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The Public Space Paradox

On Monday June 27 2022 I was invited to speak about the ‘Public Space Paradox’ session at Pakhuis De Zwijger in Amsterdam. This article is based on that talk.

The paradox is one of the important building blocks when creating human cities, because we cannot escape it when trying to understand what makes humans tick. If one being has seemingly contradictory qualities, it’s us. It makes us special, and we love to be unique and at the same time not too special – so we are not considered weird. Also in dealing with ourselves, others, and the planet we are deeply paradoxical. We love nature, and we destroy it. We love others, and we hurt them. (Hamlet says “I must be cruel to be kind”.) We are pretty self-centered, but have big issues being kind to ourselves. And instead of embracing this quality, and making the best out of it, we prefer to ignore contradictions and order the world in zeros and ones, black and white, good and bad.

Creating space for human complexity in public space

If we have the ambition to make cities more human, then we must deal with this human core quality. We have to deal with paradoxes, but also with our capacity to make sense of them. The key to making cities human is our public space. This is where historically individual wishes became common goals for the future, where goods and ideas were exchanged, conflicts, in one way or another, were resolved. Public spaces are by nature social spaces. The more people gather, the more complexity is added, the more paradoxical it gets.

Good design does not try to solve our paradoxical nature, but instead creates space for it. It embraces it, and invites us to be ourselves. Italian piazzas have the right dimensions to be publicly seen, and to have private conversations. Great public space offers diversity in the size and shapes of the buildings and other design elements, but also a certain rhythm and repetition. Too little order and it becomes chaotic, too much order and it gets boring.

Good design invites us to be ourselves, but it should not only cater for our individual desires. As we are in the age of the self, and self-expression, we may forget we are social beings. Public spaces that are human should be fostering meetings, of all kinds. Formal ones, but also spontaneous encounters, meetings with a specific objective, and especially just to hang out.

Public spaces should challenge the fake opposition of the public vs the private, the present vs the past, the you vs me. But over the last few years our societies prefer to simplify life into black and white. We create centers, only made for shopping. Plazas that almost only offer paid seats to consume. Huge open spaces that make us feel small and insignificant, out of context.

But we have the potential to change this, moving away from the extremes. Public spaces are about meeting in the middle and dealing with contradictions. The word ‘contradiction’ comes from the Latin contra dicere ("to speak against, oppose in speech or opinion”), built up by the words contra (against) and dicere (to say, speak). So in order to do something constructive with paradoxes, we must be able to put them into words. In a certain way, our language offers a way out of the contra.

Of course, in order to truly grasp the complexities and contradictions of public space, we need to dig deeper, combining quantitative and qualitative research, because what people say is not always what they mean. And what people think they want, is not always what they know they may need. Or quite the opposite.

Two quick examples:

  • With our non-profit El Desafío we worked on a project in one of the slums of Rosario, Argentina. A quite unplanned neighborhood, with some main streets and various narrow alleys. Working in these conditions is challenging, because people are used to politicians coming to promise them whatever, and hardly ever it means real improvements for them. These broken promises make the neighbors quite hostile towards people from the outside (they don’t distinguish between designers, politicians, NGO workers, or a latinized Dutch man with good intentions). The - quite good idea - was to discuss how they could improve the quality of the public space of their alleyways. With benches, green, art, etc. But most people wanted… a fence. Because the community was plagued by moto gangs using their alley to escape from the police, creating very dangerous situations. In such a context, exploring other ways to protect them from insecurity takes time.

  • Listening between the lines is also important when working on the mobility transition in The Netherlands. People care about the safety of their children, but say they don’t want to give up their cars. We must dig deeper into their real desires, making paradoxes visible, and use them as creative input to come up with new solutions.

One last thought, on the matter of justice in public space. Often we tend to often divide people into groups. It sounds better when we say communities. We may ask how a plaza also can serve group X. Let’s not forget that humans can’t be reduced to the group they seem to belong to. We can’t be captured by personas, when we redesign a place. People can be part of different - seemingly contradicting groups - at the same time. And they may want something today, and have a different desire tomorrow.

Our focus, that of city makers, should be to meet in the middle. To create the conditions for explorations, so we leave the positions of extremes. In public space – and probably also in life in general –we have to become masters of paradoxes.

Jorn Wemmenhove - cofounder & creative strategist



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