Unpublic spaces

[I]f you visit San Francisco … [y]ou’ll see people living in the streets, many of them mentally ill, yelling and cursing at imaginary foes. You’ll find every public space designed to make it difficult and uncomfortable to sit down or sleep, and that people sit down and sleep anyway. You’ll see human excrement on the sidewalks, and a homeless encampment across from the city hall. You’ll find you can walk for miles and not come across a public toilet or water fountain.

I finally got around to reading Maciej Cegłowski’s What Happens Next Will Amaze You, which has been much talked about recently. The topic of Cegłowski’s was the loss of privacy on the Internet and what can be done about it, but what struck me was the above passage describing design interventions in public spaces in San Francisco.

Dan Lockton has written about the these types of interventions as architectures of control. What strikes me about this type of design is that it often often solves the smaller problem. I was going to say “solving the wrong problem” but I think that’s not exactly right.

The larger problem here is obvious, but it is not an easy one to solve. The designers of these solutions (uncomfortable or nonexistent public seating, anti-homeless spikes, disappearing water fountains) seem to be asking one question: “How can we stop people from sleeping in public spaces?” A slightly different question—reframed by zooming out—might be, “How can we help the people sleeping in public spaces?”

Solving the smaller problem is usually easier. It also may also improve things or appear to improve things. There is, of course, the risk of hitting a local maximum that is inherent in all iterative design. In this case, though, solving the smaller problem appears to create another problem. By making a city progressively more hostile to the homeless, you make it hostile to everyone. In some sense, a “public space” starts to loose its meaning: can a space be said to be public if it aggressively discourages the public from using it?

I understand, though, how these smaller problems become the problem to solve. I understand how these solutions become reality. I’ve been in discussions where the smaller problem is being discussed, and someone else will try to bring up the bigger picture. The answer is often along the lines of “that’s not the problem we’re trying to solve here” or “that’s great, but we don’t have the time right now.” I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the one trying to open up the conversation and the one shutting it down.

I don’t have the answer to this right now. I do have more questions. How do we keep the big picture in mind when we’re working on the smaller problem? Can keeping the big picture in mind change our approach the smaller problems? How do we determine when the right time is to zoom out in order to focus on and discuss the big picture?

And of course, Cegłowski’s question is the hardest:

If at the height of boom times we can look around and not address the human crisis of our city, then when are we ever going to do it? And if we’re not going to contribute to our own neighborhoods, to making the places we live in and move through every day convenient and comfortable, then what are we going to do for the places we don’t ever see?

By focusing only on the smaller problems, we run the risk of inadvertently designing unpublic spaces, whether that be our town squares or the whole of the Internet. Keeping the bigger picture in mind is hard. It’s easy to get lost in the details.