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Could public spaces better serve the public?

6 July 2020

During lockdown, and as a result of the Black Lives Matters protests, public space has been debated and even reconfigured. Have our streets, parks and squares ever seemed more vital?

Rowan Moore

There are times when ‘public space’ seems like a dutiful concept, one kept alive by professionals and organisations who have given themselves the role of its guardianship. Architects, for example, like to define their usefulness in relation to the defence of the public realm. Public space tends to be the object of under-resourced design competitions, resulting in rearrangements of paving and public art. Public space – meaning the physical entity made up of such things as streets, squares and parks – can look old-fashioned, now that the digital world has taken on so many of its functions of communication and interaction, from finding sexual partners to generating mass protest. This is not one of those times. Public space does not seem redundant in 2020.

One effect of social isolation has been to elevate the appreciation of social contact. There was the clapping for carers, for example, which engendered a sense of connection with previously unknown neighbours. In Britain, the combination of lockdown and good weather caused people deprived of the usual shared spaces of work and leisure, and with limited domestic space, to flock to parks. There was a reaction in the press – photographs in which foreshortening made crowds look riskier than they actually were, accompanied by headline denunciations of ‘COVIDIOTS’ – but it was followed by a recognition that gathering in open spaces is, if done right, a reasonable thing to do.

The requirement to keep a two-metre distance created a new kind of choreography of personal space, with a particular awareness of the bodies of others. Open spaces, in other words, have become more precious and more richly used by people who are, more than usually, mindful of other people, which is a pretty good description of what public space is supposed to do.

The other phenomenon of the year so far, the Black Lives Matter protests, has recharged public space in other ways. The bland avenues of Washington, D.C., rediscovered their role as theatres of mass politics. The renaming of a square, the painting of the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the street, the actions of crowds and police – all testified to the power and significance of physical space. So did the erection of a security fence, the decoration of said fence with banners, and its subsequent removal. Perhaps most impressive was the self-policing of crowds, in D.C. and elsewhere: it meant that the familiar script, of protests turning into riots turning into repressive reaction, was not followed.

Then there was the toppling of memorials, which in Bristol turned an inconclusive local conversation about the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston into a national debate about historic horrors. Public space and public art tend, by accident and design, to placidity. ‘There is nothing in this world,’ wrote Robert Musil, ‘as invisible as a monument.’ It is an old trope of cartoonists that heroic equestrian statues end up as toilets for pigeons. Then, suddenly, it was found that these pieces of old metal actually do mean something.

Digital space has also acted as a complement to physical space, more than as its rival. Events like the Colston-dunking were amplified by their spread on social media, which for its part still seem to need real-world locations to validate and dramatise its content. In all these ways public space has been doing a fine job of serving the public. One can only wish for more of it, and the safeguarding of what is already there.

There is, however, one significant group largely left out of recent rediscoveries of public space. This is children, whose play equipment has been locked up, and whose excursions outside have been highly managed. The architect Dinah Bornat has proposed turning residential streets into play spaces, temporarily at first and then permanently. This would bring back a feature of public space once taken for granted, that it was a place for children to inhabit and explore.

It has been striking, when it comes to removing statues and closing streets to traffic, how rapidly public spaces can be changed. If the same energy and initiative were applied to expanding the domain of children, the traumas of 2020 would leave at least one great legacy to public space.

Rowan Moore is architecture critic of the Observer.

Tamsin Dillon

So far, 2020 has been a year of extraordinary transformation. The coronavirus pandemic has left many people bewildered, grieving, and adapting to altered personal and economic circumstances. We’ve also had to rethink the spaces we occupy, from the domestic spaces that we’ve been forced to spend more time in to our public spaces. Some have been closed entirely for months, others have opened up, and still more have been made accessible or repurposed – in some places, entire streets are closed to traffic for use as temporary parks. It is a moment to think about public space: who owns it, who governs it, how and when and by whom it is used.

As the pandemic has encouraged us to reconsider the value of our public spaces, other recent events have brought a dramatic change in tempo to the places in which we gather. In the Black Lives Matter protests, people have taken to the streets to demand justice which is seen as long overdue, forcing us to address issues such as systemic racism and white supremacy. This new civil rights movement has challenged us to reconsider what is and isn’t appropriate in public places in terms of objects, artworks and behaviours. One of the most inspiring acts during these demonstrations was the painting of ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ on the avenue leading up to the White House in Washington, D.C., and the renaming of part of 16th Street to ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’. Created by an artist collective, MuralsDC, as well as the public works department and many volunteers, the work, and its accompanying new street sign, reveal how quickly a place can be rethought.

As a curator I have commissioned artists to work in many situations. In each different context, understanding the many diverse stakeholders that use and define what is ‘public’ is critical, and social collaboration is absolutely central. Conversations often begin with a group of people who want to engage a larger group, or by bringing an artist or group of artists to the table. There needs to be room for flexibility and spontaneity.

I’ve also seen first-hand the impact an artist’s work can have on a place, how it can change the perception of where and how art should be experienced. The Fourth Plinth programme in London’s Trafalgar Square is widely acknowledged as a hugely successful public art project. As an ongoing programme of temporary works, it involves the public as well as the commissioning group, a diverse and informed committee of people, in the final process of selecting the artists. I was a member of the commissioning group for eight years and think the project is important for the way it stimulates debate, not only about contemporary art practice but about important current issues. As a model for commissioning public art, it has been emulated both nationally and internationally, and it has also affected how public space can be used.

14-18 NOW was a large-scale public art programme that commemorated the centenary of the First World War. As the visual arts curator I collaborated with a range of organisations to realise various projects in urban parks, gardens, forests, city squares, government buildings and museums. Jeremy Deller’s work, We’re here because we’re here, was an extraordinary example of how a diverse group of people could transform public space. For one day, volunteers representing individual soldiers who had died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, walked in their battalions through railway stations, streets, and shopping malls, in towns and cities across the country. The work was a nationwide performance that addressed the question of who should be commemorated, by whom and in what way.

In light of current events inspired by the struggle for racial justice and when the value of so many public statues – such as that of Edward Colston in Bristol – is being called into question because of who or what they memorialise, it’s important to  consider what alternatives have been created in the past and what we can do together in our public spaces in the future.

Tamsin Dillon is a curator who has worked on a number of public art projects, including the Fourth Plinth. She is the director of  Art in Public.

From the July/August 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.