Public spaces are symbolic urban icons. Cities compete with each other with their public spaces, often using them as tools for commodification to attract capital and labor. At the same time, public space is an expansive common social and material realm and the past decades have erased any doubts about the resurgence of public space in its political form.
This is a good time to focus our attention on public space. The climate crisis, the systemic social injustices, and the COVID-19 pandemic demand a rethinking of our largest shared territory.
Public space has the capacity, at least in part, to address these crises by being envisioned and manifest as humane spaces of community, restoration, and emancipation.
In this talk, based on his latest book, Vikas Mehta presents a panoramic view of public space: the inherent paradoxes, as well as the immense possibilities and propositions for a more constructive public space.
Below you’ll find the graphic recording, audio, video, and transcript from “Public Space: Paradoxes, Possibilities, and Propositions” presented by Vikas Mehta on March 15th, 2023.
About the presenter
Dr. Vikas Mehta, is the Fruth/Gemini Chair, Ohio Eminent Scholar of Urban/Environmental Design and Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning, College of DAAP, University of Cincinnati. Dr. Mehta’s work focuses on the role of design and planning in creating a more responsive, equitable, stimulating, and communicative environment. He is interested in various dimensions of urbanity through the exploration of place as a social and ecological setting and as a sensorial art. This work emphasizes the sense of place and place distinctiveness, design and visualization of urban places, cities, and regions as just, equitable, and sustainable living systems. In his work, Dr. Mehta has developed new measures of sociability that have advanced existing methods to study human behavior in public spaces.
Dr. Mehta has authored/co-authored and edited/co-edited 6 books and numerous book chapters and journal articles on urban design pedagogy, public space, urban streets, neighborhoods, retail, signage, and visual identity, public space in the Global South, and more. His first book, The Street: a quintessential social public space received the 2014 Book Award from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) and was also a finalist for the 2014 Francis Tibbalds Award for Best Book of the Year. His most recent book Public Space: notes on why it matters, what we should know, and how to realize its potential was published by Routledge in 2022. Dr. Mehta holds degrees in architecture, urban design, and city planning
About the series
Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, and The Kresge Foundation.
Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.
Register to participate in future Cities@Tufts events here.
Listen to the Cities@Tufts Podcast (or on the app of your choice):
“Public Space: Paradoxes, Possibilities, and Propositions” Transcript
[The timestamps in the transcript correspond with the audio version of this lecture.]
Vikas Mehta: [00:00:42] There are very simple joys of public space, often times when we talk about public space, we are largely thinking about it as a political arena, which it is. But then there are some very simple, everyday joys that public space offers that are really unmatched and cannot be replicated in the same way in private space. And at the end of the day, in our really, really busy lives, public space at least allows us a pause in the motion of our daily life, of the customary patterns, and it gives us the much-needed break from the monotony of home, work, and regular patterns.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:01:19] How are informal and formal spaces enabling radical democracy? Can we counter displacement through collective memory? And does public space have the capacity to authentically support community restoration and emancipation? These are just a few of the questions we’re exploring this season on Cities@Tufts lectures, a free live event, and podcast series where we explore the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice. I’m Tom Llewellyn.
[00:01:44] Today on the show, we’re featuring Vikas Mehta’s lecture, “Public Space: Paradoxes, Possibilities, and Propositions.” In addition to this audio version, you can watch the video, check out the graphic recording, and read the full transcript on shareable.net. While you’re there, please take some time to get caught up on all of our past lectures and our ever-expanding library of stories, podcasts, how-to guides, and other resources. And now here’s Julian Agyeman, who will welcome you to the Cities@Tufts Spring Colloquium and introduce today’s lecturer.
Julian Agyeman: [00:02:29] Welcome people to the Cities@Tufts Virtual Colloquium, along with our partners Shareable, the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman, and together with my research assistants Caitlin McLennan and Deandra Boyle, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative, which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. We’d like to acknowledge that Tufts University’s Medford campus is located on colonized Wampanoag and Massachusett traditional territory.
[00:03:03] Today, we are delighted to welcome Dr. Vikas Mehta, the Fruth/Gemini Chair, Ohio eminent scholar of urban environmental design and Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning in the College of DAAP at the University of Cincinnati. Vikas I’m jealous that you’ve got more titles than I have. It’s impressive. Vikas’s Work focuses on the role of design and planning in creating more responsive, equitable, stimulating and communicative environments. He’s co-authored or authored and edited or co-edited six books and numerous book chapters and journal articles on urban design pedagogy, public space, urban streets, neighborhoods, retail, signage, visual identity, public spaces in the Global South and more.
