Public Space as a Catalyst of Local Communities

The contemporary city is living a complex process of transformation. Social relationships and urban vitality in neighbourhoods are becoming scarce and fragmented.

The public space is no longer a space of opportunities for the collectivity. Its administrators seem to regard it exclusively as a problematic space and only take action in order to empty it and prevent any type of problem, thus limiting every spontaneous activity started by citizens. Everything stays under control and in some cases this control becomes almost a police control.

As Manuel Delgado explains, the public space since its birth during modern times has been set as a space where the State attempts to deny the asymmetric nature of the social relationships it administers, thus offering the “perfect” scenery for the impossible dream of equitable consensus in which it can carry out its conciliatory and mediation role.

The idea of public space as guarantee of democracy and space of liberty for citizens is now undergoing a profound crisis.

Urban population is today characterized by its great heterogeneity and fragmentation, as the public space is shared by human groups which are very different in terms of social and demographic structure, social and economic status, lifestyles, patterns of consumption, systems of values, attitudes, perceptions and preferences.

It is a very difficult task to offer a space for coexistence and equality. Today’s reality is now beyond reach of those responsible for administering it.  (Political) administrators have already accepted that public spaces are no longer politically profitable and, as a consequence of this, act fearfully.

This fear of losing control, of going into the mud and getting dirty, makes initiatives to restrict possibilities in public spaces and classify them in a way that their use is defined and limited, against the large number of situations that may arise in a context with so many different elements (…) they prefer to simplify and cut out, to reduce instead of examine and increase complexity, by legislating on the basis of restriction. (Juan López-Aranguren Blázquez, 2009)

Manuel Delgado reminds us that what joins people and makes them powerfully supportive is not the fact that they think in the same way, but that they experiment and transmit the same. (…) Community is based on communion. Collectivity, instead, is organized according to communication. Apparently, community and collectivity imply a similar reduction to unity. The difference, however, is important and is based on the fact that community requires coherence, while a collectivity needs and produces cohesion.

It is very difficult to reproduce the necessary conditions for us to have urban communities instead of collectivities.

The most sensible way is, probably, to work in order to enable that process of communication which Delgado defines as the one which produces and feeds a collectivity: make public spaces recover their role as places for experimenting collectively and transmitting local information in a transparent way.

Image by Francesco Cingolani | @immaginoteca |

To pursue this aim, it would be interesting to choose an innovative use of new technologies which can increase the possibilities of communication and therefore extend the “limits” and the role of these spaces.

According to Juan Freire, the crisis of urban (physical) public spaces is also due to the lack of an (open) design which makes citizens recover a real interest to use it. In search of new solutions, he talks about “hybrid spaces” in order to inform about the opportunities offered by hybridization of the physical and digital elements in public spaces.

Nevertheless, today we can accept that public spaces are characterized by having a digital skin, we can work to define qualities and characteristics, and we can start talking about “sentient spaces” in order to inform about their “live” nature, their capability of promoting a two-way relationship with its users, of catalysing hyper-local social networks and visualising information related to the environment in a transparent way.

The integration of digital technologies in the physical space (to create “sentient spaces”) may be a way of developing new dynamics of communications and relationship among neighbours, capable of improving cohesion of local collectivities.

In order to prove this, it will be necessary to research on possible synergies, influences and dependencies among four concepts: the commons, the public space, common spaces and new technologies.

Internet seems to offer a “place” for social relationships which is an alternative to “traditional” places. This fact may be seen as a problem which causes public spaces to be increasingly emptied, or, on the contrary, can be considered as a great opportunity to strengthen local social relationships: Internet is nowadays the “place” where models of collective organization are being experimented more successfully.

The paradigm of the commons admits that the creation of value is not an occasional economic transaction as the market theory states, but a continuous process of social life and political culture. Instead of limiting ourselves to the logic of the right of property, of contracts and the impersonal market transactions, the commons opens a wider, more vibrant and humanistic debate. The connections between our social lives and democratic values, on the one hand, and between economic benefit and innovation, on the other, can be renewed. Issues such as the virtues of transparency, universal access, diversity of participants or a certain social equity, which otherwise would have been left aside, acquire a new theoretical legitimacy. Undoubtedly, the commons plays a fundamental role in nowadays economic and social production. We still have to define when this role will be fully accepted, or the way in which it will influence our future actions. (Bollier D., 2003)

The concept of common space refers to the idea of spaces which are not subject to a pre-established order, spaces which are created to meet a momentary need or action involving two or more people. As Eduardo Serrano reminds us, these spaces are usually created in frontiers, in spaces where two worlds meet, touch or collide. The needs or simple creativity of its “users” are the supporting and structural elements of these spaces.

Public spaces can recover an important role within the contemporary economic and social system, as these are typically spaces of universal access and development of the commons. This important role could be attained by using social media and networks as activators of relationships among neighbours, and new technologies as basic equipment for exchanging and visualising local information.

Designing public spaces as places where exchange of information is guaranteed and promoting transparency of the administration of our environment will render these spaces a fundamental role for society. This way, society would regain the vitality it seems to have lost.

(pictures by Francesco Cingolani)

I have written this post for the blog “La Ciudad Viva“, an initiative of the Housing and Territory Planning Department of the Local Government of Andalusia.


This text is part of my research about Shareable City, a new city model based on a technological and social ecosystem where knowledge, collective enterprise and interactions between people and places foster new possibilities by means of a physical-digital hybridization.

If you are interested in Shareable City you can visit my web with a selection of articles and projects >

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