Friday, May 27, 2011

Editorial: On private, public and . . . social space

Toward the end of last year I was asked by the team responsible for organizing this year's fifth annual congress of the Cities for mobility program, which is to take place in Stuttgart from 3-5 July, to brainstorm with them about a central theme for the presentations. We ended up with the idea of trying to orient the congress around the theme of "social space". Here is what we eventually produced to introduce the concept.



Years ago our old friend, the great Danish planner Jan Gehl, urged us to think more about "the space between buildings". Nice! So with a tip of the hat to Jan,  we thought it might be a creative contribution to take this good idea one step further for this year's CfM Congress -- and encourage the speakers to share their thoughts with the invited participants coming from cities around the world on the concept of "Social Space".

Most planners and policy makers, when they think of space at all, usually corral their thoughts in terms of it being either private or public. But social space is a third option, albeit it must always be "public" in the sense of being freely accessible to all. Social space is public space that works and brings people together in social ways..


A quick reminder on the meaning of that word "social". There are many choices, but in this case let's go with: "living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation". Thus, people are, and have to be if they are to live together in peace and harmony, social beings.

A social space awareness favors the concept of proximity, which, as we all know, is the spatial key to sustainable development, sustainable communities and sustainable lives.



This contrasts starkly of course with the orientation of much of the policy and practice that has dominated policy and practice in the transportation field over the last half century, in which it is accepted that space is something that needs to be dispensed with as quickly and as fast as possible. That of course explains phenomena such as urban sprawl and the infrastructures we build to support our speed/distance drug. (which, as it happens, we are not even aware we are victims of. So natural , so very "normal "does it appear to be.)




If we think in these terms we will have little difficulty in understanding that a wide road built to serve speeding cars in a city may be "public space" but it is certainly not social space, at least in these terms. Let's consider briefly a couple of examples in the hope of clarifying.
• Remove from the city streets ten spaces reserved for private car parking, and put one share car in their place, leaving the valuable urban real estate of the other nine slots for social use . Voila, social space x 10.

• Similarly, if we take a lane that has been previously reserved for cars, and make it instead available to bicycles and at the same time expand the area available for pedestrians, we have converted public space to social space. And if we then fill those lanes with cyclists, we have guaranteed the social space.

• Or if we replace one space for parked car with a rack holding ten safely parked bikes, we have once again created valuable social space.

• If we slow down car traffic to 30 kph or less in a given zone or on a street, we have de facto created social space, since the slow street will be used in different (and far safer) ways and by not only different but a much larger range of types of people and uses.

In social spaces we and our children, our neighbors and our aging parents, visitors to our city and someone with just a bit of time to spare, can walk, bike, sit, lean, play, stand and talk, perhaps snack, ask questions to others, and more generally live as social beings, rather than in isolation.

There are many other examples and we are delighted that our speakers have agreed to give some thought to this, and will share their thoughts with the meeting for discussion and yet more examples.

Come to Stuttgart from 3 - 5 July to listen and talk about social space. It just may change your life. And remember this . . .

People are social beings.

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* Click here for conference program.

* Click here -- for a few examples of the social space format for graphic images. More are available at . http://tinyurl.com/ws-slides

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About the editor:

Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is managing director of EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and industry on policy and decisions issues involving socio-technical change and sustainable development.                                                             --> more


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