[00:03:51] His first book, “The Street: A Quintessential Social Public Space,” received the 2014 Book Award from the Environmental Design Research Association and was also a finalist for the 2014 Francis Tibbalds Award, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a UK award for Best Book of the Year. His most recent book, “Public Space: Notes on Why It Matters, What We Should Know, and How to Realize Its Potential” — nice long title again, brilliant, was published by Routledge in 2022. Dr. Mehta holds degrees in architecture, urban design and city planning. His talk today is “Public Space: paradoxes, possibilities and propositions.” Vikas, a zoom-tastic welcome to the Cities@Tufts Colloquium. The floor is yours.
Vikas Mehta: [00:04:37] Thank you, Julian. This is wonderful. I’ve been looking at the collection of wonderful talks that you’ve assembled in the last year, and I’m honored to be here. I’m going to talk about these three things that are kind of the main content of the book. So I’m going to start sharing my screen. This little book is, in fact, something that I’ve been working on for quite a bit, and it started with my work on the street, and from there on I was doing an anthology which really helped me get out of my comfort zone in the built environment disciplines to really look at what public space means largely in the social sciences. And from then on, I’ve been working in the area of public space editing a companion, which we did in 2020, and then most recently a public space reader with Miodrag Mitrašinovic.
[00:05:34] So through these years, about 8 or 9 years at least actively, I’ve been making these little notes that I’ve collected in this little book. So unlike some of the wonderful talks that you as an audience are probably hearing, this is going to be a talk that is not topical, but rather that touches the wide expanse of public space. And hopefully there is of interest for each of you in some of these little nuggets. So it’s a little book that is essentially put together as little, little stories clustered in five chapters. And I’m going to, in some ways re-clutter it, reorganize it, and present this to you in the next thirty, thirty-five minutes.
[00:06:23] So the book is essentially around five chapters, I said, we start with why should we care for public space? What is public space? And then focusing on the three real content chapters around the paradoxes, possibilities, and finally being an urban designer, being in the built environment, I’m also interested in putting up some propositions for what a good public space in the future for us could be.
[00:06:55] So why do we care for public space? If you think and look at the events of the last ten, fifteen years, it’s actually quite evident that we don’t have to bring this to the public, to an audience, to our students, because public space has shown its real value, its purpose in societies around the globe. And we are seeing this in ways that we would likely not see so much in the 90s and perhaps early 2000s. But now it’s very evident if we are going to look at equity, if we are going to look at political sort of demand, we’re going to look at environment, we have to look at public space and in fact there is very clear rewards when we do so.
[00:07:45] So if we try to summarize this, that the public space as a network, as a system, as an idea is very powerful and it can be understood in many, many ways. First and foremost, obviously, it is an arena for residents to exercise citizenship, to express their rights and demand justice. Next, we have to understand it as a network for mobility and flows, but also interconnectivity. And then we have to think about it as a place which is for learning and creativity, for well-being and health, for displaying collective identities, distinct cultural identities, and as a space to play and cherish, leisure, and respite, and also to sustain formal and informal economies. And finally, as a site in this time for us to really focus on augmenting environmental resilience and for us to be able to look at public space as a site for social cohesion.
[00:08:54] So if we think of any meaningful public spaces in almost any place that we live, we find that these spaces are repositories of memories and meanings, and these may be visible in very, very ordinary or sometimes special events that are rituals, festivals and the real potential of public space becomes very visible when we are in these spaces. But on ordinary sort of public spaces such as streets, one of the things that we perhaps notice intentionally is that public spaces give us the opportunity for contact with the unfamiliar. And it’s one of the biggest advantages of urban life, the ability to be in interaction with people who are unlike us for learning, for understanding, how we look at society, how we look at cultural mores and patterns. It’s one of the most rewarding things, and that’s what public space offers.
[00:09:58] On a very different note, there are very simple joys of public space. And I bring this up again because often times when we talk about public space, we are largely thinking about it as a political arena — which it is. But then there are some very simple, everyday joys that public space offers that are really unmatched and cannot be replicated in the same way in private space. And at the end of the day, in our sort of really, really busy lives, public space at least allows us a pause in the motion of our daily life, of the customary patterns. And it gives us the much-needed break from the monotony of home, work, and regular patterns. It also then becomes a place that is a place for visibility for people to be seen and to be recognized, and for them to get an affirmation of identity. And it creates an interesting relational link for an individual or a group to society as a whole.
