Chapter IV: Theoretical framework
Public space, human behaviour and everyday life often seem overfamiliar concepts that need no further explanation. However, for this thesis it is important to understand the theoretical implications of these terms, which will be introduced in this chapter. The writing focuses on public space as a subjectively experienced concept, and therefore argues for five aspects by which changes in public space from the individual’s perspective can be analyzed. Since people are in the focus of this analysis the chapter also introduces the possible relationships of their bodies and the city in general before it presents different strategies to re-experience the extraordinary in everyday life. Lastly, the chapter turns towards the societal behavioural obligations of individuals in public spaces. These are interesting points of discussion in the Urban Alphabets project.
In short, this chapter aims to lay the theoretical foundations for understanding the nature of public space and the everyday experiences people sense within them.
Public space often appears as a common-sense term, because many disciplines are involved with the concept as their study subject (e.g., architecture, geography, physics, sociology). However, concepts of public space in these varying disciplines clearly contradict each other. Thus, it is critical to make this work’s understanding of public space clear.
When defining the term it is important to admit, that the definition can never be comprehensive. This is not just because it is dealt with in many different disciplines, but also because a researcher would need
“to compile a theory, which should include physical space, its use and, as the most difficult aspect, the personal, singular moments of invention and existentially important experiences that are indispensable elements of the lived urban space.” (Lehtovuori 2005, 20)
As a result, every researcher and practitioner has her own understanding of public space. Maurice Merleau-Ponty even argues that every person in a situation has a different subjective understanding of the concept (quoted in Lehtovuori 2005, 120–121).
Thus, the definition of public space developed in this chapter, is not comprehensive; instead the explanation focuses on the aspects crucial for this work.
Furthermore, a more extensive account on the concept has been part of my previous Master’s thesis (Miessner 2012, 42–61): Besides a working definition of public space in six aspects, the written part included a deeper exploration of the term “public”, the duality of place and space, the consequences of globalization onto public space and Manuel Castells’ theory of space in the network society (Castells 2010). The current work gives more significance to the relationships between public space and the body on the one hand, and between public space and everyday life on the other.
Different disciplines establish different emphasis, depending on the features important for their work. Thus, research differentiates between physical and subjective concepts of space (e.g., Eckel 1998, 13; Löw 2007, 89):
Physical space concepts, such as Newton’s absolute space, focus on space in the sense of natural sciences. Space is understood as separate, quantified and objective (e.g., Hillis 1998, 53; Schubert 2000, 11).
In contrast, subjective space concepts assume that space always depends on a person to perceive it. Therefore, space does not exist a priori, but “requires making - through the practices and subjectivities of people.” (Sassen 2006, 21)
Panu Lehtovuori (2005) used the term “Concept City” to criticize the physically grounded planning paradigm prevalent in architecture and urban planning. He emphasizes that this objectifying view towards space results in an understanding of space as a designable object, like a stage-set. This account separates physical space from the situated practices taking place within it, and the significance people give their experiences in public spaces. In addition, Schubert has argued that the separation between physical space, which concern planning sciences, and social spatial use, which are subject in social sciences, creates a barrier, which makes it impossible to represent and study public space adequately (2000, 12).
For these reasons, this work employs the subjective space concept. It is profitable for this thesis to conceive space as simultaneously physical and social. Humans use their body to construct space according to particular concepts: we employ our bodies as the reference point when describing left or right, front or back, above or below (Herrmann 2010, 8).
Supporting the understanding, that space is always socially produced, introduces an additional challenge into this project: Understanding space as holistic and inclusive also means that it cannot be conceived of nor represented objectively. Lehtovuori emphasizes that “we are inside, partaking in the process of production of space” (2005, 74). Also Löw highlights the double existence of the human body in space creation: The body is our medium of perception and simultaneously part of the perceived environment (2007, 82). Consequently following this line of argumentation, an observer always influences the space she is examining. This point is crucial for the methodology of this work: The researcher’s point of view, her experiences and feelings will influence the outcomes. While this fact is important to keep in mind, it also stresses the need for a profound theoretical framework, in order to resolve the research questions.
