations. My grandparents would drive my sisters and me out to Southern California and we’d spend endless summer days at the public beaches with our cousins.

I was used to spending all day in the water — but usually in a private pool in my backyard. At the beach I could wander and explore without boundaries. The ocean was an unfathomable size and the beach and people lounging on it represented, to me as a teenager, the real world. The unknown and the unexpected.

I remember these trips fondly. I felt welcomed, safe, inspired, and free. The beach was a place for everyone. And it was my favorite place to be. 

Public space is now an area I think a lot about, especially in my work curating and developing creative placemaking projects. Why do we feel safe and inspired in some public spaces and scared and territorial in others? How can we create better public spaces for everyone? How can we use art and culture and creativity to connect strangers in public space, instead of pushing out the unknown?

What is public space?

I define public space as an area that is open to the public — officially or unofficially — and is a place where one can linger. Parks, plazas, streets, but also shopping malls and libraries, because in theory everyone can walk in and out of them freely and there’s no barrier to entry.

However, this isn’t really true because many spaces that are public are inaccessible, don’t feel welcome to everyone, or don’t allow lingering (loitering). Business owners and landowners also might just decide a space in the public realm isn’t the kind of space where they want a certain type of person, and then suddenly it’s not really public space, even it seems like it should be.

Design of public space

Many designers, developers, and managers of public space have good ideas about how to create the physical infrastructure to create a healthy and welcoming public arena. Unfortunately, they sometimes fall short in actually maintaining a public space that is healthy and welcoming to everyone. This might be due to a lack of funding or interest. It may even be due to the fact that they actually don’t want certain people in the space.

If I were homeless at the beach, eventually, someone would probably complain about me and get me moved. 

We must use public space to connect — not to divide

I get it, you might not want to be sunbathing next to someone who hasn’t had a bath in a very long time. I remember once I tried to go to the free movie screening at the San Francisco public library but couldn’t even enter the theatre because it smelled so bad. Public spaces have long been known to try to exclude the homeless, and now it seems like we use public space to exclude whoever we want. 

I think this is a huge problem. We can’t filter the public realm. I hope that instead of using public space to divide us, we could use it to connect with each other and maybe even to inspire more creativity.

If you often feel unwelcome or have been kicked out of a public space, you know what I’m talking about. If you have never been kicked out of a space or don’t know what it feels like to feel un-welcomed, then you are privileged. This also means you have some cultural capital and can help fix this.

As users of public space, we need to protect them and make them better, for ourselves and for those of us who aren’t allowed.

How to be more creative and connected in public space

There are lots of checklists for how to design public spaces, but how can we users of public space be more creative and connected in it? How can we help maintain and advocate for more inclusive, equitable, and community-building public spaces?

“A good city should be an inclusive city, one that provides spaces for social engagement and fosters social cohesion.” — UN Habitat Global Public Space Toolkit

Here are a few ideas, starting with the easiest thing and ending with the most time-intensive and perhaps hardest. 

1. Dress for the Weather

Often, public space is outside and you just aren’t going to go outside if you aren’t dressed appropriately. You also aren’t going to walk to that park if you can’t in the shoes you are wearing. 

2. Go Outside (or Inside)

Explore your public spaces! There are probably hundreds of spaces in your own neighborhood that you have never been and are dying for some attention. Be safe, especially if you are a person of color or a woman, but don’t let the unknown stop you from discovering a new public space. 

3. Linger

In order to explore public space and have time to enjoy it, you need to be free. You can’t be constantly on your way to somewhere else. I find a lot of people in my peer group are always traveling. This is awesome — yay travel — but then they complain that wherever they live is boring. It may be boring, or it may just be uncovered. Try spending time in public space where you actually live. Plazas in Spain are amazing because there are lots of people who regularly hang out in the plaza. Be a regular in your own neighborhood. 

4. Take a New Route

It’s easy to overlook the conditions or politics in public space if you see the same thing all the time. Try taking a new route to work or to run errands (by foot if you can!) and see if you notice anything different the next time you take your regular route. 

5. Ask for Directions

We ask for directions when we are traveling, or at least we do if we don’t have internet access. But when was the last time you asked for directions in your own city? It may take you longer to get where you are going, but you might stumble upon something, or someone, that you otherwise would have missed. Again, proceed with caution if you are not a white male. 

6. (Routinely) Participate

Block parties and street fairs happen because people get together and make them happen and because people show up! Show up to the things that go on in your neighborhood, or else they might stop happening. It takes a public to have public events. 

7. Pay Attention To Who Isn’t Present

Once you start spending time and participating in public space activities, you’ll hopefully start noticing regulars. This is great, maybe you’ll meet some new people, but also, start noticing who isn’t present. This may expose something about the public space that you’ve never thought about before.

8. Organize + Advocate

If you are noticing certain people are being systematically or culturally excluded from a space, do something about it. You can organize and advocate for a better public space, even if the space is publicly owned or managed. 

Here is a link to the Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials and Design with some ideas of guerrilla style public space improvements. These are like lipstick to a space, but they may help set a precedent and encourage further action to create healthier, happier, more inclusive public spaces. 

What do you think? Am I crazy to want to use public space for the public? How do you use public space? 

Are you in need of improving your public space? I can help! Contact me if you are interested in creative peacemaking services or public art curating.