How Valuable Is Public Space? Priceless, Argues a New Book by Setha Low

February 14, 2023

"Why Public Space Matters" analyzes the role of parks, plazas, and other communal places in our public culture.

New Book, Setha Low "Why Public Space Matters"
Setha Low and the cover of her book "Why Public Space Matters"

During the pandemic, many people in New York City and throughout the world developed a new appreciation for and relationship to public space. City parks and, in certain neighborhoods, official Open Streets that were closed to traffic became places for people to exercise, socialize, and interact with strangers in ways they never had before.

In her latest book, Why Public Space Matters, Distinguished Professor Setha Low (Psychology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Anthropology) explores public space as it relates to politics, anthropology, and culture. Low, who is also the director of the Graduate Center’s Public Space Research Group, discussed her new book in a recent interview:

The Graduate Center: How does public space contribute to public culture?

Low: Over 50 years of research has demonstrated that contact between people who don’t know each other has a liberalizing effect. It makes you less provincial, more creative, and contributes to flexibility. Part of this effect is based on the creation of a public culture that encompasses the way in which we communicate with others, but it also has the cultural anthropological meaning of the rules and regulations of interacting with one another that are considered appropriate. Public space is one of the few places where strangers come together and essentially negotiate public behavior. It’s not static but something we’re constantly making.

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When you go to a school, gym, or coffee shop, there is a “culture” that you learn by doing the wrong thing and being told you’re doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing and being rewarded. We need public spaces to produce this same interplay among strangers, and I would argue, as many have before me, that public space contributes to democracy in this way by enabling conflict and struggle as well as cooperation and care in a safe forum. Without it, we lose a lot.

Certain kinds of public spaces can contribute to human flourishing. For example, the atmosphere of a place plays a role in whether it’s successful. By successful, I mean a location for a diversity of people, and where a public culture can develop rather than be disrupted. And you see that in New York — you walk into one of these renovated traffic islands full of tables and chairs, and something amazing happens, people coalesce and begin to interact.

GC: Are coffee shops and gyms considered public spaces in the same way that a park is a public space? And is there a similar impact on the public culture when those places are closed or are nearly empty, because people are avoiding them, as many people did during much of the pandemic?

Low: Bars, gyms, and coffee shops are considered third spaces: spaces that cost money to enter and often require a particular kind of attire and demeanor. Third spaces tend to attract a more homogeneous group of people because of common interests and socioeconomic differences. However, there was just as much of a sense of loss from third spaces as there was from public spaces during the pandemic. People lost their sense of neighborhood, often from not being able to go to the gym, corner store, hairdresser, or favorite restaurant. These are places where you normally spend considerable amounts of time, find people who are like yourself, and build an intimate community.

Public spaces are where you’re more likely to encounter strangers, people who are not necessarily like you. The loss of both kinds of spaces made a difference. There was a loss of what we call weak-tie relationships: people that you’re not best friends with but you see maybe once a week, twice a week, even people you see in the same train car every day. But there also was the loss of being part of the larger society and an urban citizen. During 9/11 New Yorkers mourned in public spaces, but in the beginning of COVID-19 we were shut inside our homes and could not come together. The result was a sense of loneliness and depression.

GC: Do you think these losses exacerbated the divisions, political and otherwise, in our culture?

Low: What started happening was an increase in stigmatizing between people who wore masks or did not, and between those who were “essential workers” and those who could work from home. Class divisions were visible because different parts of New York City had greater access to public space, and other, very dense parts of the city did not, and the streets got crowded. People, particularly older people, got worried about going into public spaces like streets and sidewalks.

Public space both expanded and contracted during COVID-19, and at the moments of contraction, divisions and polarizations emerged. Not that these schisms weren’t always here, but they were exaggerated. Racism began to play a visible role when masks became mandatory; the policing of people of color became much more extreme, especially around the issue of wearing a mask.

GC: How did you use ethnography in your research for this book?

Low: Ethnography works by spending time with people and listening to what they say. In some places, we had the opportunity to give people iPads and let them take photographs of what they saw or what they felt, as they were walking and talking. It was important to be in the environment and interview at the same time, allowing people to tell and show what they saw, felt, and thought. Of course, you can’t ever know what anybody else really experiences, but if you talk to 185 people over a period of time, and you’ve been experiencing the place yourself, you begin to build a sense of what it feels like and what it can be.

GC: What are your favorite public spaces in the city?

Low: The spaces I like the best now are all the new spaces in the traffic islands. I love going through there and seeing everybody having lunch and talking to their friends right in the middle of the street. I feel part of something bigger than myself, seeing so many people spread out on so many tables and just enjoying themselves.

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