Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
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By Sybilla
Public space is any area that is owned by the people and is accessible to all legal inhabitants to which the right is extended to. If everyone in this categorization has access to it and have equal partnered ownership, then everyone has a right to do as she or he wants to in that public arena. But is this truly the case? No, of course not. There are ground rules that need to be adhered to if you want the public space to serve all interested parties. In general, these requirements can be summed using two simple rules.

1. Respect the right of everyone to enjoy the public space.
2. Do not impinge on the ability of anyone from enjoying the public space.

These two guarantee that everyone can be present in the public arena and enjoy it, as long as they do not bother others from doing the same. What is required then is a list of things that are considered to be disruptive in the enjoyment of all. Once you have the list, an enforcement measure can be implemented to see to it that suitable penalization and disincentives for breaking those requirements are exercised. The list of disruptions would need to take into account of all our five senses. It would also need to take into account for the presence of the most vulnerable and sensitive in our society. And it would need to ensure that the public space is a representation and reflection of the cultural expression of the inhabitants. From a personal point of view, such a list would look as follows.

1. Sight: The public space must be neat, without uncommisioned artwork such as personal graffiti, and it must be aesthetically pleasing to all ages and groups.
2. Smell/Taste - The public space must have good odor (or an absence of bad odor), by keeping it clear of garbage and waste. It must keep the area free from foul-smell, whatever the source may be.
3. Hearing - The public space must not have offensive noise, music or loud speech.
4. Touch - The public space must be clean to the touch and without tactile danger.
5. Age/Safety/Enhanced need - The public space must be accessible to children and the elderly. It must have available access for special needs and people with sensitive conditions.
6. Culture - The public space must be a representation of the local people, serving as a public artistic and societal expression that should be respected and protected.

These are all sensible suggestions upheld in many civilized societies, but it appears that many citizens have also tended to be frequently ambivalent to this basic need. I need not elaborate on this as I'm sure many have witnessed behaviors contrary to the stated rules. But surely, a high quality public space is worth investing in, as it benefits all. It should be possible for us to do more to protect them and to enhance the public experience. The shared space should not be a place where everyone feels entitled to do whatever they want. They need to be protected by the people for the enjoyment of ALL the people.
What constitutes a public space? Is it any land or property that is not privately owned? Is there a buffer zone where certain private interests have more say than others? The problem is that there are many instances where a public space is in a grey zone and open to interpretation. If a person was living near a public park then that person may have more interest in treating the park as an extension of his living space. Same goes for roads, monuments, and any other structure in the vicinity. While a group of teenagers may loiter in a park or a drunkard chooses to camp out near your front lawn, the fact that it is a public space means that you do not have the right to ruin their enjoyment of that space either.

Public spaces have also provided a platform or a commons for the people to express their civic opinions. In theory, anyone could stand on a soapbox and preach their message, as long as it was deemed acceptable by the authorities. So shouting at the top of your lungs in a public square during an appointed time would be acceptable, but doing so at one o'clock in the morning after a night of heavy boozing would not be. Or marching down a public road as a demonstration would be allowed during the day but protesting during the night would be an invitation for violence. So there are limitations and expectations of proper behavior for many communities. But there's always a segment who think they're beyond reproach or just like to poke at the hornet's nest for the sake of it. "Disturbing the peace" is thus easy to trigger and depending on who's peace you disturb, the penalty would vary considerably from place to place.

The problem in many cases is that the people don't see public spaces as part of their common property. They should have a vested interest in keeping the space in good quality and have some "skin in the game", as one would say. How else can one expect to have respect for the common area? If you're a tourist or don't live near the public ground, then you're likely not going to care as much about it; as for instance, the road outside your front door. Curses and hellfire to those who desecrate the pavement outside my front door (as he chucks a certain environmentally-conscientious-cardiac-arrest-inducing-devil-mermaid "coffee" carton out of the car window)! People are hypocritical by nature. Keeping all public spaces in good condition will need strong incentives.
The concept of public ownership and sharing properties as a community is the very embodiment of a socialist mindset, which is a very big taboo stance in the United States in particular. Beware of McCarthyism for even suggesting such a thing. But there is a need for municipalities to provide public services, infrastructures and communal property. Infrastructures such as roads are built for automobiles and pedestrians, and are managed by several jurisdictions; such as for cleaning, repairs, security etc. What's not clear however is what the expectation of conduct is when it comes to a given public space.

