Today I want to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about since I was in Rome last spring. It’s about the idea of “living in public.” This is an important concept, one’s that distinct from “using public spaces” and “attending public events.” Living in public implies that the quotidian happenings and activities of your life happen not within the home, but outside the home. Like Indian communities where laundry is washed and dried communally, or Italian neighborhoods where much of the socializing occurs in the public sphere, or Latin American communities where Sunday socializing after church occurs at lakes and riverbanks, instead of the family dining table. What does it mean for a culture when the public square, or riverfront, is as important a site of communal identity as the hearth, or the kitchen? What conditions make this possible, and why do I value it?
This idea crystallized for me this summer, as I walked past the Charles River everyday and saw dozens of people sunbathing, reading, working, and socializing. This is living in public: the Charles River behaves as a living room, not just as a place for escape like a beach but actually as a regular site of relaxation and interaction, as well as work. But I never go to the river! Why? Because I have a backyard. A backyard that is private, sunny, beautiful, and close to my kitchen, so I don’t need to bother with the inconvenience of schlepping my stuff out to the river to share my experience with a bunch of strangers. But I want to. Because somehow, being in public fills a personal need that being in my backyard does not. So once I realized what was going on, I packed up my blanket and went out to the river to read, and there was something satisfying about it. I felt like I was part of something, and I think maybe that’s what this is all about.
So backyards let us live in private instead of public. How about dwelling sizes? In European cities where dwelling units are significantly smaller — and with often no outdoor space — public events and living in public happen much longer throughout the year, and with more expectation for regularity. In the US being in public is often associated with being outside, and is associated with fun and, more specifically, with summer (and perhaps also the holidays). But what about the rest of the year? I think this is why I’m interested in retail — it creates shared space that is year round, malls in particular. But one doesn’t live in retail (aside from teenagers in malls, for whom public space is a respite from private space that they cannot control — there’s something to learn from that). So our expectations about living in public affect how we treat shared spaces.
Perhaps one of the most emblematic representations of living in public is outdoor clotheslines, against which many American communities have ordinances because of concern about its effects on the “desirability” of the community. Indeed, many of these living in public behaviors are culturally associated with poverty, or with the developing world. But living in public also seems to be an essential part of the discussion about vibrant public spaces and thriving urban downtowns. So where does the transition occur, between desirable and undesirable use of the public realm? Why do I feel such a strong desire to be in public for more than shopping and festivals, if the connotation is of poverty, scarcity, and insufficient private space? And what does it mean for communities of poverty or scarcity when mainstream policies and initiatives attempt to replicate their conditions, but without the social justice implications of actually improving the quality of life for those communities?