Social space theory assumes space is always socially produced (e.g., Löw 2007, 97; Klamt 2007, 31; Schubert 2000, 13). Thus, it is a subcategory of subjective space concepts. It is within this line of argumentation that Henri Lefebvre developed his theory of differential space. This complex theory is not presented here as whole (see e.g., Löw 2007, 82–85 for a summary of Lefebvre’s social space theory), instead only the important aspects concerning this work are introduced.
In the differential space theory Lefebvre suggests three levels for the scientific understanding of the concept: Firstly, perceived space (or spatial practices) emphasizes the perception of space through the human body. It renders humans as passive entities perceiving through their sensory organs (most importantly: to hear, to feel, to touch). Secondly, conceived space (or representations of space) refers to the scientific debate on space. It is concerned with the way professionals, such as planners or architects, think about space and represent it. The third level, lived space (or spaces of representation), describes the concrete, subjective spaces people encounter. Lived space can be considered the space the user thinks to face. Thus, this aspect stresses the individual factors, which determine our understanding of space (Lefebvre 2011; also Klamt 2007, 32; Lehtovuori 2005, 76–77; Löw 2007, 82–85).
In my opinion, Lefebvre’s trinity of space disproportionally highlights human perception as the key factor for the constitution of space, while overlooking the active role humans play in its making. While this aspect is merely implied in Lefebvre’s differential space concept (only through human perception human action becomes meaningful), Sassen, Löw and Cresswell have highlighted its importance (Sassen 2006, 20; Löw 2007, 86; Cresswell 2010, 29–30). Since this work is especially concerned with people’s intense role in the constitution of space, I use the term “acted space” to emphasize the active role people play in space creation.
Secondly, Lefebvre’s trinity of space overlooks the importance of spaces people have encountered before. This stock of “experienced space” is employed as a reference point when encountering new places. Thus, it results in expectations for the new space, but also utilizes the unconscious emotional space memory.
It is important to note that the different aspects of this space definition necessarily interact and therefore the purpose of their separation is analytical. The split into different elements helps to examine and organize the findings in this work.
In this thesis, the working definition of public space includes seven aspects:
- - Physical and subjective
- - Principal accessibility
- - Encounter – meet – gather
- - Heterogeneity – urbanity – tolerance
- - The unexpected
- - Individual and personal
- - Change and permanence
These characteristics mostly reflect the same components, developed in my previous Master’s thesis (Miessner 2012, 53–58). However, I have added “physical and subjective” and “principal accessibility” as determining factors, and summarized, the aspects of “different aspects and influences” and “urbanity” into “heterogeneity – urbanity - tolerance”.
The first aspect of my public space definition highlights that public space is simultaneously physical and subjectively experienced (cf. Lehtovuori 2005, 54). Including the physical in this work’s public space definition emphasizes that this writing is not concerned with virtual spaces without any physical components. Nevertheless, the thesis focuses on spaces as subjectively experienced places.
The second characteristic of this work’s public space definition is principal accessibility (Klamt 2007, 68–70; Rauterberg 2001, 6–7). Regularly public space is opposed to private space, as the space, which is principally accessible to everyone (cf. Lehtovuori 2005, 55). However, this dualism of public versus private should be replaced by a concept of duality, where public and private are not defined by land ownership, but are instead understood as two ends of a scale with many steps in between (German Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning quoted in Klamt 2007, 45).
The third characteristic of public space is employed in Richard Sennett’s famous city definition: A city is a place where strangers are likely to meet (Sennett 1986, 268). Public space is therefore understood as the place, where political gatherings materialize (Arendt 2002, 66, 71), where friends gather (Rauterberg 2001, 10), and encounters with and conflicts between strangers happen (Lehtovuori 2005, 127).
The fourth aspect refers to the heterogeneity, urbanity and tolerance produced when different aspects occur in the same place simultaneously (Arendt 2002, 71–72; Klamt 2007, 48; Lehtovuori 2005, 15, 61; Rauterberg 2001, 9). This heterogeneity cultivates tolerance, the necessity to accept different opinions in order to maintain social order (Sennett 1994, 374). Heterogeneity and tolerance are understood as a specifically urban style of behaviour, namely urbanity (Munich’s department for city planning quoted in Klamt 2007, 79).
