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.

The view from above

I’ve spent a bit of time in and around San Francisco. I lived in Berkeley and worked in San Francisco for a summer. I’d visited a couple of times before that. When I moved over here, my Mom and sister moved to Santa Rosa, so I’ve been back to San Francisco more times than I’ve been back to Austin. But I never really understood the Bay Area until I went to Angel Island and climbed Mount Caroline Livermore. Suddenly, everything made sense. San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Marin, the Richmond Bridge, Berkeley, the Bay Bridge and back again. I’d been in all those places. I’d seen them all on a map, but suddenly they all just clicked into place.

I’m not the only one who’s had this type of experience. This month’s Radiolab on the subject of Cities had this extraordinary account by Sxip Shirey of a very similar—and breathtakingly narrated—encounter with New York City from atop a rooftop in Brooklyn Heights.

There’s this intense fog, and the Twin Towers: the bottom of them are covered in the fog, but not the top, so it’s like they’re floating. There was a little cuticle sliver of moon in the sky, and the fog horns are going, and the boats are slowly moving. And there’s this breeze. And I had this brass penny whistle that my father had given me and I was playing it. And suddenly something clicked. I was like “Oh! That must… Those are all the bridges. That’s the Williamsberg Bridge. That’s the Manhatten Bridge. There’s the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s New York. It’s small now.”

This reminded me of Roland Barthes’ essay on The Eiffel Tower.

Take some view of Paris taken from the Eiffel Tower; here you make out the hill sloping down from Chai!lot, there the Bois de Boulogne; but where is the Arc de Triomphe? You don’t see it, and this absence compels you to inspect the panorama once again, to look for this point which is missing in your structure; your knowledge (the knowledge you may have of Parisian topography) struggles with your perception, and in a sense, that is what intelligence is: to reconstitute, to make memory and sensation cooperate so as to produce in your mind a simulacrum of Paris, of which the elements are in front of you, real, ancestral, but nonetheless disoriented by the total space in which they are given to you, for this space was unknown to you.

The above experiences all have two things in common that I think are important.

The first is that this is not the same as looking at a map. The city is laid out below, but the vantage point from which it is viewed is grounded in a specific place. It is at a fixed point, and this is fundamental to the experience. There is a relationship with the panorama that is missing entirely from the bird’s-eye view of a map.

The second is that the viewer already has first-hand knowledge of the city. She has traveled the streets, crossed the bridges, visited the monuments and buildings. It is only because of this knowledge that these various places—previously thought of a separate—can form a whole when viewed from above.

This leads me to two conclusions.

The first is that it is important to zoom out, to look at the next larger context. Whatever you’re working on—a web form, a web site, a pamphlet, a house—take a moment to climb to the highest vantage point and look at what you’re working on in the context of its surroundings.

The second is that a map or a “ten-thousand foot view” (you have my permission to roll your eyes) is useful. It’s a place to start, but it’s something very different from having a knowledge of the territory and taking in a panoramic view. It’s all too easy to confuse a map for this kind of holistic view from above.

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