[00:11:06] Public spaces obviously are very different in different parts of the globe. Different cultures use them differently. We construct public space very differently. Yet at the same time there is a sense of a connecting power because there is a ubiquity of public space that enables it with the capacity of affiliation across very different landscapes and cultures. And I think that’s particularly important for people who are new to a place, and that’s something that is much more prominent and common today — and public space provides that real connecting power.
[00:11:48] We also want to think about how, as we grow, public space gives us the fundamental needs and rights of young people. It offers this kind of very open and free territory that allows for youth to be able to be exposed to very different things, but also to be able to get away from their private realm for a sense of inner reflection. So it’s this very open and loose terrain where particularly youth might be able to find ways to discover their identities and also to learn about the social mores, the political acts that are in fact possible for them as they grow into society.
[00:12:38] And again, this is something new that we are realizing, that public space, in fact, because of the network and the ownership, it is in fact an insurance policy. The expanse of public space can be — and places that are doing it right — are using it as an asset in response to climate crisis, whether it is about management of water or heat, or it’s about planning for disaster events and being able to create resilient practices, being able to create places for refuge. All of this is very much possible when public space is thought of as a network.
[00:13:19] And so in many ways it is this platform that allows so many different things to occur and for so many possibilities. And in some cases in very profound ways, but in other cases in very, very mundane and subtle ways, public space benefits us. And while there is a lot of discovery in terms of what is the ways that public space benefits us, I still think we are unsure or we haven’t really discovered all of the psychological development, physical kind of virtues of public space.
[00:14:00] So let’s quickly talk a little bit about what is public space, because there are several definitions, there are several understandings, there are definitions that are myopic because they stay in their own discipline or in their own area of comfort. And then there are other definitions that are kind of more — they open up and try to explore what it is. However public space is created and in whatever way that we use it, it essentially is symbolic of society. And you can in fact read a place, read a society from reading the public space. But what does it imply? It implies very different things for different people. It might imply being open, available, accessible. It also implies being common and shared and the collective. Another series of implications are that it’s inclusive. This is where it belongs to everyone and everything is visible. And yet on the other side of it, it does imply that it is something that’s not my problem, somebody else’s problem. It’s outside and exposed and unknown and risky.
[00:15:22] So there are all of these things that are collected from studies about how people think about public space and what does it implied. In a sort of a simple way that we might try to define it — and this is a kind of a loose definition constructed from a whole lot of literature in political science, in anthropology and also in sort of the built environment disciplines — that there is a tension between the political order and the market and the existing or evolving social and cultural norms and the individuals and group needs and desires. That’s the whole tension of these things is what is visible in public space. So that’s another way to think about what public space is.
[00:16:15] A more, I guess, uniform definition can be established when we think about the relationship of public space with public sphere, which is sort of the larger political order of a society, the public domain, the area that is more regulatory and the public realm, which is aspects that are more symbolic in a society. And public space, in that case, is that physical construct. So if you put it in this context, it becomes the physical space where it’s the geography of all of the public sphere, public domain and public realm play out. But it is rooted in these concepts and sort of that in many ways brings many of the disciplines together to understand public space.
[00:17:08] We don’t have to read all of this, but there’s a simple collection of very distinct ways that people have defined public space. And then others, particularly in the built environment, disciplines, have tried to put forth measures. And just a handful of things that are really key here is access is very critical, inclusiveness, agency is key. And on the other hand, there is the aspect of physical design, the aspect of comfort and pleasurability in space. All of those things are coming from very different disciplines. Some talk about the sort of the materiality of space, others talk about sort of the social and the political value of space. So these definitions and measures, in fact help us try to understand quite a bit of what public space is.
[00:18:06] And yet one of the central questions is, even if we define what public space is, we need to think and be very, very cognizant of knowing, or at least asking, who is the public and the tacit agreement of norms and behaviors in public space that might be based on, you know, the prevailing values. They have to remain somehow open-ended. They cannot be dogmatic because we develop as a society, or at least in societies that want to be inclusive, we need to think about this being an open-ended arena where who is the public keeps getting redefined so people are not left out and every different publics is part of the public.