As the fifth characteristic I introduce the unexpected, which is tolerated in public spaces. Rauterberg has argued, that public spaces can only vibrate out of themselves if we allow for the unexpected (2001, 10). In his study Lehtovuori has used events, as one instance of the unexpected (2005).
The sixth feature concerns the individual and personal understanding each user has of a public space. This characteristic emphasizes that “everyone sees, knows and interprets his environment as part of a unique individual chain of experience” (Lehtovuori 2005, 120). Furthermore, everyone translates these interpretations differently into active behaviour (cf. Klamt 2007, 31).
The seventh characteristic emphasizes the temporal aspect of public space. On the one hand public space is constantly in flux and changing over time (Klamt 2007, 49, 67; Lehtovuori 2005, 131–132, 141–142). On the other hand, Hanna Arendt highlighted that public space is the place where “well-defined things are preserved against the ruin of time” (Arendt 2002, 71), thus stressing the permanent character of public space.
As public space is understood as a material condition of society as well as a practice expressing society (Lehtovuori 2005, 80), public space itself is closely related to the practice of establishing it through the practices of people. Thus, people utilize their bodies for making space. Many writers have emphasized the importance of the body for situated experiences (Cresswell 2010, 23; Hillis 1998, 68; Nast and Pile 1998, 1–4).
Following Grosz understanding, by body this work refers to the physical “organization of flesh, organs, nerves, muscles, and skeletal structure” but also “their psychical and social inscription as the surface and raw material of an integrated and cohesive totality.” (1992, 243) Thus the body, similar to space, is understood as a unity of physical and socially inscribed (cf. Grosz 1992; Sennett 1994).
When considering the importance of the cultural inscription of the body for this work, two concepts were recognized essential: Elisabeth Grosz examines the possible relationships between bodies and cities, while Richard Sennett investigates the cultural inscription of the body throughout history.
In her writing “Bodies-Cities” Grosz refers to cities but her understanding of the city and public space appear to be the same (1992). Thus, it is a good basis to examine the possible relations of bodies and public spaces.
In her opinion there are three possible relationships between cities and bodies:
The first option is that the body produces the city. In this line of argumentation the city develops according to human needs and is therefore a reflection of the body. Grosz criticizes, the body is seen as a simple tool, a physical entity (1992, 245). Her second criticism concerns the body to be understood as “a machine, animated by consciousness”, thus implying a one-way relationship between bodies and cities (Grosz 1992, 246).
The second possible relationship is that cities produce bodies. The city is then seen as a “milieu in which corporeality is socially, sexually, and discursively produced.” (Grosz 1992, 243) Space is understood to produce this corporeality. However, this line of argumentation overlooks the fact that humans actively build cities.
Thus, the third option is the one, Grosz identifies as most appropriate: Cities transform bodies and bodies transform cities. Bodies and cities are portrayed as “assemblages or collections of parts” (Grosz 1992, 249) in which one cannot exist without the other. While the body is “citified” in public space, the same public space is “made into a simulacrum of the body” (Grosz 1992, 242).
Grosz’ work is important for this thesis as it highlights a central claim: When changing one aspect, in the case of Urban Alphabets users’ bodily practices, this change automatically transforms the other aspect, public space.
In his book “Flesh and Stone – The body and the city in Western civilization” Richard Sennett shows how the body image has radically changed in history (1994), starting from nakedness as an ideal in ancient Athens to the body rendered passive in modern times.
The concept of importance for this work is Sennett’s definition of the “passive body”. He argues, when ease, comfort and user-friendliness of cities came into fashion in the late 18th century, the body was rendered passive. He suggests “the body comes to life when coping with difficulty” (Sennett 1994, 310) but since obstacles are eliminated in modern cities, the body remains dumb. In other words, the master image of the modern body is that of an individual detached body (Sennett 1994, 372–374). Sennett derives the development of the passive body from the age of enlightenment onwards. At this time the ideal city had to feely flow and, for example, large avenues were planned (Sennett 1994, 263).
