Public Space is the Place

Public space is inseparable from, and intertwined, with the city. It is the city’s substrate, its foundation, the very fabric that connects otherwise isolated buildings. Public space sets the stage for our every-day life, our sociocultural interactions, our daily journeying and wayfinding. We travel, meet, eat, party, play, demonstrate, even clash, in public space. So essential is public space for the functioning of the city as a whole, that it’s importance is perhaps subliminal and can easily be taken for granted.

Yet, when the world was locked-down in response to the COVID-19 threat, the impact of streets and squares void of publicness, public space in limbo, was stark; empty streets, constrained and restrictive use, both public and private buildings shut, the deafening quiet after dark that cast a pall over society to depress even the most positive.

Or was it public space in flux? The Corona-crisis also brought the resilience of public space to the fore; its tenacious capacity to bounce back, to transform, and provide room for new use, functions and routines, to recognize and enliven a new energy.

Personally, public space offered me an opportunity to escape confinement during lockdowns, punctuate the limited horizon of both the day and my home, stretch the legs, catch a breath of fresh air and have a distanced, ‘safe’ interaction with unknown and known strangers. Public space became an antidote to counter lockdown claustrophobia.

I consider myself fortunate. Other parts of the world had restricted access to public space but in The Netherlands, daily ‘sanity walks’ were permitted; an hour per day, give or take. During these (treasured) opportunities I observed and documented the unusual, serendipitous, even surreal scenes I chanced upon.

The result of this visual scavenging is my Public Space Detective blog. Roaming the streets of Rotterdam, with the objective not only to document but also to unravel and question what is observed, drawing from the reservoir of knowledge and experience I have acquired working as a public space professional for over twenty years. What is really happening here? Which mechanisms, strategies, tactics, intentions, forces, processes, routines, patterns, narratives, unwritten laws, rules, and rituals lie at the root of these phenomena?

The alias ‘Public Space Detective’ was coined in 2018 for a workshop with my architecture students. The objective was to investigate the public square in front of Rotterdam Central Station for traces of publicness; marking and counting cigarette butts, bits of chewing gum stuck to the pavement and other traces of human presence, the hypothesis being that such residue of public life is a reflection of how public an urban space really is, or was.

In my contributions for Mastering Public Space, I will share this ongoing research into common and uncommon phenomena in public space, looking between the cracks of the pavement, reading the language of the street, the urban syntax; close reading public space.

This is my first column for the new webmagazine MaPS. Mastering Public Space. MaPS is an initiative of the non-profit organization City Space Architecture and aimed at hosting global news on public space, curated by a cross-disciplinary team of public space researchers and experts committed to spread awareness on the importance of public space in cities.