[00:18:58] So the way I would like to think about it is that there is really no one public — and in fact, we might be talking about publics space, not just public space. And trying to construct a public space that is universal, it’s all-inclusive, it’s a balanced arena — is almost unattainable because there is tension between the different publics, there are different demands. And yet that ought to be our ultimate sort of prize, the ultimate goal.
[00:19:33] So public space really is meaningful when it is more than different small private territories in a larger common territory. So if you look at these little diagrams that I’ve constructed, the idea is that the people might exist as individuals or small groups, and yet when they interact in subtle, passive, active ways, that’s when the larger territory of public space becomes really meaningful. If they just exist in bubbles separated from each other, distant from each other, then we don’t see the real sort of value of public space playing out.
[00:20:19] Thinking about who is the public — there is a clear recognition in the case that public space is gendered space and that women’s experience of public space is different from men’s, even in societies where women have generally come close to getting equal rights. And that’s a condition we need to recognize — that the idea of what you sense in public space is not the same for the different publics.
[00:20:58] And, finally, you know, public space exists in these different modalities which are very distinct. So it has a — this idea of being a very civic space, social space, a space for restoration, ultimately a space that is symbolic and it’s a space for exchange, for selling, buying, but it’s also a kinetic space for space of flows.
[00:21:26] So now we will talk a little bit about this chapter, which is to me, the most interesting, that public space essentially is full of paradoxes and it exists in paradox, which is why this is such an interesting topic that is of interest to people and very, very different disciplines. And in one sense, everyone knows what public space is. And yet at the same time, when you start to really, really sort of tease out that no one really knows what it is, and that’s where the interesting paradox and the potential of public space lies. We know, at least in sort of Western thinking, Western philosophy, Western societies, the Greek agora is kind of the epitome of public space. And yet we know that it was concurrently a space of really wonderful democratic discourse where the politics actual occurred and a place where people would really debate the issues of the state. And yet at the same time, it was also a place of exclusion where women, the slaves, others in society were not allowed. So for a select population, it was really a wonderful space that was materialized as a public space which works and supports the public sphere, the public domain and the public realm. And yet the biggest paradox is that it was not an inclusionary space.
[00:23:14] We think about, you know, the protests that might happen. We think about people getting out on the street. That’s really a test for public space. And these acts of defiance that disrupt public space, in fact, also exemplify the purpose and endurance of public space. So this is an interesting test to think about in your own city, in your own town, what is the ability for people to be taking to the streets and to defy and to question and to demand? And that is, in fact, a true test of public space. So it’s an interesting paradox that we can think about.
[00:23:58] The other one, which is quite complex because it brings in who is the public or who are the publics in public space, the idea of safety, it’s really a double-edged sword because every time we think about safety, even in the most thoughtful and intentional ways and not sort of overarching blanket ways, it poses other complications. Even if we impose and bring in subtle ways to make places secure, they send messages to others where, in fact, the presence of those mechanisms makes space seem unsafe. So it’s a really interesting, complicated paradox, particularly for people in the built environment, to figure out what are the best ways to, in fact, create a sense of safety without creating a sense of this sort of panoptic space that is being monitored and it’s always under cameras or always under the eyes of security guards, etc., etc. So it’s a really interesting paradox and challenge.
[00:25:15] We find that in most of our cities, at least in the West, there are mechanisms which are largely — sort of capital’s mechanisms — for revitalizing, for improvement, for creating identity. And at the same time, paradoxically, each of these creates privatization, often homogenization and sort of the cleaning up and ultimately exclusion. So, you know, these are ways that might be business improvement districts or neighborhood improvement districts — all of these areas create space, they create identity, they create improvements. And yet, paradoxically, they also create homogenization and exclusion.
[00:26:00] And if you think about capital spaces, I took a stab at saying, well, how do I characterize these in the alphabet? You might think of them as they become absolute. They are bugged and they become consumptive, they, in fact, divide society in many ways. They are fabricated, gated, etc. And one of the complicated paradoxes that is coming out of this is that it is changing the expectations of everyday people, of commoners, for what public space should be. And so the prime expectation from public space for most citizens on a daily basis is a non-political or apolitical space. They want to be there. They want to perhaps be there for health, well-being, for enjoyment. And yet, at the same time, we are expecting the space to be a certain kind.