Sennett’s work highlights people’s bodies have been rendered passive as part of a larger historical development. Thus, his writing serves as evidence that not modern technologies have created the passivity of people, as many writers claim (e.g., Virilio 1997, 384; Hillis 1998, 60 with reference to virtual environments).
Furthermore, Sennett’s concept of the passive body serves as a background for the discussion of public space and everyday life.
Just as public space and the human body, everyday life appears an over-familiar concept. However, as Blanchot notes, the everyday “allows no hold. It escapes.” (Quoted in Highmore 2002, 16) It has to be understood as “both ordinary and extraordinary, self-evident and opaque, known and unknown, obvious and enigmatic.” (Highmore 2002, 16) On the one hand, everyday life is signified by repetitive boredom, best represented by modernity’s synchronization of time into minutes and seconds. On the other hand, the exceptional is also at the very heart of the everyday (Highmore 2002, 1–6).
Much of our everyday life happens in public space, which is the reason why two accounts to everyday life are investigated here. The aim is to look at the Surrealist and Lefebvre’s strategies for overcoming everyday life’s boring aspects. These strategies shall later be compared to Urban Alphabets 1 See chapter VI.1.1.5as a tool to re-connect users with their physical surroundings 1.
In the Surrealist’s understanding, the everyday is where the marvellous exists. Thus, finding strategies to discover the marvellous in the everyday becomes their main goal. A crucial tool for finding the wonderful is juxtaposition. The Surrealists use montage techniques to render the everyday “strange so that its strangeness can be recognized.” (Highmore 2002, 47) In other words, the ordinary is made strange by transferring it to unanticipated contexts.
Lefebvre understands the everyday as simultaneously repetitive and boring, and a source of rich surprises. Lefebvre uses the term alienation to describe the boring, repetitiveness the capitalist society produces. On the other hand, he also admits that “it is only by defamiliarizing the everyday that the everyday can be recognized as alienation.” (Highmore 2002, 143) The sociologist argues many different strategies for alienating people must be employed. La fête is one approach, which Lefebvre repeatedly refers to: La fête is, on the one hand, part of popular everyday life but simultaneously holds potential for “a radical reconfiguring of daily life” (Highmore 2002, 122). Another strategy Lefebvre suggests is the dérive, a concept developed in the 1940s. The dérive wonders aimlessly around in the city, observing her environment. Using free association, Lefebvre suggests, can reveal the “hidden secrets of the urban everyday.” (Highmore 2002, 139–140)
These two, the Surrealist’s and Lefebvre’s, strategies for alienating individuals from their everyday environments are important inspirations in the Urban Alphabets project. Looking strange at the familiar can raise our awareness for space’s specificity.
Behaviour and human practice are important concepts in this thesis. Thus, introducing their meaning and interconnections will be useful for understanding this work.
Classical behaviourist theory defines behaviour within a stimulus-reaction-schema: A certain stimulus (cause) produces a certain behaviour-controlled reaction (Klamt 2007, 95–96). This view excludes individual experiences, attitudes and other factors. Thus environmental psychologists argued that human behaviour arises from perception of objects, other people and events, and own requirements (Klamt 2007, 100). Following Klamt, ‣2 See chapter IV.1.2 for my critique of Lefebvre's differential space conceptthis work understands behaviour in comparison to action as the less specific concept. Klamt considers behaviour as a relatively neutral (in terms of intentionality) human practice (Klamt 2007, 99–100). Behaviour is what I refer to as acted space ‣2.
In contrast to behaviour, action refers to intentionality. Giddens emphasized action is characterized by subjective reasoning and the intention to gain an impact. Weichhart highlights that action often refers to interaction with other people (2003, 32).
Behaviour in public spaces is always ruled by certain communication regulations, which Erwin Goffman has investigated in his book “Behaviour in Public Places” (2008). Goffman examines a number of concepts important for this work: proper and improper behaviour in situations, the right to civil inattention, involvement, and involvement shields. These are described in the next subsections.
