Urbanana: Access & Choice in the City

Thoughts on Urban Access and Democratic Spaces

Our daily lives are informed by our physical environment – every daily ritual and activity requires a backdrop, a composition of spaces and elements within – and around in which you do absolutely everything.

Our homes are designed and arranged around our lives, ranging from our most intimate and personal moments to sharing experiences with others. Your bedroom and bathroom are inherently private spaces and in order to provide the isolation necessary for comfort, these spaces must be exclusionary. Other spaces in your home are, on the other end of the spectrum, inherently inclusive.

Champs Elysees, Paris
Champs Elysees, Paris

A lounge, a dining room and any other social space within a home is designed, arranged and furnished to accommodate shared experiences between people. While the home itself remains, within a larger urban scale, an inherently private place, the spatial arrangement and hierarchy within reveals a lot about subjectivity, human nature and related spatial requirements.

Cities must be as inclusive as possible and because it cannot cater to each individual’s personal needs due to its scale, it must provide two essential things: access and choice.
Is it relevant to extend an analysis of the private ritual of dwelling to that of a city, and would these rituals and their subsequent spatial requirements not remain constant? If apartments and houses within a city are the bedrooms and bathrooms; then are the streets, public arcades, parks and squares not the living rooms of our urban environment?

Central Park. New York
Central Park. New York

What becomes interesting within this particular comparison is that the variance in scale allows circulation space to become social, public space. While in your home the corridors are rarely areas for social gatherings, the streets and walkways of a city carry the potential to be used for movement and hesitation simultaneously. Running into someone in the street and standing off to the side to catch up is one of those inherently urban scenarios that can only exist and play out against the composition of a dense urban environment. What could be perceived as a private, exclusionary space affords you the potential of an encounter, a social happenstance gifted to you by the city.

Train station platform
Train station platform

The Champs Elysees in Paris is an iconic public avenue which has provided the backdrop for some of the most significant events in the city’s history. It has received military parades, protests, celebrations and everything in-between and has entrenched itself in the history of France, Europe and the world, while in essence it is a street, a hallway within city, not that different in scale or composition than others.

Champs Elysees, Paris
Champs Elysees, Paris

Larger public spaces are even more essential within the urban environment. A city is a composition of ever-changing artefacts which create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Buildings merely articulate the streets and public spaces, one resulting from the other. In a city, much more than in a home, it is within the empty spaces that people genuinely experience urban life. Streets and parks are voids within a city, they are the absence of buildings and within this absence the every-day ritual of pedestrians can unfold.

Central Park. New York
Central Park. New York

Central Park in New York is a massive void within one of the most dense and famous cities in the world – it has provided the scenery for countless movies and is the most visited urban park in the United States. The identified need for, and importance of, a large urban park during the rapid development of New York City has resulted in an international landmark, borne from responsibility to provide a space for escape from the harshness of a dense urban environment.

While we can arrange the furniture in our homes and while some are fortunate enough to employ an architect to design a home specifically for their needs, within a larger urban environment we have very little choice as to the physical characteristics of our environment. So within the city, our agency is deferred to urban planners and developers, to provide us with an effective and healthy urban home in which to exist.

Central Park. New York
Central Park. New York

Cities are artificial environments and are a result of an extended series of decisions, meetings and man-hours by people you have never met and who have never met you. Our comfort, our needs and our rituals are informed by an environment that we have entrusted others to create and manage on our behalf. It is their responsibility to provide us access to our cities and provide us choice of how to interact with them.

Las Ramblas. Barcelona
Las Ramblas. Barcelona

So the point is really, realize that your home and the city are not that separate in the sense that both inform your daily life on various scales and thus informs your personal development and subsequent physical and psychological well-being. You would not live in an uncomfortable, harsh, dark and unwelcoming home out of choice and while you may be the spatial dictator within your home, public spaces require a more democratic approach.

Decisions need to be made on behalf of, and in the interest of, the general urban population. Only when the economics of urban development becomes subservient to responsible social development, will we have the inclusive and accessible urban spaces our cities, and ourselves, crave.