Public spaces today: familiar, but definitely not “neutral”

Public buildings illuminated with the trans flag colours, reinstatement of Māori place names, and rainbow pedestrian crossings have some people arguing this is “politicising” public space. But New Zealand public spaces have never been neutral – far from it.

This post is for you, TW readers who don’t identify as being part of a group that gets marginalised in everyday life – be it people with less money, a different ethnicity from the majority, a physical impairment or neurodivergence… (Sadly, still, “marginalised” groups can include people who aren’t happily cisgender men). So, if you consider yourself “very normal average Kiwi”, this one’s for you!

It’s pretty basic

Public space is a community asset, made by and for the public good, so it should serve everyone well.

Good public space is a crucial asset to all dimensions of society. Yes, all dimensions. (Other public assets, like reliable sewerage systems and good internet access, are more understood, but good public space is just as essential in terms of people’s basic needs).

And the public space we know is not neutral: it reflects those who have had power in its conception, design, construction, and operation, usually by lightly (or heavily) discouraging use by people who aren’t like those who’ve had the power.

To illustrate with just one dimension of humanity’s rich tapestry: universal accessibility is a relatively new concept that had to be made up precisely because our familiar, “neutral” public spaces and public facilities have been built as literal no-go zones for a big proportion of any population. So you get a whole sector of society unable to benefit from this crucial public asset.

The City of Oakland, like many cities, realised the inaccessibility of regular streets during COVID

The “Measuring Accessible Journeys” test is a really easy one you can even (unscientifically) have a go at yourself! It involves simply looking counting how many people with a visible physical impairment are present at different times in a bit of public place like a high street, park, public transport station, library. Do the proportions of people using the space bear any relationship to the proportions in the background population? (Noting that invisible disabilities are a big thing.)

If not, there’s something going on. Because unless we assume that people with disabilities don’t need to live their lives, go to work, see friends, do shopping, use public services, fetch groceries, be entertained like anyone else, why aren’t they doing that where able-bodied people do?

More here

Universal approaches: the bee’s knees

To stay with the one example of the rich tapestry of humanity – physical disability, we can see how a universalist approach is great.

Design for universal accessibility (also called universal design) is great because it doesn’t require that you explain yourself, or force Special Treatment on you, just for you to use a thing.

To take the humble train carriage (just part of a train journey): imagine being in a wheelchair or mobility scooter, wanting to take the train, and just being able to get onto a carriage and get settled like everyone else. But instead, you have to:

  1. flag down a staff member when the train’s pulled in
    • they might be far away so then – do you shout? Wave? Make a commotion somehow? Take the chance you might be left on the platform?), then
  2. wait for them to get to you (often holding everyone up, so if most people weren’t looking at you they definitely are by now), then
  3. wait for the other staff member to arrive (as above but even longer and with more people looking), then
  4. wait for them to lift a big heavy ramp out of the train
  5. enjoy even more people looking as the ramp crashes onto the ground, then
  6. finally get on board (where there’s another big bang as the ramp’s folded back into place).

Universal design of that train carriage means whatever your ability, you can just roll on and get settled, and enjoy the goodness of public transport just like any other citizen. The train carriage’s design doesn’t inquire or expect extra of you, just because you happen to have an impairment.

Exclusion from public space: it’s a big deal

Physial disability is one dimension of our very rich and varied humanity, but the “universal approach” is analogous. And there are lots of ways, often subtle, that people of different flavours are deterred from making their rightful use of public space, because of the way those space and services are designed and operated.

Not because anyone in charge is being evil, but just because those in charge are either ignorant (don’t know that they don’t know) or they’ve decided that those people’s exclusion doesn’t matter. A classic example is the background fear of being harassed or attacked, that suppresses women and nonbinary people’s use of public space from Timaru to Timbuktu. Another classic is public spaces that you can only use if you’re able to buy something – making a purchase (or pretending that you might) is required to sit down, or to linger. (Young girls and femmes often experience both these exclusions at once.)

This isn’t right.

The fair (and beneficial) starting point for our thinking should be: Everyone has a right to use and enjoy good public space, so we should design and operate them accordingly. Universal design approaches, and public realm approaches founded on inclusion, are what we need from our cities.

Isn’t it just too difficult though – there’s so many “isms” and “ists” these days!

Firstly: look how amazing are the things humans accomplish: far more complex, complicated, difficult. We’ve got this.

Secondly: even with the systems we’ve created which make it hard or slow to retrofit our public spaces, many improvements are cheap (and “better than nothing” is still an improvement). Many improvements – like making public spaces safer, and more diverse benefit everyone equally. Other improvements – including very humble temporary measures – do absolutely no harm to the majority of people’s experience of a place, and can significantly improve the experiences for a small number.

Thirdly, we’re already making some good steps in (at least thinking about) decolonising urban space, and it’s easy to build on a practice of reflection and justice once you’ve got started!

The Canadian Association of Urbanists has this great call to action for its profession.

How do you think your town’s public spaces might be easier or harder to use for different people?

Read more:

Image credits:

  • Banner picture: Anubhav Saxena, Unsplash
  • Bright wall (Old Compton St, Soho, London – one of the earliest ‘gaybourhoods’) – Mark Hayward | Unsplash

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