[00:27:00] And I have this quote that I had from Sandra Tsing Loh, which is really interesting, and I’m just going to tease out some of the aspects of this, which, she really looks at it and says that we are really looking for a very clean and tidy kind of customized experience from public space — and that’s not particularly beneficial for society. So public space is not neutral. It’s full of restrictions that we can track in many, many ways.
[00:27:30] And that brings us to another interesting paradox that played out with the Occupy Wall Street movement. So if you think about where this occurred, most of the gatherings that were in public spaces in New York City were disbanded. You could not, by the rule, be there for certain hours. You could only do certain things there. So the rules and regulations essentially prevented the kinds of activities that the protesters wanted to do and gather. And so the interesting paradox is that Zuccotti Park, which we think of as the, you know, the epitome public space of Occupy Wall Street, was, and is, in fact, a privately owned public space. So in that case, the privateness of that aided the publicness of the activity. It was, in fact, because it was a privately owned public space, the Bloomberg administration could not sort of evict people on the same rules that were in place for public spaces. So they had to really, really reconstruct their narrative. And as we know, it took many, many days for them to bring in the health, safety, welfare to get people out of there.
Vikas Mehta: [00:28:45] So it poses an interesting set of questions that, should we examine the controls over our public space and should the rules and regulations that apply to privately owned public space be the ones that apply to public spaces? There is some interesting sort of learning cross-learning that goes on there. The other paradox is, of course, that when we think about public space, sometimes we overstimulate it. So we want to keep it open, we want to bring sort of elements and entities and program that will animate it and bring people to it. And yet animation can be a powerful tool to make it meaningful when it’s not overdone. And we see a lot of this in the spaces that become excessively programmed and popular that then they lose their whole purpose for public space.
[00:29:41] We couldn’t not talk about social media and the digital realm when we talk about the paradox. So on one hand, when we are in public space, many of us, we live in our own bubbles that is essentially in the same space, but really only interested in yourself or the group you’re with or the media that you’re with. So that’s kind of our little digital realm. And yet at the same time, we know that we are connecting to others while we are present in one space with cyberspace that in fact is expanding public space and it’s redefining the public realm — whether it is for activities that are just for entertainment or they are much more meaningful activities that are around protest and gathering as we’ve seen across the globe. There is a big role of social media and the digital realm in that.
[00:30:36] The next chapter talks about, well then what are the possibilities for public space? The first thing we need to recognize is that public space is a space where the city is really visible and can be visible — our values, our aspirations, our desires can be visible in public space. So in many cases, public space is a unifier. It’s a leveler. But at the same time, it’s also — we need to recognize that it is where the difference in inequities in wealth and class can be seen. So we need to keep that in mind as the large possibility of it being a unifier, but also something that can be divided between in society.
[00:31:19] But if we think about all the things, public space can be a place of much action. And what is wonderful is that as capital has tightened, as I say, capital has found public space and is using it to generate more capital, there is a discovery of a very liminal kind of other public space which is also public, and that is really refreshing because it’s expanded the way we are using public spaces. It’s also expanded the publics and their presence in the city. So this is a really refreshing kind of antidote, if you will, to the way capital is exercising its control on the, what we might think of as, traditional public spaces.
Vikas Mehta: [00:32:07] The other interesting possibility is when we look at public space under great tension and when we think about it in times of distress, when people are really trying to protest, really are distressed, they do a whole lot of things that are really collective. They are around education, they are around cooperation, around sharing that Julian [Agyeman] has talked about so much. We see that the potential of society to come together to enact all of these things together around health, around, like I said, education, well-being, cooperation, governing — all of these things become visible in public space at that time of distress.
[00:32:49] And then public space has the real potential to be a place of trust because it is an arena where people from very dissimilar background or culture, they might come together, they may be tension and friction, but on the other hand, they may also be intrigue and interest that could lead to new experiences, new ways of thinking of the world around us. And public space then really becomes the medium for this inclusion and for this resolution of the tension and friction and in many ways dissipation agreement, understanding. And this direct exchange is really critical to building trust between diverse communities and the old and new publics that form. And in many ways that diversity and difference is really the reward of urbanity. And that’s what we see as possible in public space.
Vikas Mehta: [00:33:44] We couldn’t talk about public asdf space without talking about architecture. And, you know, what is the role of architecture? Public-facing architecture must have a dialogue with the space outside and with the space that the public occupies, that the architecture addresses, has a lot to do with it in terms of what architects need to think about, at least when they are exercising any public-facing buildings.
