In the run up to the next decade, we can take a moment to consider to what we want the future to look like.
To be at the wrong place at the wrong time can cost you. This is true for specific moments in time – a pedestrian hit by car, a victim of a mugging – as much as it is true for the accident of birth –born into a wealthy family or a dysfunctional one (or both), into a society at peace or in the throes of warfare, or quite simply, a society where the likelihood you will be mugged is a lot higher than in others.
Where you happen to be born is a complete coincidence – but what you make of while you’re here, and the place you leave behind, is something you can influence.
I want you to think about the places you inhabit, the spaces you are familiar with and where you feel at home. I want you to envisage these, both public and private, and consider how they contribute to your sense of self. We build our identities through our environment: the experiences we have, the memories we make, the communities we welcome or dismiss, that love or reject us. The stories that weave through streets, back alleys, across pavements and boulevards.
A place is not only the backdrop or setting to your life: it is an active force that shapes your path as you walk along it, cobblestoned, stable, earthen or insecure. If this all seems incredibly vague, imagine again, the moments and places that define your past. In my case, there is a particular café bar that I used to go to every single day after school and at the weekends. My friends and I would gather and chat for hours – how we had the time or money, and what we talked about for so long, completely escapes me now – and it was integral to my years as a teenager and young adult. Why? Because of the friends I made, the people I fancied, the relationships that waxed and waned, all revolving around one locus of activity. We practically lived there.
This place – what does yours look like?
Once you’ve got it firmly ensconced in your mind, I want you to cast further: what were the unspoken rules that reigned? The clothes people wore, and the behaviours they engaged in? If you went back there now, how comfortable would you feel? If it were no longer there, would its nonexistence feel like an absent presence?
The reason why I am asking this is because I want you to contemplate how places are doubly constructed. They have a physical presence, a solid materiality; they also have the meaning and significance we as individuals bestow upon them. If you want to get really poetic about it: a place can become the foundational brick of your identity (laying it on thick here).
How did the place in your mind impress upon you? How does it still?
Right now, it’s the public space I want to talk about, here, today. Our towns, cities, libraries and museums, our community centres and our cafés. Every space is designed to create a certain environment, an environment with doors open to some and closed to others.
This is where feeling meets form. Seemingly unimportant details, such as how much light there is, or isn’t, can make some feel more uneasy than others. Are there steps? If so, are they steep? Are there many? Are there benches? Is it outside, and are there walls? Do they have skatestoppers (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/oct/07/bristol-skateboarders-skatestoppers-defensive-architecture) on them? Anti-homeless spikes, or armrests? Moving on to perhaps, more obvious questions: are you expected to dress a certain way? Do you need money to spend time there? Is there an entrance fee? Opening times? Surveillance cameras? Locks? And finally, let’s reflect on slightly more abstract concepts: are you likely to meet likeminded people here? People of different ages, ethnicities and religions? Can you speak freely?
“Hostile architecture” is a practice that uses design to restrict and manage social behaviour. Borders and walls can be both figurative as well as concrete, relegating “undesirables” out of view, through rough edges, gates, signs, or other social cues. Sometimes, even gestures as small as glances, tuts and sighs can put someone off. If you are confident, if you feel secure in your right to occupy the space, this might not be an issue. If you are, however, uncertain, in any way unsure about your space in society, this becomes an obstacle, a stumbling block in your foundation.
This kind of “defensive” urban design reveals structural exclusion. However, the problem reaches further: we suffer from a distinct lack of “communal” spaces – areas that not only allow, but actively encourage discussion and exchange. I don’t pretend to know what this ideal type of communal space would, or should look like. What it doesn’t look like is the systematic segregation of those different from us, through age, race, or social class. Most obviously are care homes, mental asylums, or separating the rich and the poor into different neighbourhoods, and insulating people even within the same housing. The rising level of inequality and disproportionate distribution of wealth within nations sees itself seeping into the fabric of society and it is why citizens might feel isolation, alienation, and bitterness. It’s why we don’t connect to one another and why we feel at risk.
At an event I attended recently called “Intergenerational cities”, the other attendees and I were tasked with brainstorming the different ways in which we could build age-inclusive spaces. In a time of demographic changes, where Western countries are seeing a surge in older residents and a decrease in younger people, we need to think of how we can make our societies work for us. We need multi-use, cost-effective, inclusive spaces that ease the burden of loneliness and poverty and reach across the divide. This doesn’t have to be a utopia. Even a flawed but functioning whole is better than a society permanently at the brink of implosion.
The more we are separated physically, the deeper the mental, psychological and social divide has room to grow. Instead of ostracising those that are not “actively working members” of society, be it through age, race, gender, ad infinitum –faceless cogs in a giant market, the scapegoats to all our woes – we need to devise ways in which we can build healthy social interdependency, where we can learn from experiences we have not had, and might never have. Instead of flashy new shopping centres and department stores, luxury apartment complexes, expensive high-rises – what do we need?
Moving beyond the places that made you, what is it that you want to leave behind? What kind of a future do you want to build?
Social theory based on Thomas F. Gieryn’s “A Space for Place in Sociology” (2000) (https://www.jstor.org/stable/223453)