Composing Space


The dialogue surrounding our cities is centered on the dichotomy between private and public spaces. Access, equity, rights, safety, mobility—these are all defined by spaces, and defined further by how we define those spaces. Who has the right to pass through or use them? When is it acceptable to be within those spaces? The further we dive into these conversations, the more that the line between public and private becomes but a hazy smudge.

Our cities contain complicated networks of spaces. Some spaces are small, some big; some are long and narrow, some wide open; some are bordered by rigid walls, some surrounded by curves and lines. They come up against one another and share edges. In some cases, spaces nestle within each other in irregular patterns. A collection of spaces is still a space; conversely, a single space can always be subdivided into smaller spaces. The building is a collection of rooms. The room has a cooking station, a chopping station, a washing station, and an eating station. The eating station has room for four place settings for people to sit comfortably together, and perhaps six place settings if everyone doesn’t mind getting cozy. And each setting has space for a plate, a bowl, a napkin, a fork, a knife, a spoon, and a glass for a nicer evening meal—and don’t you dare put the fork where the knife is meant to be. But once the table is cleared, there’s no knowing what object will claim that space.

Typically, we consider spaces at a human scale because we use them, live in them, and move through them as humans. We each have our own private spaces. These are our sanctuaries, our private spheres where we can shed the layers of our identities to reveal the truest of ourselves. When we need an escape, this is where we turn to. This is the space that is rarely shared with the outside world. For some of us, that’s a sacred place in the home, perhaps a space for daily ritual. For others, it’s an area bounded by our closest friends, independent of a physical location. For others, it’s a space defined by the place that’s safe enough to rest a weary head in a merciless world. Usually, there is something there that helps ground that space and give it an identity. Without that something or someone, that place would cease to be a zone in which we can uncover our truest selves. And we guard this space carefully—perhaps jealously.

A Network of Spaces

But most of our lives are lived in public spaces. The workspace, often surrounded by co-workers; the roads of similar people heading from point A or towards point B; the grocery store or the shopping mall; the green stretch of a public park. All of these places mean the presence of strangers and the unknown. We enter them with the understanding that we must share these spaces. None of these places are ours to dictate, own, or otherwise mark as a sovereign territory (at least, not as typical individuals).

We’re driven to seek shelter in our personal spaces. We’re also driven to seek out the companionship of public spaces. For many of us, our happiness is closely tied to how we manage the balance of these two spaces. What is intriguing, though, is how the perception of a space as private or public depends on who experiences it, and in what context.

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The Division of Spaces

Take, for example, a front yard along a street. This pleasant space is bordered by a trim but short picket fence and skirted by a common sidewalk. People walk by the yard, see the grasses growing, and feel the breeze that passes from beneath a couple of small trees. The occasional passerby may even admire the artistic rocks in the landscaping and the colors of the flowers. The fence between the passerby and the yard, however, denotes the yard as private property. Most of us respect the barrier and restrict ourselves from entering or otherwise touching the space. But anyone who walks by can see directly in. A carefree pedestrian might in fact reach an arm in and touch the life within. In fact, this yard’s owner might tend to this little patch of nature with the goal of making a favorable impression on passing guests. Or perhaps he sees, in his homeownership, a duty to contribute to the beauty of the street. Perhaps it’s a civic duty to make a neighborhood more enjoyable for all of its citizens. What was once viewed as a private space has taken on the role of a public space, as an area that seeks to benefit the public good.

To put a slightly different perspective on things, consider the beach. This one is a strip of sandy shoreline, covered in gently billowing grasses, playing host to families and friends who come out to enjoy the sunshine and the salty waves. The atmosphere is welcoming and friendly. Four-legged critters dash up and down the water’s edge as small crabs scuttle dodge little feet and paws. Yet small signs posted at distinct points provide lists of rules for beachside guests. Behave yourself or be ready to leave, they proclaim. And perhaps there are opening and closing hours that prevent one from enjoying the sunrise from such a prime location. As you wander further down the sifting sands, you realize there are spaces that you cannot enjoy for yourself, even though you can situate yourself in them. There are spaces claimed previously by towels, umbrellas, and discarded toys. Some are occupied by sunbathers, innocuous enough at the moment, but sure to be angry if you were to disturb them. Perhaps this public space is actually a zone of private spaces stitched together, one of which might be yours for a few hours, if you are lucky enough to claim it before someone else does.

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Spaces take on so many guises over time. Their shapes and sizes expand and contract as easily as we breathe. Why are we so preoccupied with fixing them into a single form, then, against their very natures? Why must we create walls and lines? Why do we feel like it’s necessary to label each neat, ordered space, instead of letting the spaces dictate their forms and functions organically?

There’s something to be said about letting a space choose its own identity. After all, spaces are shaped not just by the individual, but also by the multitudes that pass through it and use it. Instead of declaring a specific single use with specific operating hours, perhaps we’d be better off with spaces that embrace uncertainty and different ideas. What could we learn by seeing how other people make use of our spaces?

Of course it’s uncomfortable to relinquish authority, especially when we have grand visions of what we want to do with our spaces. But ultimate control is an unachievable goal. The more rules we erect, the less welcoming and enjoyable our spaces become. And if someone still steps in to observe that space—or, the horror, participate within it—our perfect image is destroyed regardless of all the safeguards and intentions. That’s a lot of work to put into something that is destined to fail.

If we are to truly utilize our spaces effectively, we need to stop dividing spaces into yours, mine, his, hers, theirs. We need to create and design our spaces for the unknowns and lightbulb moments. We have to be open to change and serendipity. We have to trust that spaces will grow and flourish regardless of who is within it. And perhaps the multitudes of uses they will have over lifetimes will shape them for the better.

Breathing Spaces

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