[00:34:14] At the same time, there is also the role of art, and public art should be both freed from the idea of art, but also burdened by the idea of or the expansiveness of public. So the role of art in public space is really interesting that it is a representation of the aesthetic, the communal and the realm of politics. So we see that public space sort of engages with art and architecture in these ways. The other possibility is this understanding that there is a sense of the informal, which is, again, not the the best word we’ve found, because much of informality is quite organized — it’s not haphazard. But the intersection of informality and public space creates a really wonderful hybrid space for access and agency and very, very different kinds of exchange, as we might see in a lot of places — particularly in the global South.
[00:35:18] And again, we have to recognize that public space has a risk and reward. And much like other risk-reward scenarios, there’s a high level of uncertainty. And in fact, when I talk about it, I think of it and ask students or other people that I’m talking to about this, this aspect of risk and reward is — one way to test public spaces that it is not as risk-free as your private space. There have to be certain risks in it. It’s an open territory for social and political expression, and so it cannot be understood as risk-free or as risk-free as your private environment. That’s what makes it a public space.
[00:36:07] And in terms of propositions, which is the final chapter, we have to start thinking about it as being utopic. Now we know that there is no ideal public space. So this is a construct, but it’s an important construct because it leads us to aspire to something, at least much of which we can achieve, if not all. So I’ve listed this chapter under these two meta categories of open ended and systems thinking, which are then sort of characterized or grouped in these six areas of environmental resilience, civic practice, public health and wellbeing, new cultural identities and social cohesion, the informal economy, and imagination in play. And these are not, again, mutually exclusive, but these are ways to think about how we move forward with a more constructive public space.
[00:37:06] So, I’m just going to share some of these little ideas with you. So we could start by thinking about a way that we imagine public space, which is a place for caring for the disadvantaged and the destitute. So we think of this as an alternate view. What if we think of the public space as a space for extremely novel and unusual and unexpected behaviors? What if we think about this is a space of excitement through risk and novelty? What about we think of it as a place of experimentation? So we essentially go to public space and we expect something that is new and experimental and also a place for sharing and certainly disagreement and debate. And so the proof of public space in that case could be that it’s a place of difference, it has a range, there is friction there, there’s change, visibility, etc., but it’s a place that is complex and it’s uncertain, it’s disorderly, and it’s open-ended.
[00:38:16] So there are some of these thoughts that might be ways to rethink and think of it as, is this public space public or is this space public? We have to think that if we want to involve and engage and serve all of the publics, one of the fundamentals is that we think of designing with humane flows because access produces collective and diverse representation. And if there is no access, then this representation of society is incomplete.
[00:38:50] So, the first things we need to think about is that we need to think of the access to public space in a very humane sense. And then we need to we need to recognize that we’re not going to construct this one public space that is going to work for everyone. There may be ways that the space is constructed, the way it might change over time, over sort of sub-spaces within to celebrate difference, because cities are places of difference and public space is the urban territory to express and experience those differences. So that’s where we need to think about a place where it can celebrate difference. And one of the places that I’ve mentioned many times in this book is, again, what can we do? How can we learn from Global South — in this case, India? There’s a lot of seemingly chaotic interactions and the workings of space that are built around what I call localized agency and relentless negotiations. And there’s a lot to learn from that.
[00:39:59] From the built environment perspective, we need to really reverse our thinking and we need to really think about the space between buildings to imagine what life between buildings could be. So we need to really reverse the way that we are constructing the city around us to equally recognize the spaces that we create. And the spaces we create for them to perform as public spaces and as wonderful public spaces, they don’t have to be — they can be simple or complex. What we need to keep in mind, though, is that, just as we talk about Euclidean zoning and trying to beat that, we also need to think about Euclidean zoning within public spaces, so that we don’t separate the uses and the users all the time in the city.
[00:40:51] And then some very fundamental things that are going back to this idea of making places humane. Is it sitable? Do they provide shelter? Is there these small moments that are going to make the city more humane? And the bigger concern now for us ought to be to really think in terms of networks and systems so that they are giving us benefits that are exponentially more than the individual public spaces, whether it’s for environmental resilience, whether it’s for connecting different communities, whether it is for different types of ease of flows — all of this becomes critical. And then one of the things to do for us is engaging the institutions so that the stewardship and care of public space is not just shared only by sort of the jurisdictions or the municipalities, but also large institutions in the city.