Goffman defines situations as “the full spatial environment anywhere within which an entering person becomes a member of the gathering that is (or does then become) present.” (Goffman 2008, 18) A situation is established when two or more people start monitoring each other and ends when the second-last person has left (Goffman 2008, 18).
All situations employ a certain rule of behaviour and require participants to ‘fit-in’. Thus, if a participant in a situation decides not to operate according to this rule set or does not know the rules, she is felt to act improper in the situation. Proper or improper behaviour in a situation is always judged by a specific group or person (Goffman 2008, 5). In other words, behaviour in the same situation can be proper to one person and improper to another person. Goffman highlighted that the use of this familiar distinction relies on acts that are felt to be proper or improper, therefore allowing to bypass unresolved issues around the concepts of proper and improper (2008, 4).
According to Goffman, proper behaviour guarantees people in Western societies a “right to civil inattention” (Goffman 2008, 87). Civil inattention is the act of noticing another person is present (and admitting it openly), followed by withdrawing the attention from the person. This behaviour guarantees the people present in the situation, they have “no reason to suspect the intentions of the others present and no reason to fear the others, be hostile to them, or wish to avoid them.” (Goffman 2008, 84)
The right to civil inattention is increasingly leading to disengagement between all people in public spaces. Later in this work, I will highlight that the right to civil inattention was not obeyed in several workshop situations. However, this did not automatically lead to improper behaviour ‣3.‣3 See chapter VI.1.1.4
The term involvement is used to describe an individual’s handling of activities within a situation. Involvement refers to the allocation of involvement in different simultaneous activities (Goffman 2008, 37).
A challenge for research is that involvement cannot be measured directly and therefore the term “effective involvement” is used to refer to the “involvement that the actor and the others sense he is maintaining, or sense he is (or might be) sensed to be maintaining.” (Goffman 2008, 38) Goffman argues, within public a participant is obliged to maintain a main involvement. Main involvement refers to the activity, which is the major part of her interest or attention (Goffman 2008, 43, 56). If someone is not perceived to engage in a main involvement, another person might approach her, because her right to civil inattention is temporarily suspended (cf. Goffman 2008, 139). Thus, in some situations there can be a need for what Goffman calls “involvement shields”. Involvement shields are media or practices, which can be employed to signify one has an appropriate main involvement and therefore the right to civil inattention. Goffman uses newspapers as an example of involvement shields often used in public transport (Goffman 2008, 139). This example of a popular non-digital mobile medium, the newspaper, highlights a common misconception: It is not only since the advent of digital mobile media that individuals cocoon in public spaces. However, in recent times smartphones have replaced newspapers as the main involvement shield in the Western world. Examining if Urban Alphabets‣4 See chapter VI.1.1.5 serves as an involvement shield in public space, will be one task in the discussion of the workshop results ‣4.
This chapter introduced the main concepts important in this work and emphasized their importance for the methodology and analysis of this thesis:
Public space is characterized as a simultaneously physical and socially produced, generally accessible, heterogeneous place where city inhabitants encounter strangers or gather with friends. It remains an individually perceived concept, also described as constantly changing while simultaneously preserving well-defined entities over time.
Lefebvre’s trinity of space, perception, representation and lived experience have been extended by people’s active behaviour, acted space, and experienced space, the stock of memories of places visited previously. These aspects will be employed to analyze the changes in public space in this practice-based research.
Grosz’ characterization of body and city as mutually influencing each other, justifies one of this work’s hypotheses: When changing people’s behaviour in or perception of public spaces, this automatically changes the public space itself.
Sennett’s concept of the passive body serves as a background for alienating participants from their everyday experiences in order to find the extraordinary in the everyday.
Lastly, behaviour and involvement were characterized in order to enable this research to examine people’s actions during the participant observation.
With these concepts in mind we can now turn to a more detailed description of the Urban Alphabets project. As the case study object it is crucial to see its relationships with other areas, understand its development process and look at its outcomes.
>> next: chapter V: The Urban Alphabets project