Public space and ignorance

This story seems, at first, like a classic tale of the little guy fighting the big mean corporation. A group of Korean seniors was tossed out of a New York City McDonald’s they had turned into a hangout:

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.

The men had, by their admission, “treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years,” and management and other patrons claim that they’re interfering with business. There are several senior centers and civic centers in the neighborhood, but the men seem uninterested in going to any of them.

If I were their age, I wouldn’t want to be cordoned off with a bunch of old people, either, any more than I want to be cordoned off with a bunch of forty-somethings now. Nothing against people in their forties, but I like a little variety. The presence of children and young adults lightens things up a bit, and I appreciate the proximity of people of people considerably older than I am. –On the other hand, taking up valuable real estate in a busy restaurant at lunchtime is at a minimum inconsiderate; the people who own these restaurants — franchisees, in this case, not the global corporation — have to make money, and the business model imposed on them isn’t such that they have a lot of wiggle room.

The problem here is not what the owner of a fast-food restaurant ought or ought not to do but that the choice has arisen in the first place, because we simply don’t have enough genuine public space — spaces where people can meet, talk, catch up, get to know one another, even just sit and rest or think without being cut off from the rest of humanity, and without their actions being watched over and prescribed by well-meaning volunteers and civil servants. This isn’t a new observation; a lot of people are saying it, and have said it for years, and are saying it again this week in response to this story. Leah Libresco, for example, laments the loss of “communal spaces”:

Without the opportunity for casual encounters, it’s hard for a friendship to begin or deepen. Without public spaces that serve a neighborhood, it’s hard to get to know the people around us and be more responsive to their needs.

The onus isn’t on any particular business to play host to people seeking community, but on us to build or patronize the resources we need.

Agreed. But while it’s easy to bemoan the loss of public space — walkable streets, comfortable benches, even (to reach back much further) the gathering at the community well — it’s considerably harder to know what to do about it. The recent efforts I’ve seen to create public spaces don’t seem to work. Senior centers, for example, are public spaces, yet the men in the story don’t like them.

The core problem, I think, is that we design such spaces at all — and that we design them for particular sorts of people to do particular sorts of things at particular times in particular ways. We have senior centers for old people, basketball courts for people who want to play basketball, farmers’ markets for people who want to buy local food. Parks have this area set aside for dogs and that for small children and all that over there for playing baseball, and all signs are that everyone is to keep to his or her own purpose. And so those spaces aren’t really public at all. Or — no, I take that back. They are public, in the way that schools are public. What they are not is open, free, or, as Libresco says, communal. But here’s the trouble with community: you can’t create it! It bubbles up from somewhere beneath the chaos of ordinary human activity and interactivity. It just happens! Or else it doesn’t. There’s often no telling. “Planned communities” never wind up working like small towns used to, because they’re planned. The difference between a planned community and a small town, or between a nicely designed park and a walkable street with stoops and benches, is the difference between a zoo and a forest. The animals in the zoo might look happy, but they’re never going to venture there on their own.

Community arises, I might say, out of ignorance, a word I use not pejoratively but as a description of the normal state of human affairs. We don’t know who might connect with whom and who will do what and what may come of it not knowing who will connect and who will do what; yet community, when it arises, arises out of that not knowing, out of accepting that we don’t know and letting things unfold as they may. Twenty-first-century Americans are really, really bad at ignorance. We want to know how everything will turn out. We want to believe that we know, even when we clearly don’t, and we script and plan and budget and prescribe. We plan big, and big plans need big money, and to get big money we need big plans. And so we wind up with “public” spaces that are perfectly lovely if you are precisely the sort of public and have precisely the sort of intentions envisioned by the designer, but otherwise, which is to say the great majority of the time, unused.

It’s possible to design in ignorance, or for ignorance, but it isn’t easy, and it requires deep humility. It requires the designer to be ultimately self-effacing and to admit that he doesn’t know how people will use the space he’s creating, but to get out of their way and let them use it. The nearest thing to a guidebook I know is the classic work of architecture A Pattern Language, whose authors set out “patterns” for building homes, towns, and cities that might best allow for human flourishing. It’s too easy to focus on the patterns as solutions, but they were meant to be “tentative,” and they embrace a kind of ignorance. The patterns at every level provide open space and allow for free movement. There are “old people everywhere” and “children in the city.” A small house is designed as a great room with alcoves rather than several individual rooms cut off from one another. Workspace is designed to allow “small work groups” to form and unform as needed, with “half-private” offices and “a place to wait” and, most important in my own experience, space deliberately designed to let coworkers run into each other at random — because you never know what might happen. And that’s a good thing!

But not knowing what might happen doesn’t easily passes muster with legislatures and boards of directors and investigative reporters looking for financial malfeasance. It won’t produce results in time for the annual report. But it is, I think, precisely what we need: to stop thinking we know what people need and how they will or ought to interact and instead to embrace our ignorance. Create flexible spaces, open spaces, right in the middle of the spaces where people already are. And then get the hell out of their way.