[00:41:49] And finally, we can think about it through these networks to weave an ecosystem so that within this built landscape of cities, the network of public spaces offers the antidote to a lot of the destructive practices that we see from the past. And finally, we need to look at public space — not all of it needs to be explicit, clean, designed, known, and programmed. We need to be able to experiment and tinker. So the capacity of public space is really only limited by our imagination. Thank you.
Julian Agyeman: [00:42:28] Thank you so much, Vikas. I’m going to be processing that for a long time. There’s a lot of information in there and it does prompt me to bring your book from the middle of the pile of my reading to the top of the pile. I’ve got to pick up on some of the issues that you were elucidating there. So we’ve got a bunch of questions, but I’ve got one for the end and I’m not going to ask you it at the beginning, I’m going to ask you right at the end. So Dignity Index Global asks, Could you please speak to the importance of a gendered approach to city planning such as Bogota, Vienna for engagement, as well as a safe space for women and girls?
Vikas Mehta: [00:43:09] So I’m actually going to talk a little bit more about what is going on in India. I think some of the other cities we’ve known that the idea of where the populace or the publics, like in Bogota, for example, the publics that had the least rights, the mayor, in that case, reversed the order and said, let us provide the kinds of public spaces that first serve the least served. So, perhaps many of you have seen these images of a street view, a street section, which shows that the initial investment that they made was in the bike lanes and the walking area in the middle. And they did not pave the streets for cars because the majority of the population was dependent on biking and walking to places. And it was a wonderful picture, I remember, seeing from the mayor’s presentation, is cars are driving in these in these muddy, dirty trenches and people are actually walking and biking on the area that’s really paved and that has been cared for. So that’s one very good example.
[00:44:24] The thing that I found very refreshing is — and being from India, again, knowing the society a little bit, is how women have started to speak up against the exact things that have been suppressing them. So we talk about safety and what is different in many, many societies for women is not only the implicit sense of safety that they might have, it’s an imposed sense of safety as well, that society, your own family, your own set of people that you know, impose on you and essentially make you think that these places are going to be unsafe. You cannot be there after dark. You cannot go there alone. And so women have actually started to counter that and they’ve started to create movements which take on each of these messages and in fact, enact the exact opposite.
[00:45:26] So they will gather together late at night and just by numbers, they are able to — and they will be individually in different parts of the city to really take on the city. And I think it’s really refreshing to think about how we think of public space. We construct this idea and we also then impose on others. And I found that the ability to challenge that was very, very refreshing.
Julian Agyeman: [00:45:58] Right. Thank you. A question from our own Deandra Boyle — oftentimes public spaces are restricted in that it’s not as accessible to marginalized communities, i.e. the space is further away from them, it’s difficult to get to know transport. How does your vision of public space take into account the barriers to access?
Vikas Mehta: [00:46:18] So that’s a great question. And a lot of cities are actually taking it on and there are a lot of metrics. So if you think about access from the perspective of distribution, that’s what is the first thing that is there. You know, people talk about ten minute walking to it or ten minute biking, etc. — that’s the first layer of access, being able to distribute spaces equitably. But then it gets more complex. You might provide spaces within sort of access within ten minute walking, five minute walking for everybody or for the majority of the population, tut then what is in the space? What is this design of the space? What are the amenities of the space? When are they open, etc., etc. What does parking cost around the space or in the space? All of these things then create inequities in access. So we need to keep that in mind when we think about access, not only as how you are distributing them.
[00:47:23] There’s this wonderful study in Baltimore from many years ago that essentially talked about this — that while access was relatively good for most people, the ability for them to actually enjoy the space was not. And many cities are now starting to look at that — how spaces work for the catchment that they sort of show within the ten minute walking. Do they actually have the kinds of amenities that those neighborhoods or those residents need, or are they just a space? Is it just a numbers game?
Julian Agyeman: [00:48:01] Right. That’s a really good point. And there’s a relation to the question from Liz Sharp from the University of Sheffield in the UK. And her question really relates to a burning question that I have — I think you said a public space that’s for everyone is a public space for no one? I’ve been doing some research and I found some work that was done in the Sydney metro area in Australia. And the conclusion, the sad conclusion, they came to was it’s probably not possible to design a culturally inclusive space, so the best we can do is to design a culturally non-exclusive space. It disappointed me though because I have this idea of designing culturally inclusive spaces, but I think you’re saying, yeah, that a public space for everyone is a public space for no one. So how do we make sense of an inclusive space or is the best we can do a non-exclusive space?
