If public space is where the exchange of ideas takes place, architects and urban planners bear a great responsibility; for how can a democracy function in the absence of places where people can meet? Yet even in a world of gated communities, there is hope, concluded doctoral candidate Hans Teerds after conducting his philosophical research.
There appears to be a fundamental clash between the American ‘enclave landscape’ and the Western democratic ideal. Rather than providing space in which to encounter ‘the other’, the urban and suburban landscape of the US is dotted with inward-looking gated communities, business districts and shopping centres. “Commerce is the driving factor,” observes Teerds. “Democracy begins with encounters in the street. A society in which people live in the absence of any real contact leads to excesses.”
In making his argument, he drew on the work of the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. In his work Der Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962), the latter observed that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, growing prosperity led, on the one hand, to the rise of an articulate middle class that exchanged ideas in cafes and salons, and through newspapers and novels. This debate produced common goals and strengthened the political foundations of the nation state. The public sphere was gradually suppressed by the growing power of commerce, however; citizens became consumers above all else, and only secondarily participants in public debate.
The American landscape, with its exclusion of strangers, appears to be an illustration of the decline of the public sphere. If parks and neighbourhoods are surrounded by fences and ‘No Trespassing’ signs, does this not lead to the erosion of the very basis of democracy? Although city centres are enjoying a revival as magnets for the creative class, due to rising property prices they are reserved for a small and privileged group.
In his dissertation, At Home in the World. Architecture, the Public, and the Writings of Hannah Arendt, Teerds asks what architects and urban planners could do to reverse this trend; ‘not much’, is his conclusion. Architecture only creates the potential for public space that can make a difference; it is users who appropriate space and transform it into public space. And this is possible even in gated communities, where the architecture tends to hinder encounters, rather than facilitate them. He roots this view in the vision that Hannah Arendt developed in her book The Human Condition (1958). Arendt does not consider the differences between ‘collectives’, but starts from differences between individuals. According to Arendt, public space is thus a plural space by definition: every person is different, as a result of ‘nature and nurture’. Even in these enclaves, public space has the potential to make these differences visible.
Although Teerds does not offer any rules of thumb for designing public space, he does make a series of ‘recommendations’. If we want to encourage encounters in public space, it is a good idea to make that which is held in common visible, and at the same time articulate the crossing of borders. It is also advisable to create overlaps between enclaves; connecting cycle paths or footpaths can do wonders. Is it perhaps time for a return to the ‘conversation pits’ of the 1970s? Teerds: “No, but it is a good idea to create a sense of ‘proximity’. This vision can be represented effectively with a spatial element.”