Joburg: Public life
If public spaces mirror the complexities of urban societies then what do our public spaces say about us?
The public realm of a city, here I include public space and civic buildings, has always been central to civic life. As we officially reach an era of urban living, with over 50 percent of the world’s population now living in urban areas, we would assume the role of the public realm to be even more important. However in the last decade we have seen a major shift in the way we use public space.
It goes without saying that the way in which we now interact publicaly has changed due to the onset of the information age. Our interaction with the rest of the world is increasingly happening through social media on ‘chat rooms’, ‘forums’, and just generally in ‘cyberspace’. We live in a world where we talk to one another, pay our bills, read the news and even shop online.
Although we cannot possibly deny the important role the ‘virtual public platform’ plays when it comes to connecting people both locally and globally, there is a danger associated with this kind of interaction. That is to say that the interactions we have on the ‘virtual public platform’ tend to replace spontaneous social interactions that would traditionally happen in physical public space. And because we spend more and more of our public time in virtual space, we drain the life from alternative physical public spaces.
Another problem we face with this form of interaction is that it is very exclusive. Since, we can be very selective of who we interact with in ‘our’ virtual worlds we greatly limit our ability to access diverse opinions. Therefore even those who live in the city often become isolated from their extremely diverse society and, therefore, do not benefit from the opportunities for social mixing that cities should allow.
Furthermore, for many Joburgers interactions in physical space is still a huge reality. Street traders, public performers and many others still rely on physical exchange in physical space to make an income. This tends to happen less in the large open ‘traditional’ public spaces such as Mary Fitzgerald square or the Library Gardens, and more in formal/informal market spaces and just generally on the streets. This is most likely because of the rules and regulations that tend to restrict rather than encourage public life in our large public open spaces.
So when the Inner City Roadmap, which is the City of Johannesburg’s statement of intent for transforming the inner city of Johannesburg, talks about creating a city that is a ‘place where people want to stay because it offers a high quality urban environment with generous quality public open space’. What does this space actually look like? Are large public open squares that are ‘clean’ and ‘controlled’ really the public spaces our city needs?
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