What is the Public Realm and who does it belong to?

What is the public realm? It is the shared space where we can meet together with others: families, friends and strangers.

Private space is our home, which we generally keep locked to strangers. We open our home only to our family and friends, it is enclosed and limited in size, it is where we sleep.
Especially in a culture where the home is seen as a castle, and entrance to it can only be gained by outsiders with a legal warrant, or by trespassers, the value of public space, shared space, is unlimited.
Take, for example, a walk in the woods, or along the coast, or over the hills. In these places we touch the universe – above us the heavens, beneath our feet the earth and surrounding us the infinite bounty of nature. Here we are healed and there we can clear our minds of the ephemeral complexities of the human condition.

Who owns the public realm? The sovereign? The state? The government? All of us, within the agreement of the people? We cannot go with an axe to cut down random trees, or a sledge-hammer to destroy rocks, just because we want to! Individuals and companies have bought rights to farm or mine in certain areas, but these rights are limited and depend on “trust”. In the countryside, the rights and responsibilities of ownership are more balanced. There is an ancient, more traditional view, that the earth is a common treasure and we are, at most,  but brief caretakers.

In towns and cities where people have defined their property with clearer boundaries,  there are far more gates, fences and walls to keep us out. The shared space where we can roam is more circumscribed – we have streets, pavements, parks and common land – sometimes tended, sometimes derelict, often dangerous.

Perhaps culturally, we need to take a fresh look at the public realm? Who really controls these spaces? The local authority – a handful of officers with a limited budget? The business corporation – with its private eye on development and personal profit? The great and the good with their guardian committees where they earn their shilling and maintain their version of heritage, for the rest of us, for the future?

How can active citizens become involved in making their shared spaces more beautiful? Who is stopping us planting trees? How can we find a way to allow those with skills, talents and energy to make a contribution? Why do “authorities” put a hold on creativity and in its place create unemployment? How can we find a fresh way to engage active citizens and what they can legitimately do to enhance the character, detail and quality of our public spaces?

I don’t think it’s a conspiracy – other than well meaning functionaries earning their shilling by keeping the system going. But there is a “system” fault. It may be linked to political structures that are dominated by parties, which know how to play the game and methodically adversarially exclude others.

 How can we train our young people for twelve and more years and then offer them – unemployment!!! How can we accept derelict land, without indicting authority for dereliction of duty? Why accept minimalism and blandness, the endless grey on grey (Soviet/National Socialist architecture), when character and beauty is potentially everywhere?  Isn’t it easier to do things well and make our shared spaces more interesting?

In the countryside, it’s easier, in a way, because nature, left to its own devices always gifts us an endless variety of beauty. But in our cities, we will need to work harder and find new ways to wrest control out of the maw of minimalists and give space over to those with energy and vision to make our public realm safer and more interesting. The more character put into our public spaces, the more reason to go there, and the more people will want to meet in them. The best way to make a place safe, is to have it visited by many others. Then you don’t even need the police, you just need the street sweepers to keep an eye on things.

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