Vikas Mehta: [00:49:00] I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s kind of the place where we move forward after distribution. So we talk about, you know, everybody needs the space, but then what is it? And we cannot just give every distinct community or user group their own space. That doesn’t make sense. So we’ll have to find spaces that then are performing in ways that they have some ability to overlap.
[00:49:30] There’s a very good example from long time ago, a small park designed by Walter Hood in Oakland. And what he did was very, very clever. He was looking at a park that was used by the very poor, the single mothers with children, drug addicts, people who were just making a buck because they could give somebody a haircut, prostitutes. So it was a real what we might think of as a complicated, troubled neighborhood park. But it was a really active park. And what he did was he said, I’m going to use the landscape to create subtle barriers that you can easily cross, but there will be no fences. And so he essentially created these territories, which were really overlapping, if you thought about it, like a Venn diagram. And then there were spaces that were very amorphous that different kinds of people could use.
[00:50:31] So it’s not like every space is, you know, a children’s playground. There were mounds where you could sit and, you know, play guitar or have a little concert. And there was an area where you could really just, you know, cut hair and earn a couple of bucks, whatever. So I think the — I don’t want to say the answer to it, but my sense of this is as a designer, that there have to be spaces that are doing multiple things out of the same programmatic and design elements. So at one point I agree that we want to be not exclusive. But I think that we need to be able to provide for those things as well and hope that some people will jump their territory, get out of their comfort zone and start to use the other spaces as well.
Julian Agyeman: [00:51:26] Right. Well, thanks for that Vikas, let’s talk more on that. I think it’s a fascinating one. There’s other questions, but we’re going to have to — I want to wrap up with this question. And maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s unfair. Vikas, do you have a favorite public space? If so, where is it and what makes it your favorite public space?
Vikas Mehta: [00:51:46] That’s not the first time I’ve been asked. And I asked my students that for a lot of reasons because it’s a great way to start a conversation. So I think for me, I’m going to take the easy road and say, Oh, there are so many — but I think the public space that’s still very comfortable and easy for me is a beach because of this idea of being me being able to transfer your sort of memories from one to the other place without completely moving into different or new territories while being in actually very different and new territories.
Julian Agyeman: [00:52:24] Any particular beach?
Vikas Mehta: [00:52:26] No, I think that’s the idea — that I’ve found that this notion of the beach, it’s transferable and has that connecting power. And, of course, the beach has its own ability to be collective and individual and ponder on the deeper issues or deeper things about life. But I think as a public space, that’s the space I’ve found to be most comforting for me.
Julian Agyeman: [00:52:52] Vikas thank you so much. And our next colloquium on April the 5th, Professor Yasminah Beebeejaun of University College London will present, “Who’s Diversity: Race, Space, and Planning.” I’m particularly interested in this because Great Britain has a different set of relationships and processes as regards race, and let’s see how planning plays out in the UK compared to, say, the US. Thank you everybody. See you on April the 5th. And again, thank you, Vikas.
Vikas Mehta: [00:53:20] Bye. Thank you.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:53:25] We hope you enjoyed this week’s lecture. You can access the video, transcript, and graphic recordings of Vikas Mehta’s presentation on Shareable.net — there’s a direct link in the show notes. Our next lecture, “Whose Diversity: Race, Space, and Planning,” presented by Yasminah Beebeejaun, will be on Wednesday, April 5th. You can also find a link to register for a free ticket in the show notes.
[00:53:47] Cities@Tufts Lectures is produced by Tufts University and Shareable with support from the Kresge, Barr, and Shift Foundations. Lectures are moderated by Professor Julian Agyeman and organized in partnership with research assistants KCitlin McLennan and Deandra Boyle.”Light without Dark” by Cultivate Beeas is our theme song, Robert Raymond is our audio editor, Roame Jasmine manages communications, Allison Huff manages operations, Anke Dregnet illustrated the graphic recording, Caitlin MccLennan created the original portrait, and the series is produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn. Please hit subscribe and leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts and share it with others so this knowledge can reach people outside of our collective bubbles. That’s it for today’s show, here’s a final thought:
Vikas Mehta: [00:54:30] The way I would like to think about it is that there is really no one public. And in fact, we might be talking about publics space, not just public space.