Private vs Public: Space, Sharing, Trust and Design – A Talk at Social Cities Amsterdam

Private-Public Space conditions in San Francisco; image by Rebar

Tension between the private and public realm was a recurring component of last autumn’s news, as the users of public space and the stewards of those spaces, both private and municipal, clashed during the Occupy protests. The protests themselves bore the marks of tense private vs public realities, given the immense and disproportionate stores of wealth in private hands vs the wealth and resources the public has access to through earning potential or provided services.

On Wednesday, 15 February as a pre-conference event for the Social Cities of Tomorrow Conference in Amsterdam, I will be introducing an evening’s exploration of the tensions in private vs public space and services and the role design can play in creating trust instead of tension in these contexts. Joining me will be Premsela’s Tim Vermeulen, Michiel de Lange, co-founder of The Mobile City and a new media lecturer at Utrecht University; and Henry Mentink, co-founder of MyWheels. The evening will also be the public launch for the current issue of the Premsela’s Trust Design and Volume Magazine publication series: Public Trust.

I have spent the previous few months researching and working with the relationships between private and public space and services and the correlating connections with trust and design in these areas. Anyone who has gone through a security screening when walking off of the public street to enter a private, ‘secure’ building has experienced the tension that comes when passing through this protective membrane between the public and the private.

In the issue (at left), which I edited and wrote along with some esteemed collaborators, I explore how the rise of the sharing economy has the potential to build trust in a fragmented society and increase, as Robert Putnam termed it, society’s social capital. The first of my articles, The Publicization of Trust explores the breakdown of trust we’ve experienced in political, product, and economic circles, and the ways in which our online behavior and new online systems have enabled new methods of sharing and trust to be created to help diffuse and redress the imbalance. It will be excerpted on this blog soon.

The second essay I wrote for the issue, Public Private Tensions, deals more explicitly with the tensions between private and public space in the city. While projects such as Rebar’s Commonspace intervenes superbly with the Privately Owned Public Spaces of San Francisco to create a balance between the interests of the public and the private owners of the spaces, such balance, as the Occupy protests showed, does not always exist.

That’s a problem, as it is balance – equal and shared mutual interest and its resulting benefit – that builds trust between the private and the public. Tensions between the private and the public are born from an imbalance in these areas – and imbalanced environments are barren of trust. As an opinion piece in the New York Times observed, the Occupy protests brought not only the imbalance of private wealth and public assets into focus, but also “the continued inadequacy of the laws regarding privately owned public spaces”.

Zuccotti Park has become synonymous with both the Occupy movement and the curious hybrid blend of privately owned public spaces promulgating in cities worldwide. Its brief history contains the history of the transference from public to private as well – originally known as Liberty Park, its owners changed the name in honor of one of its chairmen, John E. Zuccotti. Beyond the irony of a park once known as Liberty Park being infamous for a police crackdown on public protest, the longer history of private-public spaces in the city contains equal swaps of public asset for private interest.

Police manning Zuccotti Park. Photo by Seema Krishnakumar, Creative Commons License.

Jerold Kayden, professor and co-chair of the Department of Urban Planning at Harvard University notes that until as recently as 1975, New York’s zoning code seemed to treat public space as a bargaining chip for developers: “…the zoning code offered a simple exchange: one square foot of vacant space at the base of a building for ten square feet of bonus floor area to rent or sell. No mention was made of what to put in the space. The result was a proliferation of forbidding empty places throughout Manhattan.”

The outcome of decades of seemingly disproportionate exchanges with little stipulation for creating benefits for the public is addressed by Kayden in his book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, a thorough study of over five hundred of the city’s private-public spaces. Kayden found that the public benefit of these spaces was significantly disproportional to the benefits enjoyed by developers in the exchange of public space for increased building rights.

In effect, the tensions over the disproportionate economics in shared society were being played out in spatial representations of a disproportionate relationship between public benefit and private interests.

In addition to the lopsided exchanges of public space for increased building rights, the impact these ‘forbidding, empty places’ have on the surrounding communities are larger than just their visual character. As New York urban planner and architect Alexander Garvin says, “The public realm is what we own and control … the streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community — the framework around which everything else grows.”

With the imbalance in these spaces, their existence as containers of an ambiguous set of rights and relationships between the public and its space – and a history of being created for the public only to increase private interests – extends similar confused priorities into the wider social realm, and erodes the hopes of trust between public and private realms even further. If our social capital is reliant upon our social association, then surely the character and conduct of our public social spaces play a fundamental role in the building of social capital, and its ultimate end product, social trust.