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How public is public: the full story

Over the past few weeks we have been exploring the topic of public space, diving into the spectrum of publicness: that where on one end we find the “public” and on the other the “private”. We have been dwelling on terms such as “negotiability”, “ownership” and as a consequence, reflecting on our perception of space.

Is there that much difference between a park and a station hall when it comes to the publicness of these spaces? The entire conversation about why some spaces are automatically defined as public while others (which may also be public to some degree) are not so straightforward  is told in three chapters that together tell the story of our daily lives, the places we live and the perceptions we have of them.

Chapter #1: I’m at the door.

Every day as citizens we experience moments of transition from one space to another: from our house (private indoor space), through the front door, to the street (public outside space). On the street to get to the station –where the hall is a public indoor space– but through the ticket turnstiles we get to the tracks, which are less public but not completely private… or are they? Then, when we leave the station and arrive at the tram stop, we are again outdoors in a public… (completely public?) space waiting for a tram that will drop us right by the doors of our office, again a private indoor space.

How many in-betweens are there in this journey? How many did we forget or misdefine? Is the publicness of these in-between spaces negotiable?

Chapter #2: not as public.

Between the words “public” and “private” there are many spaces, all different, that we can experience during a normal day. How do we decide where we put places in “the spectrum of publicness”? Is it a negotiation or are those fixed categories?

Based on what do we feel if a space is public or private? How does our behaviour change based on our perception? And how does our perception of publicness of a space relate to its ownership?

Some kinds of spaces are really easy to define: the bathroom where you sing under the shower is private. But what about the station hall? Will you sing your favourite song there? And in the library? And in the market? Maybe not, and maybe that is because they won’t feel as private as your shower.

If we were to play the game of associating a series of images with a word, we would certainly find parks, streets, playgrounds and gardens connected to the word “public space”. Quite likely, roughly any element connected with the outdoors, related to nature or mobility, would fall under that category. But what about the front door of Stedelijk Museum, where often groups of teenagers are blasting music and practising choreographies? Or Rotterdam’s central station hall, where protests and events often take place? Would you label these places as public as easily as you would do so with a park?

Markets or food halls, open swimming pools, historical sites or waterfronts are other examples of these “less straightforward public”.

Why doesn't it come naturally to us that these spaces are also public? Perhaps it is because we feel that they’re “not as public”? Why do we feel like that?

Chapter #3: not as public?

Let’s take a park. The most straightforward of public spaces… right? Kids playing, teens laying on the grass listening to music, a family having a BBQ, dogs barking, a farewell office party on a summer afternoon… Everyone is doing their thing.

Parks are not just public but also open. We know how to behave in them (essentially - collectively enjoy the place with respect to its maintenance). But how does our perception change when it is the station hall that we’re in?

What about Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House, a building that is in fact a massive waterfront square on several levels; or Valencia’s Tinglado 2, a covered infrastructure by the harbour that anyone can use. Or let’s go a bit more punk – what about Montreal’s Farine Five Roses former warehouse that became one of the best sunset-watching hotspots in town?

It’s not as simple as indoor–outdoor (though that does play a major role). Our perception of publicness is at the intersection of spatial location, function, ownership and social appropriation. It’s about attachment but also demand. About feeling and about time. All spaces were designed for or have a specific function (even leftover spaces) but, recently, people have started to reappropriate the word “public” – take for example the protests in Rotterdam’s central station hall.

Ultimately, it’s an ongoing negotiation: say you’re walking in Rotterdam and you see a small bench on the street, locked in front of a neighbour’s house. 

Would you sit on it? Where does the publicness of the street end, and the privacy of the bench start, if at all?

A final Chapter #4: questions about the perception of the spectrum.

Wherever we live, we take up and occupy space. Space becomes space based on how we use and perceive it. A park is never just a park, but the result of the multilayered complexity of the community that lives in it every day.

Back to the initial question: is a park that different from a station hall? 

As our thinking above goes, in theory no. But in practice we could say yes – there are all sorts of rules affecting the use of these two types of spaces. Yet… are they always completely unmovable?

Perhaps there’s no answer to this question, because while putting on paper all these thoughts about what we called  ‘the spectrum of publicness’, we came to a point of realisation. Even if some spaces are directly considered public, we could say that the whole spectrum is in fact fluid – fluid because the ultimate destination of spaces is the result of how people decide to live them, and that is never static.

Where is the border between the literal definition of public space and how citizens decide to use spaces?

Who decides what feeling a certain space should evoke, and is that really ever fixed?

And, in conclusion, when it comes to projects in our city, how much consideration is really given to concepts like ownership and emotion?

Irene Verde, Service and Communication Designer; Nuria Ribas Costa, Communications Officer and Researcher



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