PUBLIC SPACE

It is three years since the outbreak of COVID-19. Discussions have turned to what the post-pandemic world may look like. Technology is at the forefront. Lost within the debates has been the importance of public space. As the world goes virtual, real-world gathering places will become the hot issue.


The Internet

The internet will be 40 years old on 1 January 2023. It allows the creation of a virtual world almost unimaginable 50 years ago. The World Wide Web (www.) became available 10-years later. How much harder would the pandemic have been without the web?

The internet has become an extension of everyday life. It allows mass connectivity. People communicate through an array of online mediums. Social media chat has overtaken voice calls as the communication tool of choice for the young. WhatsApp and Signal have relegated the use of email in business. The email itself replaced the printed document, the business mainstay for centuries. [1]

Business meetings

Business meetings seemed unaffected by the internet. People in business still preferred to meet in person and sit around tables. The pandemic called a halt to these face to face meetings, except in specific circumstances. The rise of Zoom and other video technologies began in earnest. Ways of doing business changed and will not be returning to how it was.

The loss of workplace meetings has caused a widespread disruption within firms. Work meetings are now more likely online than one-to-one. It cuts off a source for meeting new people, social interaction and serendipity. For some working people, it has also reduced personal contact more generally.

These changes are not only taking place in offices. Automatic checkout in supermarkets removes this most mundane of interactions. Maybe not something missed for those with busy lives. For those alone, the shop cashier may be the only human interaction that day. [2]

The pandemic has sped up the automation of everyday life. 

Doctors appointments by video link are becoming a norm. Banks close down branches, forcing people online. Buying insurance, holiday or toothpaste from an algorithm is as likely as a person.

Even in construction, the rise of efficient technologies, such as 3D printing, will reduce the requirements for human teams.

Isolation

There are fewer reasons to meet in person for a non-social purpose.

Despite global connectivity, there is an increase in isolation and dis-association. Workplace reliance on providing social interaction has diminished. Workers are finding difficulty transitioning to a virtual world. Online activities only please certain aspects of emotional fulfilment. Humans are social creatures, by and large, and demand social contact.

Workplace

The workplace for the majority will not be returning to how it was pre-pandemic. The impact will go beyond how people work each day. Social interaction at work will become unrecognisable from previous decades. New ways of working are emerging. However, new forms of social contact have not yet materialised.

Public Space

Public spaces will need to adapt to fill the social void left by virtual working. Some parts will be picked up by the private sector. Work hubs, cafes and a redefined retail sector will fulfil some needs for people who can pay. The rest will require open, free to access public gathering spaces, like the old town square. [3]

Two-tier England

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the two-tier society existing in England. As financial disparity widens, so does access to the internet and public space.  

Without paying for broadband, fast access to knowledge, easily accessible to others, is denied. Only those who can afford monthly contracts have access to unlimited mobile data.

The same is happening in public spaces. Even when public facilities with cafes are accessible, the inability to buy coffee can still create a barrier.

England requires a bridge between commercialised and non-income generating public spaces.

Extremes of English public spaces: Granary Square, London Kings Cross and a public square in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Conclusion

In England, it’s the market that has presided over the public sphere through recent generations. The High Street is the most obvious. Privatisation of squares and whole streets is not a new phenomenon in England. The pace of privatisation is the real cause for concern.

Privatised space often comes with restrictions on who can use it. The right of all citizens to assemble regardless of wealth or age has become more restrictive. Public places not reliant on enterprise are often left neglected. The online world is seeing similar barriers. Barriers risk alienating people and furthering polarisation.

Public space has to be redefined in England. Urban design should follow the templates of European neighbours like Spain, where people are the starting point, not commerce. [3] [4]

With workplace socialisation in decline, a rethinking of public spaces has become essential.

John M

[1] also see Censorship

[2] see AI Supermarkets

[3] see Town Square

[4] see Eivissa (Ibiza Town Pt.1)

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