Captive Atria and Living In Public

The idea of "public space" used to be pretty simple; There were places that we all agreed would be maintained by, and for, the public good. But the past few decades have offered up a valuable, if troubling, experiment with the nature of public space in New York City. For any of us who care about community, whether that's in our cities or on the web, there are some profound lessons to learn.

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In 1961, New York City adopted a new zoning program that allowed commercial buildings to exceed the constraints which zoning regulations required of them if they made accommodations for use as Privately-Owned Public Spaces. Fifty years later, the legacy of that decision is documented well on the Department of City Planning website. (On a page which has this wonderful short URL: nyc.gov/pops!)

So, how did this experiment fare? Well, in the words of the city itself:

The results of the program have been mixed. An impressive amount of public space has been created in parts of the city with little access to public parks, but much of it is not of high quality. Some spaces have proved to be valuable public resources, but others are inaccessible or devoid of the kinds of amenities that attract public use. Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.

In response to the perceived failure of many of these spaces and to community opposition, the types of spaces permitted and their locations have been curtailed in recent years.

Just to highlight that again: only 16% of privately-owned public spaces can be considered successful. By the city's own reckoning, a full 41% are of marginal utility. How complete is the failure? According to all of the research I've been able to do, not a single POPS was used for any of the various #Occupy demonstrations except for Zuccotti Park, though one nearby plaza was used for Occupy planning meetings. (Note: I'd love to be corrected on this.) Imagine: there are ostensibly "public" spaces within the buildings that some of the major financial institutions actually work in, and yet they're so terrible and unusable that even protestors didn't make use of them.

The Beating Heart of the Atrium

Most POPS in Midtown Manhattan take the form of the atrium in an enormous office tower, where the owners post a sign declaring which hours the space is available to the public, and then decorate it with the POPS logo seen above. But there would be precious few New Yorkers who, even if they did recognize that symbol, could tell you what it means.

These public spaces, then are Captive Atria. They're ostensibly "public" spaces which, by nature of being owned by a corporation, are held captive to that company and thus fail in their intended use as public space. Put another way: Government is infinitely more effective and efficient in creating valuable, useful public space than private companies are. The evidence is all over New York City, in the grim, wind-blown pedestrian plazas and captive atria ghost towns which all of us hurry through with hunched shoulders on cold winter days.

What About The Web?

Tellingly, we seldom have discussions about web community in the language of urbanism or urban planning. But what we've seen documented through more than fifty years of experimentation in New York City is that we cannot effectively create public spaces in places that are owned by a company. Yet, we're increasingly ceding our public discourse to platforms and services which exactly mimic the traits of our sterile captive atria in the physical world.

While many in the Occupy movement bemoaned the fact that the private owners of Zuccotti Park had extensive control over what people could do in their space, that control is nothing compared to the typical Terms of Service of a social networking site. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or anything else, no meaningful act of protest would have to be tolerated at all by owners.

But let's put aside protest. What about all the simpler, everyday uses of public space? In captive atria, there are generally no food trucks offering distinctive meals, no performing artists even of the caliber of the musicians that play in the NYC subway, and there's generally such sparse usage that you don't even get the wonderful serendipitous meetings with friends and acquaintances that you get in a true public space.

What we don't realize is that our online public spaces are increasingly being given over to private owners whose spaces share the same weaknesses. It's difficult, if not impossible, to connect to or share with people with whom you haven't declared an explicit relationship. People who you don't follow or befriend or encircle may as well not exist.

More to the point, transgressions of the space, whether political or artistic, are prohibited in practice, even if they aren't always done so in writing. Imagine Improv Everywhere trying to perform its acts of rule-breaking brilliance in the confines of a space that was owned and controlled by a company. Now imagine you wanted to do the same thing online, carrying out an artistic performance which required you to impersonate another person's identity or to falsely claim affiliation with an organization that you don't belong to. In most cases, it simply can't be done.

I care about political protest, sure. But even more often, I care about being inspired by art, and being entertained by comedians and trolls and impersonators and other amusing rule-breakers. I'm happy that New York City has learned enough of a lesson that it's stopped giving license to companies to create POPS, and properly invested in true public spaces. Now I hope we'll take the same lesson to the web, and challenge the big networks to actually change their policies to make some of our shared online spaces truly public. That way, we get heart-warming public creations like this one:

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