Public Space

I went to Sculpture by the Sea on the weekend, and was pondering, as I walked past the Bondi Pavilion that some space that was once “public” (concrete in front of the Bondi Pavilion) was now “private” at least by some definitions – it’s a cafe.

My local area has continuing controversy any time some windblown plaza is created as part of a development. It’s “public space” therefore sacred, and letting someone lease it out and create a cafe is a bad thing, at least according to some of the powers-that-be, because it is alienating public space.

I don’t agree. Public space is important – Bondi Beach is a classic example! but cafes are public space to some extent. In my street, there are three spaces about the size of a small terrace house. One has an outdoor cafe in it, onea small (public) garden, and one a children’s playground. Right now, the cafe’s not going so well . But even now, and when the evenings are getting longer, there are probably more people using the cafe space than even the playground space. The garden occasionally has one person sitting eating lunch.

Of course, the cafe is also the only area that you have to pay to enter. But even with all the second-hand handwringing about the poor people who won’t be able to access these now private spaces, a windswept plaza in front of an office building is unlikely to be the preferred space of someone who can’t afford the price of a cup of coffee in return for a seat. A cafe means a much more effective use of space than free seating. People will willingly sit much closer to each other in a cafe than they would in any free space.  And people will sit in a space that isn’t that intrinsically attractive, if someone makes the effort to make it attractive (which they are more likely to do if they can make a quid).

Does that mean that every available space should be made into a cafe? Of course not. I really like the mix I have in my street, of a cafe, a garden and a playground. But a cafe is not, of itself, an alienation of public space. There needs to be a better use of the space that will improve the living environment of the inhabitants before it is automatically rejected.

  6 comments for “Public Space

  1. November 14, 2006 at 9:29 am

    The problem we face in a lot of London areas is that re-modeled public space tends to equal gentrification, Starbucks, high property prices…Though I can always do with another cafe, mind you.

  2. November 14, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    I like see outdoor cafes in unused or ill-used public spaces, but can understand people’s concerns about the alienation of public space when you start to look at issue of freedom of expression, etc. For example, often malls are better used spaces than outdoor areas. However, they still raise concerns about rights of access for society’s ‘undesirables’ and their private security personnel tend to impose stricter limits on freedom of expression than is generally permissible in truly public space…

  3. November 15, 2006 at 7:56 am

    The only public spaces we have in this town (population 70,000) are parks. We have lots and lots of parks. Some are trails along the river (landscaped or “wild”), some are neighborhood parks. Entirely public, no private events ocurring, unless you count the parks & rec classes which one has to pay to join. These sometimes take over an entire park, rendering it useless to those not involved in the event.

    There are spaces which feel public but are, um, generously lent to us by the landowner. Each of these is adjacent to something you have to pay to enjoy, like a cafe or what have you. Recently a few of these spaces have been taken over but what some call teenagers and some call hooligans… It’s been interesting. Who complains? Not members of the general public but the people who own the shops.

    Lastly we have spaces which are what you might call unimproved. In most cases they belong to the heirs of the timber companies. Over time — accelerating with the whole housing boom in the US in recent years — many have been converted to a private space, usually houses. It is a HUGE controversy in this town, that these spaces which people are used to having access to — boom, they’re gone.

    Which is a long way of saying that I side with the general public. There are so few places where one can go w/o having to pay, where one can go and just sit and be quiet.

    Of course… I’ve never been to Australia so I don’t know the exact circumstances you’re describing : )

  4. November 15, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    We are also lucky in our very small German town to have loads of public space: big parks, paths along the river, playgrounds, but lots of cafes too. I like that we have a mix – I can take my kids out for the afternoon and spend no money at all, if I choose to. I lived in the US briefly and I remember in Atlanta our choices were mall or playground, not much else. We usually chose the mall because it was so damn hot. England is quite good about public spaces, but the ones in walking distance from town were often littered and somehow not very inviting. If you were prepared to drive you could access better public space, in the form of parks and open countryside. But then, you had to have a car.

  5. November 17, 2006 at 8:25 am

    Here in Adelaide we have a great range of public spaces throughout most of the metropolitan area. I am constantly amazed at the small parks that I happen across as I enter new neighbourhoods. We also have some of the most unspoiled and underused urban beaches in the world. Having just spent four years at home with my children prior to them both going to school full time, this has been an ideal location for us. We also have excellent weather, which also helps.

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