PUBLIC SPACE

Modern public spaces are considered an essential component of sustainable cities, the goals of which focus on uniting a diverse public in social, civic, political, economic and biodiversity activities. “When we think of public space in terms of our embodied presence, 

it becomes a concept applicable to modern democratic politics,” notes professor James Mensch. In fact, embodiment is a rare element in modern public spaces, and as such our diminished presence in both our private and public spaces in turn dampens our self and civic engagement, i.e. individual and political freedom, as well as individual development. What happens when we imagine public space not only a place for public affairs, but for public well-being, growth and personal development?

“Broadly speaking, public space is the space where individuals see and are seen by others as they engage in public affairs… What makes this concept so fruitful is that it gives us a way to phenomenologically analyze political freedom. […] This freedom requires public space since it is “manifested only in certain […] activities,” namely, those “that could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them.” Thus, for the ancients, “the life of a free man needed the presence of others.” —James Mensch, Public Space and Embodiment

In the modern age, does the life of a free person also need the the presence of others? Absolutely. But this presence is diminished in a number of ways: cyberspace [paradox of cultural and political freedom being defined by access to the internet, which in turns diminishes the perceived need to interact physically with others] —and when in physical presence—the ratio of space allotted for cars vs people, the sound decibel of most cities, the covering of natural space with concrete, an increase in regulations for how space can be organized and used, public surveillance, the number of screens we interact with, from handheld to computer to television/electronic billboards. All this and more can make our interactions less whole (defining whole as using all 5 senses, all 3 planes), less responsive, our humanity less present (re-membered), called upon and less willing to be ‘touched upon.’

Add to this that historically, the freedom to move through public space was the right of men, not women. Barred from moving, speaking, seeing and being seen in public space, the space of manifest activities—the space in which the “real world” was created and defined—was off limits to women. These spaces were safe for men, but not for women. And more so, in order for a woman were to feel safe in public, she needed the protection of a man. He became the visible boundary that other men would not (usually) transgress. Manifestations of this history continue to exist in todays public spaces.*

By bringing the heartbeat, an essential human rhythm that usually goes unseen/unheard (at times even to ourselves) into a publicly manifest realm where it is heard and felt, any space the soundscape pervades becomes more “real,” dare we say more free, rich with the potential for supporting self and civic development and engagement. 

  • Increasing the number of spaces in a city or neighborhood that encourage mindfulness have far reaching effects on the well-being of its people.
  • We posit that when people are aware of each other in public, safety increases, which increases people’s ability to engage.
  • Sound ‘pollution’ (high decible, low frequency) increases the sympathetic response in humans (Porges).  These soundscapes have the potential to contribute to research of the power of human sounds to reduce/sooth the human stress-response.

[See History of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner]