[on the politics of space & cultural interventions]

Measuring public space

Jessie Bianca Martin

Landscapes join up along the Thames, scales shifting in time with the economies of boroughs and everyday practices of belonging. Public spaces span ownership structures, including different audiences and responding to differing purposes of inhabitation.

These are spaces measured both locally and internationally. They do not exist solely within the bounded city of London and its surrounding landscape; their economies have impact elsewhere, and visual representations inform constructions of place identity beyond the immediate.

“When you stand on Cutty Sark Gardens the history can be felt, the naval history and significance of the tea clipper, Cutty Sark that can be experienced in Greenwich... It was important to rediscover the forgotten qualities of the square on the Thames River and create a gateway to the centre of Greenwich.” (2018 Okra)

Cutty Sark Gardens is one of the key projects in the Mayor’s Great Spaces initiative, an area redeveloped by Greenwich Council prior to the 2012 Olympic Games (2018 Okra).

Urbanist Jane Jacobs argued 'that well designed public spaces attract people at different times of day and for different reasons (1961, p. 158-59). People using place for the alternate purposes of work, tourism, leisure and local happenstance can all be simultaneously satisfied; space becomes diverse through a planning process that considers the whole. Jacobs refers to the act of navigating shared urban space as an “intricate ballet”; the whole is formed from constituent people playing distinct fluid parts (1961, p. 50). Human behaviour and action is integral to the conception of public space, but the navigability of space is determined by the physical form it takes.

In Greenwich, the arrival of a Merry-Go-Round changes our perception of the neighbouring Cutty Sark. Instead of occupying the open space next to the ship, people pass through the smaller gap between ship and fairground ride; contrasted against the two features the figures become smaller, their presence providing a means to measure the distance between the two objects and the peripheral Canary Wharf.

The site hosts a flow of people daily, navigating their way through the space en route to the DLR station, Thames Path and Greenwich foot tunnel, stopping to admire the ship at the Gardens’ centre, or reading, picnicking and socialising on concrete steps and wooden benches. On weekends in summer months the space surrounding the Cutty Sark fills with seasonal entertainment and market stalls selling street food, drinks and souvenirs.

Urban emptiness creates a blank stage set for the quotidian human activity Jacobs refers to. One of Jacobs’ core conceptions surrounding public space is that on a micro level there’s power in the relationships held between bodies and buildings; if these relations are harnessed effectively they can bring vitality to urban areas and strengthen civic principles as collective meaning is produced from the approximate sharing of space. Open public space makes purposeful the meeting points of strangers thus harnessing the basic principles on which cities are based.

When spatial practices involve capital, the ability to belong becomes fraught with inequality, as David Sibley states; “the boundaries between the consuming and non-consuming public are strengthening, with non-consumption being constructed as a form of deviance” (1995, p. xii). Exclusions established through spatial practices dually inform human and place identities.

The Gardens close up, the spaces between structures becoming smaller and tighter as I circumnavigate fair ground rides and market stalls which act as barriers, obstructing the usually present view of the river which acts to open out the landscape.

Travelling West along the Thames, away from Greenwich and deeper into the city, different landscapes arrange themselves on the river bank. The river connects the Cutty Sark Gardens, London Bridge City and the South Bank; all three spaces define, and are defined by its presence.

Opening up edges of public space to distant viewpoints and structures, the presence of the Thames impacts place identity and public behaviour, acting as a view, a resource, and giving form to the Thames Path walkway, upon which all sites are situated.

Navigating London from the starting point of my home in Deptford, I pass through the three sites regularly, experiencing them from the shifting standpoints of local resident, photographer, runner and worker. These are spaces that shape my experience and perception of London’s public realm; they act as markers, gateways to other places, and provide me with a frame of reference from which to evaluate and perceive of the new and unknown.

A Google image search of Tower Bridge (a prominent feature in the view from London Bridge) is dominated by photographs devoid of human presence. With river in foreground and shot from a low angle the subject seems momentous, an impenetrable spectacle. This viewpoint represents one of the layers of perception and identity that defines the landscape. Other layers are lived through direct physical experience, then talked about and passed on.

The type of behaviour exemplative of everyday city living is theorised by sociologists such as Lyn Lofland, and most famously Erving Goffman. Lofland’s principle of Cooperative Motility draws upon the notion that we move through social space in a combined effort with strangers; the aim is to avoid disturbing the equilibrium (1998, p. 29).