For example, a road has a speed limit, allows certain types of vehicles, and the motorist laws are enforced. It's a public space meant for cars and does not necessarily need to take into account of the surroundings, pedestrian needs, or for providing comfort for nearby domiciles. But this is not the only purpose of the public road. It provides access to the residents nearby and they have a say in what is acceptable as a shared public space that disproportionately affects only them. The noise, the vibration, the smell, and even the sight of those whizzing automobiles are concerns that should be addressed (not as a pay-off to the current residents only). Building codes should take in these various factors as a guarantee of quality and integrity. If a house is next to a 4 lane road with a speed limit of 45 mph, there needs to be an adequate buffer to absorb the vibration and the noise from the traffic. This is standard expectation in progressive countries that recognize the harmful psychological impact of being exposed to loud noises for prolonged periods. The case for reducing/eliminating emissions, banning loud ghetto sports car mufflers, and making silent trucks are also necessary to achieve the stated aim. And they must all work in concert to ensure a public space that adheres to a respectable level of quality standards.

Therefore a quality standard may be a way of stating and grading the utilities and infrastructures. It would quantify the public compatibility and set an expectation for proper conduct. For example, a grade AAA public park would have more stringent set of requirements than a park with grade AAB. The fines for violating those requirements would be higher as well. There would also be a basic set of rules and expectations for all parks that would need to adhere to a minimal set of standard. This model of course is only an ideal and the reality of implementing it in practice would very much depend on the communities themselves. A grade AAA public park in the middle of an urban ghetto would not be possible to achieve without the determination of those residents to uphold it. In a way, it can be a focus and a goal for communities to come together and work on uplifting the general living conditions and expressing itself as a community.
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By Sybilla
If I live near a park, I want to be able to use it and not have tourists make a mess of it. If I live near a road, I don't want trucks and farty cars rumbling my walls. If I live near a monument, I don't want graffiti or any artwork that I and many of my neighbors find displeasing. These are not unreasonable things to expect, and the fact that it's not automatically done goes to show that there's a lot of improvement to be made in the simple need of having a decent residence. It's not only about packing chicken coops in as tightly as possible for a given plot of land or selling run-down properties to the next mug who's desperate to own a home. The place of residence needs to be situated in a decent public space, hence the real-estate mantra, "location, location, location".

In regards to artwork and cosmetics, there are plenty of art pieces that are so abstract and so juvenile looking, to the point where no-one can relate to them nor appreciate them in any meaningful way with respect to the given landscape and neightbourhood. It's one thing to have such art pieces in chic urban yuppie districts, but quite another to be situated in rural town squares. The artwork needs to represent the people of the place and satisfy their expression and not be subserviant to those who reside outside of it; who may very well wish to erase the heritage and history of a given space and replace it in their own image and liking. In other words, the artwork should be commissioned to the local artists and they should be allowed to use all the public space of the municipality as their canvas. It would be the responsibility of such teams to bring beauty to the communal expression. It would also be a way to bring a community together for a common purpose.

For starters, murals on the sides of buildings and walls are relatively low cost and can drastically improve the aesthetics of a place. Such artworks can even extend to pavements and any other grey concrete canvases. Statues using weather resistant materials can be created and placed in locations around the neighborhoods. Organic art using various forms of flora and fungi can be used to complement these pieces and create aesthetically pleasing and locally expressed gardens. These need to be done as a way to tell the story of the community, as a reminder and as a mark of remembrance of the things that were important to the local inhabitants. They should not be something that outsiders impose on the locals as a sign of cultural dominance. The art must be relatable, make sense at least to some common level, and compel a feeling of connection in those who resonate with it.