Everyday spatial practices reinforce an idea of what is normal, giving us a means of judging how to inhabit new spaces. They mediate our experience of public space; seeing how familiar everyday behaviours are enacted in unfamiliar spaces, we become cognisant of how behaviours function across environments to create a landscape.

Such behaviours are built in to the identity of the urbanite. These ways of being frame our viewpoints, movements, and the lens we judge our surroundings through.

We carry with us evaluations of place and people formed as a result of inhabiting from this point of view, simultaneously applying frameworks of belonging to new places which may be assembled through opposing ownership structures, cultural and geographic specificities. Perceptions of publicness are constructed through physical experience and observation.

The area of public space contained around the Southbank Centre appeals to tourists, audiences of its various arts and entertainment venues, and passersby en route to elsewhere. The area’s riverside walkway was constructed in the period following the Second World War, and separates pedestrians and traffic across levels. Behaviour responds to spatial scales raised above ground level through brutalist design and architecture aimed at revitalising London’s post-war landscape.

Viewpoints within the frame shift when new focal points arise: beside the Southbank Centre a water feature draws views into the space. Along the Thames users of public space are drawn to looking outwards at the River, but when attractive features are placed inside space views reach in the same direction. Lived public space is assembled as actions build up, viewpoints and behaviours intersecting, acting and reacting in time with the landscape.

We measure space through inhabitation. We can use bodies as markers to make sense of our own relationship with the city and each other; representations allow us to judge how we would fit into place, using other bodies to measure scale and belonging.

Jacobs states that buildings on the periphery are important to the design of open public spaces because of how they contain activity: “They make a definitive shape out of the space, so that it appears as an important event in the city scene” (1961, p. 106). The intentionality of constructed emptiness, alongside practical usability and aesthetic appeal, justifies the existence of open public spaces in cities.

Viewpoints that reach outside of the photographs frame acknowledge relationships that extend beyond present space, speaking to the connectivity of urban environments and scales of proximity surpassing the immediate. Greenwich, South Bank and London Bridge are all situated on the banks of the Thames; each location has a relationship with its non-immediate built environment, as views stretch out over the river, connecting the far away with the close up. Looking at photographs of people moving through all three sites, space shrinks and expands as viewpoints reach outwards and inwards. The scale of space closes in and opens up as the relationship between forms shifts.

A sense of what is normal shifts in time with lived space. The peripheries maintain a constant: changes are less visible at a distance, and far away buildings create a marker we can use to assess changes in scale close up.

Disorder is contained and facilitated by an environment that bends to human adaptation. Bodies change the way they measure public space, disrupting it through behaviour. Scales shift as actions momentarily change landscapes, creating a gap between intended usage and actual usage. As a body bends and contorts itself to comfortably fit in a space, the measured difference between body and landscape alters: both body and landscape change proportion.

What happens to the scale of public spaces when people interact with place in improvised ways and veer away from common behavioural practices?

People make use of their environment, playing with its physical structure to suit individual purposes, bodies and routines.

A woman changes the measure of space when she stretches her leg against a platform for a model map during a phone call; a couple fit their heads through gaps in a fence, shortening the distance between themselves and the river; a child stands on a bench leaning to look beyond a wall as a girl in the background does a handstand at the foot of a metal sculpture. All these occurrences signal approximate shifts of scale between built space and human inhabitants.

Improvised movements challenge barriers of acceptable usage, as dictated by a system where public actions are mediated by private ownership structures and enhanced surveillance levels. Ash Amin discusses the placement of time through materialisation; schedules, traffic lights and clocks fix a concept of time onto urban spaces and our usage of them (2009). Similarly the identity of public space is solidified through behavioural practices, and the coming together of people acting in public to produce scales of acceptability.

We are used to seeing material landscapes through the lens of usability that has been offered to us. When it departs from the ordinary, the performance changes the landscape. A model map becomes a footrest, a gap in a fence becomes a lookout, a bench becomes a platform, and a metal statue becomes a stage for a handstand.

Behavioural norms fuse with space to create a landscape which is static, because while it changes its rhythm of movement remains constant; unusual behaviours prompt us to review landscapes as we see the different ways form can be utilised.

Improvised actions change how space can be measured and perceived, showing the possibilities inherent in place by allowing new momentary scales of belonging to be formed.